Big Talk From Big Tech On Racial Equity, But Not All Workers Are Buying It

Big Tech companies — Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook — are writing mega checks to organizations like the NAACP and the Brennan Center for Justice. Twitter, TikTok, Spotify, and Lyft have all declared Juneteenth a paid holiday.
As the tech industry joins the growing national chorus supporting greater racial equality in society, some Silicon Valley Black workers are responding with a degree of hesitation.
For one, it's about time, says Y-Vonne Hutchinson, a diversity consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. But more than that, the soul-searching the tech industry needs to commit to on race issues involves more than positive words and dollar signs, she says.
"I think it's one thing to make a statement. It's one thing to donate. It's quite another to say, 'How are we going to do to clean up our own house? What are we going to do to make sure that we're not part of the problem?'" says Hutchinson.
The chronic problem, Hutchinson says: white men have long dominated the seats of power in tech, and they often draw from their own networks to make hires. And so, making inroads in tech can prove daunting for Black workers and other people of color.

Google's workforce, for instance, is just 3% Black and just 9% of Apple employees are Black. It is a pattern widely seen in small tech startups and in the venture capital world.
Just 1% of startup founders who received venture capital money are Black, according to one study that examined data from 10,000 founders and 135 of the most active venture capital firms in the world.

The effort to start reversing the racial equity problem in tech is long overdue, arriving after years of built-up exhaustion, some Black workers in Silicon Valley have observed.
"I think the biggest reason folks are skeptical is that Black folks are tired," says Evelyn Carter, the director of training at Paradigm IQ.
"These folks have likely been championing diversity, equity and inclusion, have been begging their managers to give them opportunities in the same way their white colleagues have for a very long time now," she says.
'Make the hire, send the wire,' but also change the culture, Black workers say
Changing this, Hutchinson said, means hiring more Black people by recruiting from Black communities and widening the search for every open position.
The catchphrase, "make the hire, send the wire," has become a slogan on Twitter among Black tech workers in recent weeks.
But building a more diverse workforce is just the beginning, Hutchinson notes, as deeply ingrained traditions and norms in tech have created a code of conduct that can be inhospitable to people of color, she said.
"Silicon Valley still has this idea of culture fit, which is incredibly nebulous," she said. "What does it mean to fit into a culture? But it does work to exclude people."
Aniyia Williams, executive director of Black and Brown Founders, says there are many ways in which tech culture can be exclusionary.
"It might be about how people get defensive ... or that there's the only way to do things, or credentialing people, saying they can't get this position because they don't have the right degree," she says.
Williams says that while it is encouraging that tech is now engaging in earnest about systemic race barriers in the industry, it is far from a new problem.
To Black tech workers, this moment of reckoning about racial equity is like a blinding light suddenly being flipped on in a dark room, she says.
"The rest of us, Black folks especially, we've been living in this bright room for a very long time," Williams says.
Tech pledges as an opportunity for accountability on race
Well-funded tech companies have in recent days made some bold promises.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has committed to diversifying leadership 30% in the next five years. He said parent company Alphabet will be giving $175 million to Black businesses.
Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg made a similar announcement with a pledge of bolstering its share of employees from underrepresented groups and pledging a $1.1 billion investment in Black suppliers and businesses.
Airbnb said on Thursday that 20% of its Board of Directors and executive team will be people of color by the end of next year.
Carter of Paradigm IQ, which helps tech firms be more welcoming to people of color, finds herself more optimistic than those who roll their eyes at such pronouncements. She said the moves should be seen as more than just vows of allyship or performative stunts.
"For those who are calling it racial theater, I think what we're missing is that there's an opportunity to say, 'well if an organization is putting out a statement saying where they say Black Lives Matter, then you can hold them accountable,'" Carter said.
list has been circulating among Black tech workers documenting every statement from tech companies in support of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and racial justice. That list is already more than 200 entries long.
"In five or six years, your company should look fundamentally different because you've listened to your Black employees, you have done the hard work to make sure you are recruiting, retaining and promoting a diverse group of talent," Carter says.
So when Apple's CEO Tim Cook writes that the company is reexamining its views and actions "in light of a pain that is deeply felt but too often ignored," Williams says she's going to make sure that examination doesn't stop.
"I don't think anyone is expecting to wake up tomorrow in a post-racial world," said Williams of Black and Brown Founders. "But we need to make sure these companies are making these moves in good faith and they need to be open to being held accountable."
An unprecedented number of U.S. companies are giving employees off for Juneteenth on Friday, raising hopes that the day commemorating the end of slavery could someday become a truly national celebration.
The momentum could hinge, however, on whether the country’s largest employer - the federal government - joins the trend. The date - June 19th - is not a federal holiday, and many non-black Americans have only recently become of aware of the day.
More than 460 companies, including Nike, Twitter, and Lyft, have committed to observing Juneteenth, with the majority offering a paid day off, according to HellaCreative, a group of black creative professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area that launched an initiative to galvanize corporate support for making the day an official holiday.
It’s a potential sea change, spreading awareness of the date beyond African Americans who have long celebrated it with cookouts, parades, and community festivals.
“We’ve explained our lives away as black people. We’ve had to explain and define black history,” said Miles Dotson, co-Founder of HellaCreative. “Our hope is that we’ve said it enough times that folks outside of ourselves see that they are equally part of this picture.”
Juneteenth commemorates the day when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free 155 year ago in Galveston, Texas, where Union soldiers brought them the news two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
This year, in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Juneteenth is expected to be a day of racial justice protests, a key driver behind companies deciding to mark the day. Other prominent corporations giving employees time off include Target, J.C. Penney, Best Buy, the NFL, and J.P. Morgan Chase.
“As a black person, I have been ‘sat down’ by older relatives and told the stories of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and the multiple exclusions they faced,” said Phillip Thompson, a team leader at stock images provider Shutterstock, which declared Juneteenth a permanent company holiday.
“After 155 years, it is truly an emotional moment to know that society is beginning to acknowledge black freedom struggles,” he said.
Smaller businesses are following suit, particularly those whose employees have engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement, which has reverberated worldwide after Floyd’s death and inspired multiracial protests.
Lori Rosen, the owner of a small public relations firm in New York City, had never heard of Juneteenth until recently. But she decided to give her 16 employees the day off when she saw big tech companies doing it, and after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared it a holiday for state employees. Several of her employees are spending the day volunteering for the Juneteenth Freedom Phonebank, an initiative encouraging Census participation.
“I thought to myself, ‘How did I not know about this all these years?’” said Rosen, 64, who is white. “I started wondering, is this another example of how a national holiday is formed?”
The question is whether the fervor of the moment will last and where it will ultimately lead. While the list has grown quickly, only a small minority of U.S. companies are observing Juneteenth, and not all have committed to do so beyond this year.
“Right now, everyone is feeling really strongly about this but is this something they think they are going to maintain long term?” said Carolina Valencia, a director in research firm Gartner’s human resource practice. “Is this going to temporarily raise awareness or is the awareness going to last? It’s hard to know.”
Declaring the date a federal holiday would add considerable momentum, and there is growing support for the idea. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, introduced legislation Thursday to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, introduced a similar bill in the House.
Texas was the first state to make it a holiday in 1980. All but three states - Hawaii, South Dakota and North Dakota - now recognize the day in some way.
Most private companies take their cues from the federal government when drawing up their holiday calendars, but they are under no legal obligation to offer any particular day off, Valencia said. It can take a long time for a holiday to become widely observed even after federal or state designations.
According to a 2017 survey by the Society of Human Resources Management, just 39% of private employers offer the day off on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which Congress designated as a federal holiday in 1983 after 15 years of lobbying. In contrast, 93% of employers close on Independence day, with similar rates for Labor Day, Christmas Day, and Thanksgiving.
It’s a notable shift, however, that many companies are declaring Juneteenth a holiday before the federal government does, said Heide Gardner, chief diversity and inclusion officer at advertising and marketing firm Interpublic Group. She said the trend is reflective of an era of growing employee activism pushing companies to take stands on social issues.
“It’s an interesting moment where companies are taking initiative where government or traditions might have fallen short,” said Gardner, whose company has also declared Juneteenth a paid holiday. “We don’t have to wait for the government.”
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