In this episode
Comedian, cohost of Blerd Empire podcast
Comic book author, cohost of Blerd Empire podcast
Associate Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at MIT
Writer, reporter, critic
Software Engineer, Founder of Natives in Tech
Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis at NYU
Author, psychotherapist, software engineer
Software Engineer, Digital Equity Advocate
“This technology that so many of us love and use every day has in its history this really dark past.”
“We have to go back to the question of what innovation is. It was always from the onset a very Western and white phenomenon. And this is not because other societies did not create things. It simply something that was popularized because of imperialism and colonialism.”
“Native people are the Indigenous people of this land. How are we forgotten?”
“I think there are two things that become really intertwined in Silicon Valley: where people live and where they get to work. … Silicon Valley has this kind of a dark side of displacement of people of color.”
Podcast hosted by Sinbad and Royce Adkins
Natives In Tech
A coalition of Native and non-Native developers empowering and supporting native communities.
What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa?
Book, Chakanetsa Mavhunga
“The Ghost in the Machine: How new technologies reproduce racial inequality”
Article, Stephen Kearse
Reforming Jim Crow: Southern Politics and State in the Age Before Brown
Book, Professor Kimberley Johnson
Dairien: [00:00:00] The tech industry has an obsession with shaping the future.
Video clips: [00:00:04] AI is going to change everything.
What will technology be as we get closer and closer to 2050?
The future is hugely exciting to me. It's what I spend 90% of my time thinking about.
Dairien: [00:00:17] As much as we think about the future. For whatever reason, we have a hard time reconciling what happened in the past.
And that means tech's missing a huge opportunity to understand how he got to this current moment. To recap, the current moment [00:00:30] in tech, it's one of inequity. As we saw in the first episode of culture fit, the tech giants have work forces that are on average, less than half a percent Native or Indigenous, they're less than 5% Black and less than 7% Latinx.
How can an industry amass such power and influence without fully representing the people it serves? What sequences of events brought us to this uncomfortable reality? To answer these questions, we're gonna have to look at history.
[00:01:00] I'm Dairien Boyd. This is Culture Fit: Racial Bias in Tech.
When I'm looking back on my past, one of the first memories I have understanding race was actually through stand-up comedy, of all places. It was legendary comedian Sinbad. I had the chance to speak with Sinbad himself and his talented son, Royce. Together, we reflected on personal histories of understanding race, and it's going to be a starting point [00:01:30] for today's episode.
We'll go personal. Before we look at the big picture.
Sinbad broke through a segregated industry, and he helped a son navigate breaking through tech. They have a podcast together called Blerd Empire. It's about being black and being a nerd.
Sinbad, one of the first experiences I had, uh, understanding race as a kid was when my mom sat me down in front of TV, she had me watch one of your bits.
Uh, it was the bit where [00:02:00] you're talking about being a slave, but in the, in the plantation house, not working in the field because your, your skin was light enough that it afforded you to work inside the house, not outside the house. So you're eating the food and all that. I see this colorism and how, you know, if like, um, I'm light skinned, like light-skinned people think I'm, light-skinned like I'm high yellow, right?
So it's like-
Sinbad: [00:02:18] No, no, you're, you're a dark white. We have another category, we're considered the dark white chronicles. We go to another level, we're dark white.
Dairien: [00:02:25] You were born in the fifties. And so your experience, you know, 20, [00:02:30] 30 years old having Royce was probably different. Times were different then. Could you talk about that?
You've seen the generations and what we've gone through.
Sinbad: [00:02:37] To be honest with you, it was no different. The only difference is when I was 15, and I told my mother, I said, I think this, you think this racial thing, racism thing be over by maybe my--it's funny, we thought there was an end to it. This is how naive we were to the strength of racism.
Dairien: [00:02:53] Sinbad grew up in a segregated fifties and sixties. He saw progress and believed in equitable future was insight. [00:03:00] But as an adult, he witnessed the son get hit with the exact same discrimination he faced as a youth. Sinbad's son Royce was fortunate enough to go to private school. But unfortunately the conservative white family that ran the school, didn't quite see eye to eye with Royce.
Royce: [00:03:12] That summer before, before school had started, I grew my hair out.
I was in sixth grade. When school started, I knew they felt some type of way about having an afro and just like long hair in general. So I was like, oh, you know what, let me try cornrows. I've actually never done that before. And [00:03:30] then later I got called into the principal's office and they're like, we don't want you wearing your hair like that.
Long story short. I kept wearing my hair like that. I kept getting called into the office and they kept giving me reasons. I guess they went home and searched on Google or whatever it was at the time. And they were like, yeah. So, you know, we, we actually learned that slaves would braid their hair when they were planning to rebel against their white masters.
And I was like, well, technically I am [00:04:00] rebelling right now, but not in the way you're thinking. But literally I was just like, y'all are really literally just trying to find any reason to belittle, pretty much me as a person. It did end with me leaving the school at the end of the year. They kind of politely, politely asked us not to return after numerous visits by both my mom and dad.
Dairien: [00:04:22] Royce and Sinbad's experiences reflect a historical narrative of oppressive, one-side of racism in the U.S. It's a story of progress, [00:04:30] but at the very same time, these patterns are firmly rooted in society. Tech as an industry is an undeniable part of this vicious cycle.
Now we're going to jump into the way, way back machine back to the beginning of technology's relationship with race. The word technology for many is synonymous with innovation, but I think what's generally missed is that the concept of innovation itself has racist origins.
Chakanetsa: [00:04:54] We have to go back to the question of what innovation is.
Dairien: [00:04:59] This is [00:05:00] Chakanetsa Mavhunga. He's the associate professor of science, technology and society at MIT.
Chakanetsa: [00:05:06] It was always from the onset, a very western and white phenomenon. And this is not because other societies did not create things. It's simply something that was popularized because of imperialism and colonialism.
Dairien: [00:05:25] Innovation was closely tied to the idea of civilization, another concept propelled [00:05:30] by racist ideas of who and what could be considered civilized.
Chakanetsa: [00:05:33] It was also called development. People don't often know that development is a very racist term in its origins. The basic philosophy is to why Africans or black people had to be enslaved
was, they were rendered inhuman, considered inhuman and therefore beasts of burden that they did not have [00:06:00] feeling or soul.
Dairien: [00:06:01] Here's where the dehumanization of black bodies began. Colonizers treated dark-skinned peoples objects for domination. This allowed colonizers to codify who could be considered an innovator.
Chakanetsa: [00:06:12] And so what we face is the persistent image of the black man as the visitor to the laboratory, as opposed to a being whose knowledge, knowledge that was stolen through [00:06:30] myriad expeditions, through colonial conquest and subjected to the reasoning of the quote, unquote, enlightenment and contributed in no small part to the production of what we now see as scientific knowledge.
Dairien: [00:06:50] So this lays the foundation for both technology and innovations deep ties to racism. In this episode, we'll move quickly through a timeline of Silicon [00:07:00] Valley from high level. We'll start before tech companies actually took root in Silicon Valley and will continue through the last few centuries, occasionally zooming into specific stories.
Let's start by looking at the land itself, the land Silicon Valley was built on. 500 years ago, the region was home to the Ohlone people. The Indigenous history of this area is very much a part of the history of Silicon Valley, but it's one that we don't often acknowledge. Here's Adam Recvlohe, founder of Natives in Tech.
[00:07:30] Adam: [00:07:30] Native people are the indigenous people of this land. You know, how are we forgotten?
There's history there in terms of people not wanting to recognize our claim to being the first inhabitants of the lands that we are a part of.
Dairien: [00:07:49] Spanish missionaries arrived at what we think of a Silicon Valley in the late 17 hundreds, forcibly bringing Ohlone people to their missions.
They inflicted violence on the natives and infected them with foreign [00:08:00] diseases. What happened to the Ohlone people is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the violence, trauma, and repeated treaty violation that Indigenous natives face. That was the early history of the land that Silicon Valley stands on today.
Now let's keep moving forward in time. We'll come up to the mid 1800s when a technological advancement was spreading across the nation: the telegraph. The telegraph is often hailed as the first internet. In a sense it was the first electric communications network. But who really had [00:08:30] access to this tool?
The first telegraph message was sent in 1844. That's 20 years before the abolition of slavery. The telegraph reached its apex in the next several decades, a time when Black Americans were not afforded an education. Only 20% of the Back population at the time could read and write. That should paint a clear picture of who this quote unquote first internet was actually connecting.
The federal Telegraph company eventually built a research lab in Palo Alto. Just down the road, Stanford University was [00:09:00] beginning to take shape. Stanford has long fueled Silicon Valley, and the founders of Stanford were intentional about creating a space that supports local technology businesses. That is, white owned technology businesses.
Here's a direct quote from Leland Stanford. Quote, "I am in favor of free white American citizens. I prefer free white citizens to any other race. I prefer the white man to the Negro as an inhabitant to our country. I believe its greatest good has been derived by having all of the country settled [00:09:30] by free white men." Unquote.
No wonder the early racial makeup of the tech industry was just that: free white men.
Kimberley: [00:09:41] What happens during the 1940s, 1950s is the cold war happens. And Silicon Valley kind of emerges as this center of electronics development.
Dairien: [00:09:56] That's Kimberly Johnson, professor of social and cultural analysis at NYU.
[00:10:00] Kimberley: [00:10:00] At that point, lots of people are moving into the area.
Dairien: [00:10:03] Another key element in the history of Silicon Valley: it's housing.
Kimberley: [00:10:07] There are two things that become really intertwined in Silicon Valley, and that's where people live and where they get to work. And Silicon Valley has this kind of a dark side of displacement of people of color.
Dairien: [00:10:24] Displacement. When a group is forcibly removed from one area and now must find a new area to call home. [00:10:30] This is a reality that Natives in Tech founder, Adam Recvlohe knows all too well.
Adam: [00:10:34] There's history of relocation, you know, Native people being in cities and different historical things that have happened that have disconnected Native people from their communities.
Dairien: [00:10:47] Being displaced as a monumental life disruption. Think about it. When you're squeezed out financially, the affordable places you can live are limited. And that impacts the jobs that you have access to. Here's professor Kimberly Johnson.
Kimberley: [00:10:59] East Palo [00:11:00] Alto emerges in the post-World war two era as kind of the only really affordable place for working class folks to live.
African Americans start to move into the area as well, attracted to employment opportunities. But also in some cases, if we're talking about Oakland and San Francisco, they're actually getting pushed out of these cities and encouraged to move to cheaper places like East Palo Alto. People of color are already sort of slotted into [00:11:30] specific places on the peninsula.
They widened the Bayshore freeway and it really becomes the concrete curtain. Because of that highway, they're then able to reinforce school segregation and also create this zone of disinvestment that becomes East Palo Alto. But I think also there is in the same way that people were residentially segregated,
I think that also bled into a notion that, well, we don't see [00:12:00] them in terms of where we live. And so therefore it perhaps didn't bother people that they didn't see African Americans where they worked.
Dairien: [00:12:07] The connection between housing and employment came into clear focus with the wake of red lining. You've probably heard of red lining.
It's when surveyors graded neighborhoods by subjective risk factors, therefore preventing banks from lending to black communities. Banks looked at redlining maps and denied money to black communities, keeping them in poverty and further restricting their ability to live in the areas where tech companies arose. In the 50s, some of the most prominent Silicon Valley [00:12:30] figures began to make names for themselves. William Shockley, for example, was a white physicist and inventor. His lab in Mountain View built devices for the transistor, helping propel the region as a center for technological innovation, also earning him the Nobel Prize. He's credited for bringing silicon to Silicon Valley.
He was also a eugenicist and a racist. Here's a clip of William Shockley speaking at Stanford in 1974.
William Shockley: [00:12:54] The lesson to be learned from Nazi history is frequently very misunderstood. It's not that [00:13:00] eugenics is intolerable. Uh, eugenic programs, uh, are not inconceivable. They're not inhumane.
Interviewer: [00:13:07] Dr. Shockley, do you believe that black people are inferior in intelligence because of their heredity?
William Shockley: [00:13:15] My research leads me inescapably to the opinion that the major cause of the American Negro's intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin, and thus not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in environment.
[00:13:30] Dairien: [00:13:30] That's confirmation bias for you. The scientist that believed Blacks genetics were inferior to white genetics. He tricked himself into validating these incorrect and deeply bigoted views. William Shockley used his influence to intentionally inflict harm on black people. It's impossible to grasp the enormous scale of impact. If you've never heard of Shockley's lab, maybe you're familiar with some of the white men that left his lab to start Fairchild semiconductor. Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce were among the men who left Shockley's lab to start Fairchild.
They eventually founded Intel. Another researcher from that [00:14:00] group was Eugene Kleiner. That name might be familiar because he went on to found venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, one of the top VCs in tech today. In total 92 publicly traded companies can be traced back to the group of men who started Shockley's lab.
It was a cohort of white dudes. The only demographic William Shockley cared to hire, the only ones with access and opportunity to create and compound enormous wealth from their work.
Despite the barriers that are in place preventing black people from becoming software [00:14:30] engineers, someone eventually broke through.
Clyde: [00:14:32] Hi, my name is Clyde Ford. It I'm the author of Think Black, which is a memoir about my father, who was the first Black software engineer in America. My dad was born in 1919, and that was really the high point of eugenics.
Dairien: [00:14:48] When Clyde's father, John Stanley Ford, began working for IBM, he was stepping into a company that already had a troubling history.
Clyde: [00:14:54] This technology that so many of us love and use every day has in [00:15:00] its history, this really dark past.
Every concentration camp had an IBM room. IBM punch card equipment was used to identify who was Jewish and who was not, the historical background of that person, the medical experiments they might be subjected to, how that person was actually going to die.
Dairien: [00:15:21] IBM knew what kind of evil they were building, but they did it anyway.
[00:15:30] It was not too long after the war, the Clyde's father was hired by IBM.
Clyde: [00:15:33] It was the 1940s, late 1940s, post-World War America. My dad was hired as a systems engineer, and he walked into an environment which in many respects was very hostile. One story that sticks out in my mind because I heard it so often was my dad telling me how the group of men we worked with had set up what appeared to be a [00:16:00] meeting with a customer that turned out to be a meeting for him only with a prostitute that they hoped they would capture on camera
and therefore force him to resign. He struggled through people actually attempting to sabotage his work in order to show him up, and show that he, as a black man didn't really belong.
Dairien: [00:16:25] A generation later, Clyde followed in his father's footsteps as an IBM engineer, [00:16:30] where he of course faced similar challenges.
Clyde: [00:16:33] I would hear from him the idea that as a black man, you had to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as a white man. And I heard that many, many times. And what, like grew to hate that phrase. I also grew to understand what he was saying in terms of what he [00:17:00] experienced as a black man working at IBM. But that was the burden that he, and just about every one of his generation who were first in their respective fields, took on.
Dairien: [00:17:12] Racial discrimination was rampant in the sixties. The national zeitgeist at the time held Martin Luther King Jr. as public enemy number one. Black salespeople at Xerox were fed up with discriminatory treatment. Managers would set them up to fail by continually assigning them inferior sales territories only because of their race.
[00:17:30] So a group formed the Bay Area Black Employees in 1969, paved the way for future workplace affinity groups and employee resource groups. Fast forward to the 90s and early 2000s. We see current day gatekeepers of the internet emerge. Writer steven Kearse has examined one particular incident from 96.
Stephen: [00:17:47] The Simon Wiesenthal center sent out a, a letter to internet providers asking them to regulate, you know, like white supremacists websites and the [00:18:00] internet providers through the, through like a tech lobby, essentially. They said something that you know, is very, really familiar to us. Now, the way you can are bad speeches to let the communities figure that out on the, on their own.
So basically it was like very hands-off and that's something that we see with Facebook recently, not so much with Twitter, but just throughout the kind of history of the internet. There's been this kind of [00:18:30] belief that, Oh, the bad stuff will kind of just like go away or work itself out. Or the, the trolls will get tired. And we see now that that really allows problematic and like repugnant behavior to fester.
Dairien: [00:18:46] We fail to protect people from hate speech. And that sets a dangerous precedent for online communication. These platforms, they routinely repeat the harm marginalized communities already face, like harassment, bullying, or trolling.
The reach of racial hate has been [00:19:00] amplified by the reach of the internet. That's what makes lack of accountability from tech leaders so devastating. Essentially the leaders of tech companies have been absent in combating anti-black views. This allows racial inequality to prosper through the technologies that they create.
Stephen: [00:19:13] In addition to not calling it out, I think that they weren't thinking about their role in perpetuating it or accommodating it. So if you have a moderator or if you have content guidelines, these are all mechanisms that we [00:19:30] use to regulate spaces, and we do it for certain topics. You just end up wondering,
like does it, do these people know that they wrote the guidelines? And that they enforce them? And all these other things.
Dairien: [00:19:42] In 1999, Reverend Jesse Jackson began speaking about what he called the digital divide, the discrepancies in access to technology for women and minorities. That was 20 years ago, and we're still discussing it right now.
Here's Jacqueline Gibson, software engineer and digital equity advocate.
Jacqueline: [00:19:59] I think [00:20:00] one of the biggest problems, and this applies to the Black community, but just really any underrepresented identity, is what you were talking about: access. So do people have the ability to use these tools as the same rate as their more privileged counterparts?
And there are a lot of problems related to access. Like, do people have high speed internet? Do they have limitations on their wifi? Do they have devices in their homes? But another thing that I think is really important is digital [00:20:30] and algorithmic literacy. So digital literacy, meaning do you know how to use these tools, but then algorithmic literacy is important because this really pushes you to understand what's happening with these algorithms, with the software, et cetera, under the hood.
Dairien: [00:20:45] You may remember the hashtag black lives matter sprung up in 2013. It was a response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer. The following year was a major turning point for the tech industry. In 2014, tech giants from Google to Facebook to Apple, [00:21:00] they disclosed for the first time, how few women and people of color they actually employed. That year, less than 30% of Google employees were women. Only 3% of the workforce was Latinx and only 2% was Black. Disclosing these numbers set off a frenzy of spending. In 2014, Google spent 115 million on diversity initiatives. In 2015, Intel pledged 300 million for diversity efforts over the next five years, Apple dedicated 50 million to diversity related non-profits.
And yet, as we know, from the previous episode, these dollars don't equate the results. [00:21:30] A Wired headline from 2019 summarizes things perfectly: "Five Years of Diversity Reports and Little Progress." And that brings us up to this year, the year of solidarity statements. After the murder of George Floyd, voices advocating for Black lives echoed throughout Silicon Valley.
Once again, a number of the biggest companies made promises to write enormous checks in the name of becoming more inclusive. Apple committed a hundred million dollars to hiring and retaining black employees. Google pledge more than 175 million to racial justice nonprofits. [00:22:00] Facebook donated 10 million,
in addition to setting aside a hundred million to support Black-owned businesses this year. Big pledges get big headlines. Big pledges also signal a commitment to change. But what does throwing a sack of money at this complex problem really accomplish? How does money help us better serve people we don't know?
Here's Clyde Ford's take.
Clyde: [00:22:19] The reason to understand that history is so that a company now won't repeat the mistakes of the past.
Dairien: [00:22:27] Now that we understand how the tech industry got to where it is today, [00:22:30] we can start working to build an equitable future.
Thank you listeners for taking the time to be with us during the episode, and thank you to our incredible guests. They all took the time to record interviews with us: Sinbad, Royce Adkins, Professor Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Steven Kearse, Adam Recvlohe, Professor Kimberley Johnson, Clyde Ford and Jacqueline Gibson. For the links to the work of our guests, you can visit [00:23:00] all-turtles.com/podcast.
If you're liking Culture Fit so far, we would really love if you took the time to write us a review. It means the world to us, and it also helps other people find the podcast. Thank you to the team behind the episodes, including Marie McCoy-Thompson for producing, editing, and co-writing the show. Thanks to Jim Metzendorf, he's our mixer, as well as Dorian Love for the amazing music.
And I'm Dairien Boyd. We'll see you at episode three of Culture Fit where we'll dive into the pipeline fallacy. [00:23:30]
Culture Fit: Racial Bias in Tech
Culture Fit: Racial Bias in Tech takes an in-depth look at racial inequalities in the tech industry, from the biases that get built into products to Silicon Valley's problematic monoculture. Product and design expert Dairien Boyd weaves the perspectives of tech founders, investors, and professionals together to dismantle common excuses for why things are the way they are, and explore how to move toward a more inclusive future.
- Original Gatekeepers
- The Pipeline Fallacy
- Built-in Bias
- Internal Investigation
- The Work Ahead