White Supremacy Still Reigns in Silicon Valley
A tech insider writes that the liberal bastion has failed in its mission for greater diversity and equality.
We can’t debate whether George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and the expanding list of black U.S. citizens were murdered.
We can’t argue about whether white supremacy is alive and well in the country.
How about Silicon Valley?
Did Silicon Valley escape an American white supremacist past as it espouses a meritocracy—a meritocracy where all are welcome to make a fortune based on their capabilities and not on their lineage (as was often the case back East)?
I Was Raised in a Different World Than My Black Friends
I came from Washington, D.C., which had been overwhelmingly black during my youth, and, as a kid, felt the twin pangs of privilege and guilt. As the lone white 13-year-olds at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre, my buddy Eddie and I never felt threatened in a sea of black people crooning along to the Temptations, the Four Tops or the Impressions.
However, my buddy, Sam, who grew up black in the Pennsylvania suburbs, knew a different world. He taught me the expression “hoopie” for the rednecks who threw the N-word at him as a kid there.
What Sam didn’t expect coming West in the 1980s as a computer scientist was that he would run into the same mentality in Silicon Valley. The Valley in 1985 was in its middle stage of expansion, and Sam found comfort working with other black men at Fairchild Semiconductor and Lockheed. They, like him, had gotten the computer skills to jump the digital divide. Unlike Sam, they had gotten their skills in the military.
Sam has never worked with a group of black people in the Valley since he left Lockheed in 1994. “None of them stuck around, I imagine,” Sam says. “Maybe they didn’t feel comfortable. The Valley has only gotten whiter over the decades.”
The Whites in Silicon Valley Turned to International Labor
For 70 years, Silicon Valley merely reinforced East Coast establishment order, granted with nicer weather, surfboards, dress jeans and Arcteryx vests. The rich (whites) got richer (whiter). And when the rich could not find the talent for their tech jobs here with failed U.S. science and math education programs, it turned to bringing in educated Indian and Chinese workers in enormous numbers using H-1B visas. This gave the new immigrants opportunity and a chance to live the American Dream.
The spirit of the Apollo missions which had filled the space program with qualified Americans in math and engineering has been dissipated among youth with the allure of Wall Street finance, commercial real estate and Kardashian make-up-your-own-celebrity-status nonsense.
When I would work out in the company gym of the networking giant where I spent over a decade, I was often the lone white guy. Unlike in the large East Coast city where I was a minority to the historically 80 percent black population, I was the minority to all the wonderful Indians who also worked at the company. As was fitting to the white order, many of them were employed as contract workers, not deemed worthy of a full benefits package.
Evidently Silicon Valley can rip off Indians just as well as black and brown U.S. citizens.
Tech Companies Ignore the Locals
Sam found the Valley’s institutional racism an assault on his person. At the company where we worked together, Sam found very few other blacks. The company made a big deal about supporting local education nonprofits, but they never tried to recruit any of the local brown and black residents.
“For the company to say that they only had to reflect the racial demographics of the local population was an insult. There were not many blacks in Silicon Valley, and the ones who were there were poor folks in East Palo Alto. I was never in the ‘in’ group at the company and never able to break through the glass ceiling. What really smelled weird was that I got excellent reviews but was never encouraged to seek a promotion or become a manager. It was as if my solid work history never mattered.”
For the people of color born in the Valley’s disadvantaged communities, little has been left to them. In bringing in our Indian brothers, we have outsourced local black and brown people’s potential to a more educated immigrant group. Believe me, this is not a knock on our Indian compatriots. It’s one thing to fill engineering jobs with smart immigrants in the short or medium term. It’s another thing to make it your long-term policy, ignoring improving opportunities for the less fortunate already here and in need of a hand up.
This Is White Supremacy
White supremacy is not just the belief that whites are superior to brown, yellow and black people. It can disguise itself in a white dominance of society where others are not treated as equals economically, politically—societally. You don’t need to think like George Floyd’s killer to be a white supremacist. The established order can offer up little opportunity for others in their community to move up in the pecking order.
That is a strain of white supremacy.
Just as there were Africans who helped capture Africans for Arab slave traders, just as there were blacks who served as enforcers with slaves on the plantation, Silicon Valley did what colonialists have always done. It turned to “safe brown talents” to bring in the crops: Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella were hired as the CEOs of Google and Microsoft respectively.
On that note, Cisco was sued in late June by the State of California for discriminating against certain Indians. An engineer who is a Dalit—formally called “untouchables”—alleges that he was discriminated against by Indians on his Cisco team who happen to be Brahmins, the highest caste of the Indian social hierarchy.
Inequities and violence against Dalits have persisted for a long time after India banned the caste discrimination in 1950, just after independence. Cisco investigated the allegations and took no action. Now the engineer claims that his Indian manager retaliated against him afterward. Cisco took no further action on the discrimination claim.
Nothing Substantial Has Changed
I remember that Facebook was embarrassed a few years ago when it was revealed that only seven percent of its workforce was black. Not to be accused of a similar disparity, Google reported a higher number. However, in a cynical move to cover their asses, it was discovered that they had converted every janitor, security guard and cafeteria worker to full-time status so they could post a better number.
Here in the Valley, a group of white Sand Hill VCs has historically funded white men, and investors and founders get the spoils of a good deal. Yes, thankfully, there are some great Indian entrepreneurs.
Maybe everyone gets rich except the local disadvantaged communities.
Is that racism against brown and black populations here? Or white supremacy in the form of a callous disregard for raising the incomes of local disadvantaged populations who clean the toilets and serve Mexican food in sparkling corporate cafeterias?
Yes, many companies invest more than others through their corporate philanthropy. Cisco, VMware and Salesforce stand out among others. After the Black Lives Matter nationwide embrace of what we hope will be long-term change, Google finally ponied up $175 million for racial justice and equality efforts. Another cynical Google move to be engaged late in the game? After that move, Apple and Amazon made similar substantial commitments.
Sam has never found promotion opportunities in the Valley since he left our company almost a decade ago. After leaving his last company, “a white boys club,” Sam is four months into what he hopes will be his last job before he retires. He just hopes the job will last long enough. A couple of weeks ago, he was surprised when his new boss gave him Martin Luther King Jr. Day off.
“Was it a change in the established order?” I asked him. “I doubt it,” he replied. “This was just one nice guy who had probably been woken up by Black Lives Matter and the national chaos. The Valley pretends it’s so progressive. It’s blue through and through, which makes it suspect when you realize that it’s always been a white man’s game. As long as these companies don’t recruit blacks from back East or change the system for blacks and Latinos here, nothing will change.”
Only Silicon Valley, Itself, Can Make the Change
There’s little argument that tech culture (white) is driving out historical culture (brown and black) in San Francisco. As well as in East Palo Alto (EPA). Once dubbed “the murder capital of the U.S.,” EPA still houses a significant number of poor blacks and Latinos with few opportunities but to be the housekeepers and restaurant workers across the highway in Palo Alto, the global epicenter of technology innovation.
Despite lip service and STEM funding from giant Valley leaders, EPA remains the neglected stepchild of the Valley. When Facebook moved in as a neighbor, many thought the social network would revolutionize EPA with projects that would develop opportunities for local residents. That has not even been tried. Instead, its employees— young techies with big paychecks and stock options—are moving into the neighborhood, causing a drastic rise in rents.
Companies that haven’t paid taxes and are often run by privileged white men, many born privileged, are targets of reformers like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But real tax reform would never happen in today’s Washington paralysis. Government cannot do it. Republicans would not allow it.
That’s why Silicon Valley needs to stand up and call out its own white supremacy by transforming local communities. Keep the tax breaks and use those savings to make Silicon Valley a real leader for equality in our racist society.
Save East Palo Alto and surrounding black communities before they are annihilated.
We can’t tech our way out of this. No technology can GPS us out of the societal corner the protests and riots have put us in.
How the Valley Can Begin to Unravel Its Racism
It’s time for Silicon Valley to show some cojones if it ever had them. If not, grow some.
Here is a beginning list of actions that the Valley can take with their tax savings for low-income local families in East Palo Alto and San Jose:
Mandatory Pre-K: STEM education in middle or high school doesn’t count when you can’t spell, write or type. You can’t compete if you can’t compute! It all starts in those first few precious years.
Affordable childcare and after school care allows mothers and couples to go to jobs while their young scholars are in school and not on the streets until their parents get off work.
Drastically reduce housing prices for high-density homes to be built on office park space relinquished by corporations. Due to a new lasting tide of remote work which some Valley developers believe will result in companies giving up 40 percent of their office space, this is a great target objective for a public-private partnership in the Valley. The housing could be first offered to the families of corporate service workers.
Mentoring of young students by current and retired tech workers so that they get positive learning experiences as well as middle and high school internships from greatly expanded corporate programs. This is particularly important as children grow from fifth grade until graduation. This is a necessary step for bridging local disadvantaged youth into a world where STEM, coding, engineering and the embrace of a six-figure tech salary can become a reality.
In the summer of 2020, in the midst of a pandemic which has wiped out jobs and lives disproportionately among brown and black people, I submit that we can resuscitate hope among the most defeated in our Valley.
To say that this is also in the interest of the privileged is an understatement. It could only take one more police murder to bring back broken curfews and rioters at the doorstep of your elegant Palo Alto home.