Tech’s Lack of Diversity Is Increasingly Seen as a Civil Rights Issue

Rev. Jesse Jackson says the fight for minority representation in Silicon Valley is part of the fourth phase of the civil rights movement.

It wasn’t until President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country that Silicon Valley was said to have stepped into the political arena. The Economist, for instance, noted: “Tech firms are at last departing from their see-no-evil stance on society and politics.” And on Super Bowl Sunday, more than 100 companies — including Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and Twitter — filed a legal brief calling the ban discriminatory. But considering the uphill battle for diversity in Silicon Valley, the tech world has been political all along.

India Buckley-Becknell, 21, a woman of Black and Mexican descent, is a senior at the University of San Francisco who will be graduating in May with a degree in computer science. She is also involved in activism that advocates for people of color, and she feels a disconnect between that work and Bay Area tech companies — which continue to tout unimpressive diversity numbers — she has visited recently.

At Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter, just 3 percent of technical employees are Hispanic and only 1 percent are Black, according to statistics compiled by Nick Heer of Pixel Envy.

On her tours, Buckley-Becknell makes it a point to ask companies about their gender and ethnic breakdown.

“Usually, companies respond with ‘Oh, we put diversity at the top of our priority list,’” she says. “A lot of answers include international [employees, who tend to skew Asian] and very rarely include Black folks or Latinxs. And the people that answer this question are White, or men, or both, about 90 percent of the time.”

On Feb. 8, Buckley-Becknell attended a community conversation between Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dr. Clarence B. Jones Sr., former speechwriter, attorney, and advisor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as part of USF’s African-American history celebration.

At the event, which was attended by more than 600 people, she asked Jackson if he had any tips on how to navigate the explicit and implicit biases of the tech industry.

Though he had no advice for her, he said the importance of diversity in Silicon Valley cannot be understated.

For many, diversity has crossed into buzzword territory, with corporations delinking it from politics and touting it as being “good for business” and “good for innovation.”

But, Jackson asserts, it’s the fourth phase of the civil rights movement. The first was the end of slavery; the second was the end of Jim Crow; and the third was when African-Americans gained access to the vote. Next up, he posits, is equal access to capital, information, and technology.

Jackson announced that he planned to meet with Airbnb, Apple, and other major tech companies following the talk to continue to push for a level playing field.

His focus on diversity in the tech sector began in 2014, when his Rainbow PUSH Coalition urged tech companies to release their diversity data.

“I assert that Silicon Valley and the tech industry, at your best, can be a tremendously positive change agent for the world,” Jackson wrote in a January memo calling for diversity transparency from Uber. “At your worst, you can institutionalize old patterns of exclusion and de facto segregation.”

With technology especially, a lot of potential leaders don’t get exposure to Silicon Valley and thus only hear stories about how hard it is to break in, says Mark Taguchi, vice president and West Coast managing director of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a national nonprofit working to get talented underrepresented minorities into senior leadership positions.

“Everybody throughout society is using technology, but they don’t always know what you do to create the products, services, and businesses” behind it, adds Taguchi, who worked in tech for two decades before joining the organization. “Because so much of it happens here, people that are scattered throughout the country don’t get as much exposure.”

As a Japanese-American and first-generation college graduate, Taguchi can relate.

“My parents were in the internment camps during World War II, and I was born in East L.A.,” he tells SF Weekly. “[I was] always a minority — almost always the only one.”

That’s why he wants to help other underrepresented kids, explaining: “Out here in Silicon Valley is where a tremendous amount of wealth and jobs are being created. To have communities and groups who are not part of that is

just going to widen the wealth gap in this country. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition have really had an impact on companies being more transparent, drawing attention” to diversity, he added, “but that’s just the starting point.”

In one group of college students working with MLT from all across the country, only 7 percent were interested in the tech sector at first. After a year of mentorship and workshops, that number had risen to 40 percent. But after they had visited the Bay Area, 80 percent were interested. This is important to help minorities reach a critical mass in the industry, Taguchi advises.

Still, there are young people of color like Buckley-Becknell who are already interested and prepared to join the tech world — and are still facing hurdles when it comes to gaining the access to capital, information, and technology that Jackson speaks of. Buckley-Becknell’s concerns speak to deeper, systemic racism and sexism, too.

“I feel like I have to conform in order to feel like I can be heard and accepted,” she confesses. “I feel like I have to straighten my hair, choose my clothing carefully, and overall put on a submissive feminine persona, which is definitely not me.”

She adds: “In order to balance out the playing field in Silicon Valley, I think the big challenge would be for [tech companies] to allow themselves to engage in discourse around race and ethnicity, to put themselves in the uncomfortable position of actually talking about social issues, [to] educate their engineers and recruiters around the multiple facets that make up an individual, and to acknowledge the role they play and the biases they are coming into these spaces with.”

Alyssa Oursler is a news and opinion writer for SF Weekly.

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