The tech industry has no more excuses for its lack of diversity

In the summer of 2020, protests erupted in the United States, sparked by the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other black Americans. Within the tech industry, many leaders have made public statements, financial commitments, and policy changes aimed at improving equity and inclusion within their walls and in the products they sell.

To commemorate the first anniversary of these events, Fast business in partnership with The catch, a publication that covers the black innovation economy, to examine what these commitments are, what they’ve accomplished, and how much work remains to be done. (You can see the resulting data visualizations and first-person testimonials from black employees, contractors, and clients. here.)

Code2040 CEO Mimi Fox-Melton explained what it has been like to lead a nonprofit that strives to dismantle structural barriers preventing black and Latinx participation in technology during this time – and why the whole industry needs to do better.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fast Company: Was Code2040, like so many other organizations, inundated with businesses that contacted you after the protests started?

Mimi Fox Melton: Yes, like many organizations working on racial equity – and especially for us at the intersection of racial equity and technology – we have received a lot of awareness over the past year. That being said, there is a lot of discussion among the leaders of this work, including ourselves, about the interest in our work and the willingness to fund it.

But I think what really missed this conversation was the first half of [2020], This was not the case. [In] In the second quarter, just as COVID really started to hit, we cut our budget by 25%. Two huge organizations quietly announced that they were canceling their racial equity funds within their foundation. I was very concerned that we were starting to see the end of interest in racial equity in technology, and more broadly, in the philanthropic world. Add to that a global pandemic, where companies were making layoffs, companies even feared they could not keep their staff together, let alone contribute to our work.

The reason it’s really important to say this is that this is the nature of racial equity work in this country. This is the nature of the attention paid to these types of deeply rooted issues. When the police murder a black man in the street, suddenly there is a week of interest in this job. And when things don’t change immediately, when there is no immediate gun violence legislation, when there is no immediate action to fund the police or to abolish the police, interest goes down, and that makes this job very difficult.

That being said, yes, we had a lot of passion. There were many white people who, for the first time, felt and understood viscerally what racism did to other human beings. Often times, racism seems to be a very intellectual exercise for whites because they have not felt it. Which is not an excuse. I think last year, at least since I’ve been alive, was the first time – watching George Floyd die this way, I don’t think you can’t feel it deep in your soul.

They were ready to do uncomfortable personal work. They were ready to give in a way that was uncomfortable, and the fears we had over the past year, thankfully, were offset by the call to action that the organizers of the Movement for Black Lives demanded.

Do you see a sustained commitment by 2021? I imagine it is stressful to think that the attention might wane again.

Yeah, I think we kind of always expect the bottom to fall, which is, of course, the Black experience, isn’t it? This is the experience of those of us who live in racialized capitalism who are not rich and who work for a living and who are clear about the lack of power that we have.

Code2040, at the moment, is in good financial shape. The support from the companies we work with is really strong. But who knows what will happen in two years; who knows what will happen in three years. Our job is to try to be the most responsible stewards of this moment of abundance, to make sure that we can do this work in the future when it may not be so abundant.

What signs are you looking for in terms of progression of DEI, beyond demographics?

Demographics are kind of the fruit at hand. This is what people collect. It is available, sometimes. Or not! I understand why it is [seen as] representative of progress because we believe the data is compelling. At Code2040, we’ve really, internally and with partners, tried to create a more culturally competent understanding of what data is. Anecdotes are data. They help us spot patterns. So we do a lot of qualitative interviews – conversations, focus groups, where we just listen to what people are saying and then look for role models. And for us I think Open windows the change is really important.

We will have conversations with blacks and Latinxes, and sometimes even whites in industry: What do you see? What’s the challenge? What threatens your retention? What is the threat to your advancement? And then try to distill that information into “okay, these are the three things we’re going to look at and try to educate people.” “

A few years ago, we realized that companies were using GPA and academic pedigree as indicators of skill, intelligence, and superior ability. Of course this continues, we know Google did that until very recently, and probably still. But when we started to think about it a few years ago, it was very surprising for the partners in the company to hear us name these two things as obstacles to the achievement of racial equity; as barriers to hiring Blacks and Latinxes. Fast forward to today; I spoke to a company a few weeks ago, and when I named it — not using those two metrics was part of our partnership, that they would be required to commit to it — they looked at me as if I was late. They were like, ‘Oh, we’re doing it already.’ So I say to myself “Okay! This Overton window is changing. It is progress.

I look to the future at the 90% of people in the midst of organizations. What I mean by that is that there are your HR, your recruiters, [who] have goals around racial equity. They may not understand the moral purpose, but they are certainly trying to hire blacks and browns. And some people from the C-suite. [They] Also understand that, even if it’s just from a PR standpoint, we need to get it right. But what we continue to see are middle managers, the 90% of people in the middle, who generally don’t have the incentive to hire in a more diverse way; they don’t have the resources to become a better manager, how to build a racially fair team, whether or not you have Blacks and Latinxes on the team.

These people in the middle have the greatest impact on a black and Latin person’s work experience and are likely the reason a black or Latin American person leaves an organization. So what we are going to do next year is develop and adapt our training to this person who manages a team, maybe manages a department, and who does not know how to translate the learning that he has done. around racism and white supremacy at recordings, one-on-one. I think this will be a great indication when we start to see these people using black-centered management principles in their day-to-day work.

So many industries have IED issues. Why should technology be held at a higher level?

This country was founded on the unpaid labor of blacks and aboriginals. And so all of our institutions — government, media, private sector — are everywhere. No black or brown who worked in finance and then came to tech would say tech is worse than finance. It’s rampant. And yet, tech companies have built computers that can recognize faces, haven’t they? They are working to go to Mars.

This industry [is full of] setting wild goals and striving to accomplish things that are inconceivable at the moment. So to look at a social problem, and throw [their] the proverbial raises his hand and says, “Well, I guess that’s the way it is,” is inexcusable and offensive.

Discover the entire Black in Tech project here.

About Christine Geisler

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