What’s the tech industry’s place in a racial justice movement?
Image credit: Ringo Chiu / reuters
What connects Amazon’s facial recognition software, the log flume ride at Disney World and a common ice cream truck jingle?
This summer, they’ve all been drawn into what experts are calling the largest protest movement in American history. The ripple effects of a resurgent Black Lives Matter are everywhere. Disney’s Splash Mountain, themed on the antebellum South, is being overhauled, while RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan wrote a new ice cream-announcing tune to replace “Turkey in the Straw,” which was part of 19th century minstrel shows.
If sommelier and roller skating communities are having internal reckonings, of course the all-powerful technology industry is, too. And the pace of change in tech has been unprecedented. Coding languages have been modified to do-away with terms like “master” and “slave”; Twitter made Juneteenth a company holiday for the first time; Santa Cruz became the first U.S. city to ban predictive policing.
It seems the Overton Window has fundamentally shifted for how companies can approach racism and social issues. The old playbook of writing checks to nonprofits and pushing a non-committal solidarity statement will now get a business called out.
A statement from [Brand]® pic.twitter.com/XT9tXF9hvz
— Chris Franklin (@Campster) May 31, 2020
But underlying the public corporate support for Black Lives Matter are persistent fears of performative wokeness without fundamental, structural change.
“The question that still remains to be seen is: How long will this last? Is this fleeting?” said Valerie Williams, who led diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives at Stripe and Airbnb before founding the consultancy Converge. Companies across the industry are frantically dusting off their diversity plans and Williams’ field has reason for skepticism. Diversity and inclusion job openings plunged 60 percent between March and June as the pandemic hit, twice the rate of all job listings, according to Glassdoor data. Now, says Williams, she has never been so busy.
One industry change that’s been hailed as significant was when IBM, Amazon and Microsoft walked back the sale of facial recognition technology to law enforcement. After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, reigniting long standing criticisms of law enforcement, Amazon and Microsoft put a pause on selling their computer vision systems, while IBM nixed its plans outright.
The moment was recognized as Big Tech using its influence where it mattered in disrupting a long history of racial bias.
“The question that still remains to be seen is: How long will this last? Is this fleeting?”
It even took advocates by surprise. Research has shown that computer vision misidentifies people of color more frequently than white people — various cases of wrongful arrest have since come out of the woodwork which are stunning in their inaccuracy. But, as MIT Technology Review has reported, public knowledge on the flaws of facial recognition has existed for years and Amazon has long been aggressively resistant to the feedback. It’s implausible that companies didn’t already know there was a problem.
So consider the timing. A police reform bill restricting facial recognition was brewing in Congress. Governments from Australia to Russia have been putting tech multinational companies under the microscope for everything from antitrust to misinformation. And the potential nefariousness of Minority Report-style surveillance is easy to understand by a public suddenly more skeptical of modern policing. (Consider also that facial recognition isn’t a core money-maker for any of these three companies).
It was the societal moment, the pressure in the air, that made this technology a liability for these three companies.
A blunt explanation for why technology corporations — consumer facing ones, at least — are taking an unusually bold stand on racism is simply that they are following the public.
Public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson has talked about how, even if the North won the legal battle for racial equality in 1865, the South won the “narrative war,” leading to the entrenched racism of today. The idea was also well-understood by figures like Andrew Breitbart, founder of the eponymous alt-right platform, who said that all politics is downstream from culture.
Both are pointing to the idea that culture shifts precede changes in large institutions — and if the cultural battleground is not won, institutional change will be hindered. In 2020, there has been a meaningful culture shift around racism.
“If someone’s interested in long term change, the most heartening thing that I’ve seen is polling,” said Mary-Hunter McDonnell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school who studies corporate social activism.
“The movement has succeeded in problematizing the issue, in making people recognize the issue as a real, legitimate problem. You can’t even hope to start to think of solutions until you convince the people that a problem actually exists.”
Reputable polls have shown that the majority of Americans support Black Lives Matter, and the majority consider racial discrimination in the U.S. a “big deal” — significantly larger numbers than ever before. Millions of protesters have hit the streets from Maine to Oregon; white Americans, crucially, have been on the front lines, too.
The public is responding to a cascade of events: the undeniably abhorrent video of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a police officer, a string of unjust killings — Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain — and the infamous effort by Amy Cooper in Central Park to weaponize the police against a Black birdwatcher. All of this happened during a pandemic where people have more time to follow along and more pent up frustrations. All of this happened during an election year.
“The movement has succeeded in problematizing the issue”
A company’s values are shaped by the values of its leaders, investors, customers and workers. Yet even an amoral company that only cares about maximizing shareholder value has to consider the bottom-line impact of engaging or not engaging with a social uprising, said Jerry Davis, a professor of management and sociology at the University of Michigan.
“It’s not like there’s the ‘right answer’ to what’s the political stance [a company] should take,” he said, of companies making this kind of cold business calculation. “The right answer is what’s going to keep employees and customers onside.”
For companies to proclaim Black Lives Matter might just be cosmetic. But it is an indicator of which way the winds of public opinion are blowing if market-driven institutions feel they can — or have to — talk about racism.
Anthony Johndrow has been thinking about how companies present themselves for the last 20 years. As an adviser on corporate reputations with Reputation Economy Advisors, he’s worked with financial institutions, pharmaceutical companies and tech firms including Intuit and Dell.
The trend towards social justice in companies started with a generational shift, he says. Millennials ceased to bifurcate their work life and personal life — they cared far more than previous generations about the values of a company they bought from or worked for. And their own values — at least for now — are more socially liberal than previous generations, according to Pew data. This norm has continued for Gen Z.
Even so, the significance of company reactions following George Floyd’s death was refreshing to Johndrow. “I’ve been shocked at companies having recognized this and acted on it so quickly,” he said.
One explanation is that activists can mobilize so swiftly today — enabled by social networks — that companies who are playing defense with every societal flashpoint are behind the game, according to Johndrow.
“The ultimate extension of that is companies are going to start really engaging in societal issues before they become an activist issue, before they become something that they have to respond to,” he said. “The rapidity with which activism gets organized is forcing companies to try and not just respond quickly, but to actually get out in front.”
“Companies are going to start really engaging in societal issues before they become an activist issue”
If a younger, socially conscious, tech-savvy generation is the demographic attracted to companies with shared values, it makes sense that Silicon Valley would be affected. The technology industry skews young: In Stack Overflow’s annual developer surveys, the vast majority of respondents are consistently under 35.
The millennial as a worker, meanwhile, has greater political power than the millennial as a consumer.
“Consumer boycotts mostly don’t do very much. But if your employees aren’t happy, if you can’t recruit them, you’re kind of screwed.” said Davis from the University of Michigan. “You can’t operate as a company if your coders don’t show up.”
There’s plenty of precedent for the rank-and-file speaking up in tech. In 2018, some 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout following the revelation that Andy Rubin had left the company with a $90 million golden parachute after an allegation of sexual misconduct. Walkouts have also taken place at Wayfair — which was providing furniture for migrant detention facilities — as well as Riot Games and Salesforce. Just this June, Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout over the company’s lack of moderation on President Donald Trump’s violence-inciting posts.
The key is that these workers weren’t only protesting for internal labor issues but at times for political ones, too. Following the protests over Rubin, Google’s contract with the Pentagon’s Project Maven also brought a petition from employees, a few resignations and an eventual retreat from renewing the contract.
This moment has everything to do with technology because technology has to do with everything today. Ubiquitous smartphones make racist violence visible to those who don’t see it daily; social media organizes protests and fundraisers even while it circulates disinformation and conspiracies; military technology bolsters local law enforcement departments. But what’s the trillion dollar tech company supposed to do?
For Williams, from Converge, it starts with getting your own house in order first.
That means not just one-and-done bias trainings or treating racial equality at work as “community service.” If everyone understands race from engineering to HR, there will be a natural prophylactic from the kind of reputation-shredding events that would make headlines, Williams says. Without it? “Your marginalized people will leave.”
Representation in Big Tech’s technical and senior leadership roles is infamously dire. At Facebook, Black representation in technical positions has crawled from 1 percent in 2014 to 1.7 percent in 2020, according to the company’s latest diversity report. In senior leadership roles at Facebook, Google and Microsoft, African American representation is in the low single digits.
When the protests first started, Sherrell Dorsey, founder of The Plug, which reports on the Black tech economy, started tracking every tech company’s statement addressing race with her team. They started with Salesforce on May 28 and stopped after around 200 corporate proclamations two weeks later. “We’re seeing a lot of incongruence between what companies say and what they’re doing,” she said.
Inclusion is not just about dropping Black people into tech firms, Dorsey says, but creating a psychologically safe environment. “There’s a lot of PTSD in just dealing with the challenges of navigating corporate politics,” she said. The recent experiences of two Black former employees of Pinterest, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, perhaps speak to that; Pinterest employees staged a virtual walkout last week in part because of their treatment.
“The last piece of this,” said Williams, “is who’s on your board. Who are your investors and how much pressure are they placing on you to get this right?”
Before the company comes the capital: if owners insist on, say, tying compensation to diversity figures, there’s a stronger incentive for companies to get in line than amorphous solidarity statements.
Softbank’s announcement of a $100 million fund for companies led by people of color and Netflix’s declaration that it would move as much as $100 million to Black-focused financial institutions are the kind of moves that can change the structure of commerce. That’s key when, according to a study from Harvard, between 1990 and 2016, only 0.4 percent of venture capital recipients were Black.
Image credit: Ashley Stewart / The Plug
The bold shift would be to no longer think of diversity as a narrow human resources or public relations issue in tech.
Siloing any discussion of race in these company departments can lead to hypocrisy. For instance, Facebook’s own research from 2016 found that 64 percent of users who joined extremist groups on the platform were sent there by a recommendation algorithm. The company has publicly voiced support for Black Lives Matter, even as posts ranting against the protests go viral.
For its role spreading hate speech, multiple companies participated in a temporary boycott of ads on Facebook in June. One of the boycotting advertisers was Target. Yet the retailer also told online publications not to run its ads next to articles mentioning “Breonna Taylor” or “protests,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
How reputations get hurt, says Johndrow, can be boiled down to this: “When something that you do harms people, and you knew about it.” And it’s getting increasingly challenging for companies to say they don’t know about racism in the U.S. or their own possible connection to it.
In this context, Amazon’s temporary retreat from facial recognition is a kind of progress in another way: a shift in tech companies recognizing that their tools are not neutral. A truer understanding of diversity beyond staffing and public proclamations is to consider the very product a company is developing and how it could be used in society. “Anybody who’s ever manufactured anything in this country has to take responsibility for how people use it,” said Johndrow.
Ultimately, though, Johndrow says corporations can have a potent effect by impacting the laws of the land. Big Tech has deep links to Washington. Facebook reportedly spent $17 million on lobbying last year and major firms have joined lawsuits against the Trump administration on issues like visa bans. “If you can get things done to your own benefit in Washington, then when there’s a problem in society you need to be part of the solution,” he said. “Because if you’re not, you’re potentially part of the problem.”
McDonnell, the Wharton professor, agrees. Dating back to 2010’s Citizens United case in the Supreme Court, corporations have actively tried to shape civic institutions, she said.Companies have fought to be legally considered citizens. Through this lens, then, we can expect them to be doing an “awful lot more than what they are doing,” said McDonnell. “The scope of what we can expect them to do is as broad as what we as people that work for firms and invest in them can imagine.”
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