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After George Floyd’s death, tech billionaires are wrestling with their responsibilities when it comes to race

Change will be harder for Silicon Valley than just donating money.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Silicon Valley billionaires are facing a leadership test that their money alone can’t solve.

Take what happened at Facebook on Monday. After a weekend of nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Sunday evening that Facebook was committing $10 million to racial justice causes. Corporate donations to social responsibility programs are often meant to make workers feel proud of where they work. But the Facebook gift backfired, with some employees expressing their belief that the donation was a distraction from the real ways in which Facebook could foster racial healing, like by moderating President Donald Trump’s posts, which some say encouraged violence against protesters.

This backlash against Facebook speaks to a broader set of questions that have emerged after a spate of violence against black men in the US, and especially in Minneapolis: What leadership should we reasonably expect from billionaires, particularly tech leaders who oversee massive platforms? Is their money enough if it is not accompanied by real changes at their companies, even if those changes hurt their bottom line?

Sarah Kunst, a black woman venture capitalist in an industry where they make up only 1 percent of all investors, has critiques of her industry but is celebrating and pushing for more donations from tech leaders, which she thinks can save lives today.

“We have all day every day to critique the tech industry for the way it’s handled diversity. Many of us have been doing that for years,” she told Recode. “Right now, I want tech to use their money to save lives and make statements about those lives mattering. Then they’ll be reminded of their commitments and expected to back them up with actions inside of their own companies.”

Hunter Walk, another Silicon Valley investor, created a list of his peers who have over the last few days collectively promised to match over $500,000 in donations to racial justice causes. He suggested something of a middle ground: He said he recognized that the gifts on their own were insufficient, but still worthy.

But some activists feel differently and expect much more of Silicon Valley’s wealthiest beyond a check and a feel-good tweet. In their eyes, donations are, at best, insufficient. And at worst, they actively distract from the ways in which these tech billionaires — some of whom, like Zuckerberg, are in day-to-day management roles at companies that are platforms for hate speech and content that incites or glorifies violence — could make a true difference: in their day jobs.

Unlike Zuckerberg, for instance, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has not immediately announced a donation to racial justice in the wake of the protests. But he has won more fans among progressive activists than Zuckerberg because he flagged Trump’s tweets with a fact-check and warning about their content.

Nat Purser, who works on Yelp’s policy team, said she personally expected tech billionaires to reform company policies to be more conscious of race and to push elected officials for policy reform — and so she finds Facebook to be focusing on the wrong solutions.

“Sometimes there’s real value in a company that’s been consistently responsive to demands for change offering public support,” she said. “But it seems disingenuous when the company values don’t indicate a true care for the movement.”

Johnny Wu, a software engineer at a startup called Little Cinema Digital, said donations should merely be “the base case” for tech leaders. His reaction to Facebook’s donations? “We don’t care. Stop keeping posts up,” he tweeted.

“It does feel insignificant to donate 0.001 percent of your net worth while not limiting fake news or labeling posts as dangerous,” Wu told Recode.

To be sure, most companies or investors haven’t even gone as far as Facebook with a donation — instead, they stuck to issuing weekend statements about racial injustice.

The corporate statements — which at this point have basically been issued by every prominent tech company or their leaders, along with many venture capital firms — all share similar language about the need to empower and support the black community. But comments like these have essentially become table stakes — especially since they almost all remained high-level, rarely offering specifics on anything they would change internally about their firms, or wrestling with how they themselves perpetuate inequality. For example, the statements from companies like Amazon and Nextdoor rang especially hollow to some given how both companies have long been scrutinized for their complicated records on matters of social equality and race.

And corporate America’s statements almost never said anything about how public policy needed to change. They also didn’t mention the president.

One of the few calls for policy change came from Evan Spiegel, the founder of Snapchat, who is not known as a political heavyweight. Spiegel told his employees in a company-wide note that he felt America had to overhaul its tax system and possibly pay out reparations to the black community.

But Spiegel, over the course of 2,000 words, did not mention “Trump” once, part of his and his tech peers’ broader unwillingness to tangle with the president that some in Silicon Valley say is an apolitical abdication of leadership.

Vinod Khosla, a billionaire venture capitalist perhaps most widely known for his campaign to keep a California beach private, publicly challenged Apple CEO Tim Cook on Twitter. Cook said in a memo to employees that Apple would make some donations and that “we must aim far higher than a ‘normal’ future, and build one that lives up to the highest ideals of equality and justice.”

“I think words on values are easy. If Tim Cook professes values he should be willing to support them with actions that might cost them something,” Khosla followed up with Recode. “That was my first thought on hearing about the employee memo, knowing Tim cozied up to Trump to get tariff relief. I’d love for him to comment on Trump’s racist rants.”

Apple didn’t return a request for comment for this story.