Dear tech industry: Protesting is important, but it’s not enough
For years we’ve watched tech abdicate its responsibility to a racially diverse workforce and audience. If you genuinely want to make tech more inclusive, you must commit to long-term systemic change—today.
Let this be the moment that you change.
It has been both heartening and whiplash-inducing to watch the tech ecosystem’s response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the mass protests across the country they have inspired. It is a testament to organizers on the ground who have worked for years and years, often without the resources they needed, that techies—who have largely struggled in the last three years to address issues of racial inequity and injustice—are among those standing up.
High-wage work in America is not colorblind; it’s not a meritocracy; it’s white. And that goes doubly for tech. Often we hear that the lack of Black and Latinx people in tech is a pipeline issue. That these folks are not pursuing tech educations and careers. But the data show that 20% of computer science graduates and 24% of boot camp grads are Black and Latinx. However, only 6% of the tech industry is Black and Latinx. As legions of racial equity professionals, diversity and inclusion specialists, and educators demanded the tech industry shift, we often heard, “But tech isn’t any worse than anyone else.”
THE BLACK AND LATINX WHISPER NETWORK IN TECH KNOWS THAT TECH COMPANIES ARE AFRAID OF INVESTING IN INCLUSION.”
You’re right! But tech also fashions itself as a world-changing, moonshot making, risk-taking enterprise. It chooses not to apply that ethos to itself for the most consequential issues of our time. Over the last four years, it has also actively hidden, covered up, and made excuses for this lack of effort.The Black and Latinx whisper network in tech knows that tech companies are afraid of investing in inclusion. That tech leaders believe that to come out in favor of a racially equitable workforce will put them in the crosshairs of a president with an itchy Twitter finger, and that their rank and file who are happy with the status quo will revolt.
Code2040 works for the proportional representation of Black and Latinx people in tech at all levels of leadership. We believe that by doing this in tech, we can have an impact on high-wage work across the economy. Since 2017, we have watched as company after company has deprioritized and defunded racial equity work. Roles such as Head of Diversity and Inclusion have shifted to Head of Employee Engagement. We’ve had conversations with HR teams, who, allocated a pittance of a budget for racial equity work, admit the operational cost of the work is too expensive.
We are then asked, as Black and Latinx people, to donate this work to multi-million- (or even multi-billion-) dollar businesses, or to provide services and programs at a discount. That means devaluing Black and Latinx labor, asking Black and Latinx people to work on the very policies and people that dehumanize us for free, and philanthropically subsidizing tech companies.
In moments like this, when police murder another Black person, when gross incompetence is demonstrated at the elected level, we often hear white people with money and power wringing their hands and crying, “What can I do?” or worse, “How does this happen?” Some brave the dangers of the coronavirus to head out and protest. Some start book clubs and post furiously on social media.
While those actions are not useless, they are not where you are best utilized right now, especially if taking urgent action today assuages your guilt and pain and returns you to complacency tomorrow. What we need is for you to commit to this work for the rest of your lives, to strengthen your resilience so that you don’t tire as soon as this moment has passed, and to start with the very hard work of looking at yourself and the anti-Blackness and white-superiority you have internalized and perpetuated—and the many ways in which it has shown up in your work and life.
TECH’S INABILITY TO DIVERSIFY ITS WORKFORCE AS IT DEFINES THE FUTURE PUTS ALL OF US IN DANGER.”
Externally, that starts with where you sleep and where you work (which at the moment are likely the same, but you know what we mean). A lack of proportional representation and the equitable distribution of power across demographics in all our major industries—government, media, healthcare, and yes, tech—left our country, economy, communities, and planet vulnerable. Tech’s inability to diversify its workforce as it defines the future puts all of us in danger. Racial representation and equity means creating the economic, physical, psychosocial, and social conditions at your workplace where Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people can thrive. In the absence of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people—especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women—involved in the creation and design of technology, tech is ignorant of the potential repercussions of building the world in such a slanted way.The beauty and power of the protests happening right now is that our communities’ pain is widespread, we are developing a shared, inarguable set of facts about brutality and racism, and we are collectively shifting the Overton window in discussions about systemic racism and the existence of racism in the U.S. However, as a sector, we are not exempt from responsibility and accountability for the decisions that led to this moment or the litany of pain that has gone ignored. Here’s what you can do:
ACCEPT THAT THIS IS AN INSIDE JOB
Individually seeking and unlearning your internalized racism and white supremacy, and committing to cultural change on your teams and at your organizations. Brace yourself, because if you’re doing it right, you will be uncomfortable. But not as uncomfortable as George Floyd was with a knee to his neck. So keep your perspective. Get versed in how you will talk about it with your friends, peers, parents, children, and social media connections. Then talk about racism and anti-Blackness with your friends, peers, parents, children, and social media connections.
FORCE YOUR COMPANY TO DO MORE
Demand that your company shift from viewing racial equity and diversity as a partisan issue, and commit to changing the internal ideas, cultures, and practices that got us here in the first place. Racial equity and racial justice are not add-ons that help you hire, make good marketing, and make more money. Commit to no longer separating them from the centrality of your work. They are the single most critical, life-and-death issue of our time, and you can have an impact exactly where you are.
Advocate and build budgets that include financial commitments to recruiting and hiring Black, Latinx, and Native people, as well as training so that they are not hired into abusive organizations and managed by people who have not done the work to unpack their racism and anti-Blackness.
Advocate for hiring policies that prohibit university pedigree and GPA as screening mechanisms, reevaluate and overhaul the tech interview process, segment performance review data by race and gender, segment exit interview data by race and gender, publish segmented retention data, and hire no-nonsense racial equity coaches for company leaders. Then don’t fire them when the work gets hard.
COMMIT TO SYSTEMIC CHANGE
Actions that require no sacrifice are meaningless. Raising a tiny fund for Black people or hiring a diversity and inclusion employee to do the work of single-handedly changing the system that harms them will not transform a 400-year-old system and its descendants. Take a stand and commit to doing the work, and require those around you to as well. Let it be known that employees who refuse are refusing a strategic imperative of the company, and then hold them accountable accordingly.
This is the biggest change management initiative you will ever participate in, but we’re all familiar with the power of technology to radically alter how this country lives and the pace of change tech demands. (Most of you are reading this on a smartphone because of that.)
Face this with us. Let this not be a moment where you make tepid commitments for a set of weeks and go back to how you were. Let the pain of our country inspire you to change who we are and the companies we build. Let this moment of uprising in our country make us braver than we’ve been.
Mimi Fox Melton is the general manager for Code2040 and has worked at the intersection of Black and Brown liberation, empowerment, and tech for eight years. Her professional and personal work centers on the liberation of the mind, bodies, and souls of Black and Brown people. Before COVID-19, Mimi was learning the flying trapeze.
Karla Monterroso is the CEO for Code2040 and has worked in communities of color for the last 20 years in support of the leadership of Black and Latinx youth in education, healthcare, and technology. Before COVID-19, Karla was a weightlifter and active hiker with her dog.