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The tech world has yet to embrace Martin Luther King’s dream

MLK

Wikimedia Commons

King’s dream of equality shouldn’t get lost in our technological race towards ‘progress.’

Today, America will unite to celebrate the brave contributions of one of the country’s most celebrated and notable civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the dream he envisioned for the country, one of racial harmony and equality, still seems distant and out of reach in the wake of racial tensions sparked by the election of President Barack Obama and conversations about continued police brutality being pushed to the national stage, the incredible gains that resulted from his efforts are indisputable.

These gains created a path for black people, and especially women of color, to secure upwardly mobile social and financial spaces in an ever-changing modern world. However, as technology continues to evolve impacting the paradigms and social structures of society, we must begin to question whether or not King’s dream of equality for people of all races and creeds will be lost in this technological race towards “progress.”

As a 26-year-old black woman, I am a direct beneficiary of the sacrifices made by my foremothers and forefathers during the fight for civil rights. After working for some years as a live-in nanny under onerous conditions, my mother attended an integrated nursing school, which afforded her the financial resources to take care of three children as a single parent. With access to decent, mostly integrated public schools, I was able to gain access to a competitive education at a private university.

My circumstances are mirrored by trends within the larger society where black women have taken the lead—beating out all other groups, irrespective of race or gender—in overall college enrollment trends. According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 50 percent of black women ages 18-24 are currently enrolled in college.

As technology continues to evolve impacting the paradigms and social structures of society, we must begin to question whether or not King’s dream of equality for people of all races and creeds will be lost in this technological race towards ‘progress.’ 

At the same time, technological advances coalesced into the digital age, creating new spaces, fields and unique opportunities for people of color to find success in unpredictable ways. Black women have grabbed hold of the reins, employing the Internet to launch social movements—i.e. Black Lives Matter, SayHerName, Black Girls Code—develop tech companies and even build large-scale media platforms like ForHarriet.com and Blavity.com, which both have millions of visitors per month. Similarly, many women like myself, have used their own personal stories to launch writing careers as bloggers or online writers. Recent decades even saw the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company: Ursula Burns, the chairman (chairwoman, we should say) and chief executive of the Xerox Corporation.   

These are the real-time returns on investments made decades ago by black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights era.

However, despite this burgeoning, prolific demographic of young, highly educated black people—and especially black women—who have been able to take advantage of increased social mobility in the form of access to education and technological progress, the tech age has also put on display massive gaps in overall black and minority access to tech-related fields which may prove to be the most lucrative in the years to come. The “colorblind era” post-Obama’s 2008 election (after all a nation can’t be racist if it elects a black president), bolstered by meritocracy myths, has also put a damper on affirmative action initiatives that allowed for much of these gains in education and employment for black people in the first place.

After Google released its hiring data back in 2014, which revealed that a mere 2 percent of the company’s total U.S. workforce were black, and women only comprised 21 percent of its leadership, many other tech giants followed suit and released their hiring information, most of which were equally bleak. Apple reported that only 3 percent of its leadership positions are filled by black people and 8 percent of the company’s overall employees are black. Even Twitter has made claims that it will implement measures to be more diverse in its hiring practices.

While these numbers made headlines, underscoring the tech sector’s huge diversity deficit, and the need to initiate efforts to diversify, progress has been slow. Quartz reported that a proposal by Antonio Avian Maldonado II, an investor in Apple, criticized the company’s efforts as “painstakingly slow” and pushed for the tech giant to increase representation of minorities and women on the board. Apple responded with a statement calling Maldonado’s proposal “unduly burdensome and not necessary,” pointing to its already established diversity efforts which include providing scholarships, technologies (like iPads MacBooks and Apple TVs to underperforming schools in the U.S.) and sponsoring a conference for women in tech—as if these efforts really have any impact on the painfully mostly white and male faces that occupy board positions within the company.

Other companies implemented measures that fell short of a clear understanding of what is required to create a reality of diversity goals and dreams. Leslie Miley, the only black engineer who was in a leadership position at Twitter up until his resignation last fall, cited the company’s lack of diversity and “culture problem” as the reason for his departure in a blog post on Medium. He tried his hand at trying to increase awareness and diversity, even creating a position for himself as Diversity Engineering Manager, where he was tasked with hiring more diverse candidates for the company.

While tech companies may have a hiring diversity problem, the bigger underlying issue of how such startups gets funded also should not go without scrutiny.  

As the story goes, Miley was told to sort out potential candidates by name to see which did not meet the diversity requirements. When he objected to this process pointing to the fact that a name, in many cases, does not adequately represent diversity, he was told that “diversity is important, but we can’t lower the bar”—an invocation of the racist myth that minorities and women somehow are not fit for these positions from which they are often barred from, which has emerged as a backlash to affirmative action in many liberal and conservative spheres alike. Miley further pointed out that any company that ignores the complex history of slavery, colonization and identity that has stolen and altered the histories of many simply cannot successfully pursue diversity efforts, and he is absolutely correct.

While tech companies may have a hiring diversity problem, the bigger underlying issue of how such startups gets funded also should not go without scrutiny. Many of the very successful, multi-billion dollar tech companies of today—and those that will be successful tomorrow—garnered funds by way of the very white and male-dominated world of venture capitalism.

“Silicon Valley is notorious for its diversity problem, but the gap is even wider in venture capital,” said Ben Jealous, former NAACP president and partner at Kapor Capital—a capital investment firm that funds startups aimed at solving social problems. “Fortunately, firms like Kapor Capital are changing that. Our entire investment team is majority people of color, and others are starting to realize that gives us our competitive edge. We find that entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds understand the problems that are begging for a tech solution.”

While many do agree that more diverse teams tend towards having a more competitive edge, unfortunately, firms like Kapor are in the minority. The hard facts: Only 11 percent of a typical venture capitalist firm’s employees are women and a mere 2 percent are black. Venture capitalism has a long way down the road towards equality.

As schools move further towards resegregation and the country’s most flourishing and innovative sector continues to fail majorly at diversity, the dream Martin Luther King, Jr. had of equality will become increasingly elusive for many. While it is important that we recognize and acknowledge the gains made by civil rights leaders of the past, from which millions of minorities have benefitted—including myself—society must make it a prerogative to ensure that black people of generations to come are prepared for the technological future of tomorrow. The tech sector must also ensure that it is ready to receive, respect and provide the resources for them when they come prepared.

Tiffanie Drayton is a freelance writer focused on social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter @draytontiffanie.

Image via Wikimedia Commons 

Tiffanie Drayton

Tiffanie Drayton

Tiffanie Drayton is a geek culture and lifestyle reporter whose work covers everything from gender and race to anime and Xbox. Her work has appeared in Complex, Salon, Marie Claire, Playboy, and elsewhere.