CNN's Black In America: Is Silicon Valley Racist?
Jack and Jill Politics co-founder and tech expert Cheryl Contee weighs in
(JackandJillPolitics.com) Y’all know I’ve been talking about the mounting crisis of diversity in the tech world for some time here on Jack and Jill Politics. Well, last week, honey, Twitter done blew up when CNN shared the following clip from their new Black in America special called The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley which airs this Sun at 8pm EST. Lots of people weighed in after Michael Arrington said some racist-y sounding things to Soledad O’Brien. When asked on camera if he could name a black Silicon Valley entrepreneur, he drew a blank and said “I don’t know a single black entrepreneur”. But there’s more. From CNN Money:
Blogger-turned-investor Michael Arrington ignited a controversy with his comments about the visibility of minority-led companies. In the documentary, which airs November 13, Arrington talked about his difficulties finding African-American entrepreneurs to launch their ventures at his TechCrunch Disrupt conference — and suggested he would accept almost any black entrepreneur, regardless of merit.
“There’s a guy, actually, his last company just launched at our event, and he’s African-American. When he asked to launch — actually, I think it was the other way around. I think I begged him,” Arrington told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien.
“His startup’s really cool. But he could’ve launched a clown show on stage, and I would’ve put him up there, absolutely,” Arrington said. “I think it’s the first time we’ve had an African-American [be] the sole founder.”
You can imagine the conniptions this has been causing online. Cuz wow, really? Not even Omar Wasow, the creator of Black Planet, which is quietly one of the most popular social networks of our time? Or MC Hammer, Silicon Valley investor and darling? Peeps got the vapors for realz. Now that black folks have taken over Twitter, things got hot for @Arrington and he later posted a defensive blog post (that didn’t allow comments) entitled “Oh Shit, I’m a Racist“. I will summarize for you:
Soledad O’Brien deceived and ambushed me.
CNN selectively edited and twisted my words.
I’m not good at talking to the media.
I love black people. In fact, some of the coolest black people in the world like Will.i.am hang out with me and we are going to make everything awesome for all black people everywhere, especially the geeky ones. Can’t we all just get along?
Soledad O’Brian has since posted the emails in which her team was quite clear with Michael about what the interview and special was about. But that’s neither here nor there. As a black tech entrepreneur who lives in Silicon Valley and has met some of the leaders of innovation personally, I have my own strong feelings about this issue. Do I think Arrington is a racist in the sense of secretly wanting to pull on a white hood and erect a burning cross on my lawn? Absolutely not. (although full disclosure: my company wasn’t chosen to present at Arrington’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference this year.) Northern California, home of Silicon Valley is one of the most tolerant places around. I have been welcomed into the ultra-geekiest of places like SXSW Interactive and Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto and didn’t feel treated differently at all because of my race. I’ve been invited to speak at a Microsoft France event called RSLN in Paris next week and I’ve been fortunate indeed to have techie mentors who happen to be white throughout my career.
However, racism can take more than one form and I think there are a lot of tech leaders who are guilty of Condi Rice’s “soft bigotry of low expectations.” I’ve confronted people like Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, publicly about the low minority hiring rates at tech’s biggest companies and I’ve heard a lot of excuses. Chief among them: “we’d just *love* to hire more blacks but we just can’t seem to find enough qualified black people!”
Exclusion can be active…or passive. Not all jobs are tech companies are technical — there’s legal, administrative, marketing, customer service, creative and other needs. How about making a special effort to attract minorities who can contribute there? Hmm…how about training the talent that you need or reaching out to historically black colleges and universities like Howard and Morehouse. Howard has a great computer science program — how much recruiting are companies like Twitter, HP, Google and so on doing there?
When Henry Ford was first launching the assembly line for the Model T, no one knew how to build cars or what an assembly line even was, for the most part. Ford believed in his workers and their ability to rise to the challenge with some training. Alexander Graham Bell & Thomas Edison didn’t believe those who, at the turn of the last century, thought that blacks were sub-human. Edison nurtured the talents of young Lewis Latimer, a brilliant scientist who happened to be black and who in return helped him create a light bulb durable enough for America’s streets, homes and businesses. That brother geeked it hardcore and we might not have enjoyed electric lighting without him, yet few know his name today. Why is that?
The digital divide has flipped around and now African-Americans are more likely to use smartphones and advanced internet applications than whites. Take a look at the chart above from a Pew Internet study released earlier this year I want you to peep. It shows that Twitter usage is not only much more popular among black and latinos than whites BUT that they are much more likely than whites to use Twitter daily.
When I tell people this in speaking engagements, they go kind of cross-eyed and get confused cuz that’s not the mainstream messages we’ve been fed. America is filled with potential techies — some of which might be black and brown and just need a leg up. That’s not going to happen if this statistic:
About 1% of entrepreneurs who received venture capital in the first half of last year are black, according to a study by research firm CB Insights
continues to be a way of life in America. It means that we’re missing out on new and great ideas that might revolutionize how we use the internet and tech gadgets we’ve all come to know and love. Doesn’t blackness make everything cooler? Look what we did for comedy, drama, music, fashion, sports etc? Your internet powered by blackness will be the hotness — for everyone.
Arrington’s got his defenders including Wayne Sutton of SocialWayne.com and Angela Benton of Black Web 2.0. I know both of them (and others in the CNN special personally). Angela and Wayne have both been active along with me in the annual Blogging While Brown conference among other things they are into. Actually, last year, Angela and I sat on a panel together with Adam O’Connor from Facebook. I think the work Angela and Wayne are doing along with entities like Jalia Ventures, New Media Ventures, Kapor Capital & Black Founders is nothing short of visionary.
Wayne and Angela are doing what all blacks in tech should consider. If you’ve been able to break through and climb the ladder, don’t forget to reach a hand back down to pull up your brothers and sisters struggling a few rungs down. When I spoke to Soledad O’Brien recently, she had this to say about this new Black in America:
What Angela & Wayne are doing is really compelling – there is a strategy for changing the face of Silicon Valley.
This special points people to a conversation that this is needed.
Demographic growth is one thing but where are you growing to? It’s about having political power, economic power, educating kids and having businesses that support our families. The country is getting more diverse but the number of blacks — and whites — learning calculus has to go up.
People have said some icky things to me on Twitter. It’s not about personal attacks — it’s about what’s good for the country. Bringing more people to Silicon Valley is good for everyone. Thinking that we can move ahead as a country while leaving people behind is short-sighted.
The White House gets it and is supporting groups like CodeNow that are making the assumption that kids of all ethnicities can and want to learn about the jobs of the future. The Obama administration has been pushing more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math for U.S. schools from the get-go. Did you know that some of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize money recently went to fund 12 Hispanic student teaching scholarships in STEM? That’s cuz he’s putting his money where his mouth is. Too bad the media’s not more interested.
America must produce more people like Omar Wasow if we are to thrive and lead in the 21st century. O’Brien is right to ask: Where is the Black Mark Zuckerberg of our time?
The future of our economic health as a nation is at stake here. Is Silicon Valley racist? Not intentionally yet I believe racist is as racist does. There’s definitely a blind spot here in the tech world’s rear mirror. Frankly – it’s time for Silicon Valley to stop shrugging and put their money & time where their minds, mouths & hearts are. I’d encourage you to check out this Black in America special on Sun 8pm est and let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter at @ch3ryl. CNN — and Silicon Valley — will be watching you watching them. Let’s make sure they can feel the heat of our undivided attention.
This article was original published November 11, 2011 on Jack and Jill Politics.