No, Silicon Valley Billionaires Are Not Racial Justice Warriors

Julianne Tveten

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at Facebook's F8 Developer Conference on April 18, 2017 at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Fol­low­ing a wave of white suprema­cist rage from Sil­i­con Val­ley to Vir­ginia, the rela­tion­ship between the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try and racism has sud­den­ly come under a rare lev­el of scrutiny.

In ear­ly August, Google devel­op­er James Damore released a man­i­festo reproach­ing work­place diver­si­ty ini­tia­tives, titled Google’s Ide­o­log­i­cal Echo Cham­ber.” The incen­di­ary doc­u­ment gar­nered exten­sive press cov­er­age, with some lib­er­al cir­cles even look­ing into orga­niz­ing demon­stra­tions to con­demn ide­olo­gies like Damore’s. In response to pub­lic indig­na­tion, Google CEO Sun­dar Pichai con­demned the manifesto.

A week lat­er, a mur­der­ous neo-Nazi ral­ly in Char­lottesville, Va. gal­va­nized the coun­try into grap­pling with unbri­dled racism. In the after­math, Face­book, Twit­ter, YouTube and a num­ber of oth­er tech giants issued state­ments pur­port­ing to take a more strin­gent approach to cur­tail­ing hate speech.

While Pichai, Mark Zucker­berg and oth­er CEOs claim to be tak­ing steps to acknowl­edge the role their com­pa­nies play in foment­ing racist dia­logue, their lat­est attempts at good will are fee­ble and long over­due. Their mod­est reforms do not make a dent in the tech sector’s qui­et, lais­sez-faire sub­ver­sion of anti-racism for its own gain. 

Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, hous­ing. In 2006, a group of Chica­go lawyers sued Craigslist for pub­lish­ing dis­crim­i­na­to­ry clas­si­fied ads, con­tend­ing the web­site vio­lat­ed the Fair Hous­ing Act (FHA), which pro­hibits hous­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race, reli­gion, gen­der and oth­er cri­te­ria. (Ads the group cit­ed includ­ed such restric­tions as NO MINORI­TIES” and Require­ments: Clean God­ly Chris­t­ian Male.”) Con­comi­tant­ly, Room​mates​.com incurred sim­i­lar lit­i­ga­tion from the Fair Hous­ing Coun­cil of San Fer­nan­do Valley.

While the Ninth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals man­dat­ed Room​mates​.com com­ply with the FHA, the Sev­enth Cir­cuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Craigslist. In the lat­ter case, the court cit­ed the 1996 Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Decen­cy Act (CDA), which would absolve an online ser­vice provider of lia­bil­i­ty for con­tent pro­vid­ed by a third par­ty — e.g., a user post­ing an ad. Despite their vary­ing out­comes, both cas­es illus­trate tech com­pa­nies’ efforts to under­mine pro­tec­tions against discrimination.

The prob­lem per­sist­ed well into the next decade. In 2015, Nextdoor, a pri­vate social-net­work app for neigh­bor­hood updates, began to draw com­plaints for stim­u­lat­ing racial pro­fil­ing. The incit­ing event: An Oak­land neigh­bor­hood report­ed sketchy” men, includ­ing an African Amer­i­can guy,” who were guilty of lin­ger­ing.” One neigh­bor sug­gest­ed call­ing the police. A woman named Mered­ith Ahlberg rec­og­nized them — she’d invit­ed them to her house for a par­ty and giv­en them the wrong address. Since sign­ing up for the app in 2012, Ahlberg has repeat­ed­ly seen black peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hood described as sus­pi­cious’ char­ac­ters,” writer Pen­darvis Har­shaw not­ed. Har­shaw also found a litany of oth­er offens­es: judg­ment levied upon black moth­ers’ par­ent­ing, a white-only meet­ing to dis­cuss racial pro­fil­ing and oth­er prod­ucts of racial­ized para­noia. While the com­pa­ny has sought to rec­ti­fy these ills, the prob­lem per­sists.

Airbnb gen­er­at­ed an espe­cial­ly high-pro­file case — suc­cinct­ly cap­tured in the 2016 hash­tag #Airbnb­While­Black. In the years pri­or, a num­ber of black users had report­ed dis­crim­i­na­tion when using the ser­vice. After a neigh­bor alleged they were thieves, two black guests in Atlanta were forced to explain to police with guns drawn that they’d been approved to stay at their rental. Anoth­er black user sued the com­pa­ny after his book­ing request was reject­ed until he posed as a white man. A study by Har­vard Busi­ness School researchers found that appli­ca­tions from guests with dis­tinc­tive­ly African-Amer­i­can” names were 16 per­cent less like­ly to be accept­ed rel­a­tive to iden­ti­cal guests with dis­tinc­tive­ly white names.”

Though Airbnb has claimed inter­est in tack­ling the prob­lem, the prob­lem con­tin­ues. Ear­li­er this year, an Asian-Amer­i­can user was express­ly denied a book­ing at the last minute, strict­ly on the basis of her race.

As Nextdoor and Airbnb have facil­i­tat­ed racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, so has Face­book. Before it entered the fore of the online-hate-speech dis­course, the social net­work had allowed adver­tis­ers to exclude users by race. Com­pa­nies could explic­it­ly select cer­tain races to tar­get — African Amer­i­can, Asian Amer­i­can, and His­pan­ic” were among the cat­e­gories — even if they pub­lished ads for hous­ing or employ­ment. This is a man­i­fest vio­la­tion of the FHA and of the Civ­il Rights Act of 1964, which inter­dicts racial employ­ment discrimination.

In response to pub­lic out­cry, Face­book has since added anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion claus­es to its adver­tis­ing poli­cies and claims to be work­ing on arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence for screen ads. This, of course, doesn’t change the fact that Face­book con­scious­ly designed a form of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion to encour­age cus­tomized adver­tis­ing, using cod­ed lan­guage — Eth­nic Affin­i­ty” rather than race” — and such euphemisms as mul­ti­cul­tur­al mar­ket­ing” to make that inequity more palatable.

What’s more, Facebook’s cen­sors have dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly favored white men. Accord­ing to a ProP­ub­li­ca report from last June, an exhor­ta­tion from Louisiana Con­gress­man Clay Hig­gins to hunt” and kill rad­i­cal­ized” Mus­lims went untouched. Face­book also chose not to des­ig­nate such groups as Alt-Reich Nation” — a group whose mem­ber was recent­ly charged with the mur­der of a black col­lege stu­dent — as hate orga­ni­za­tions. Mean­while, users of col­or who’ve mere­ly called atten­tion to white racism have been penal­ized. With­out expla­na­tion, Face­book removed one black user’s post ask­ing why it’s not a crime when white free­lance vig­i­lantes and agents of the state’ are ser­i­al killers of unarmed black peo­ple, but when black peo­ple kill each oth­er then we are ani­mals’ or crim­i­nals,’” dis­abling her account for three days. Anoth­er post from Black Lives Mat­ter activist DiDi Del­ga­do stat­ing all white peo­ple are racist” was delet­ed, pro­vok­ing Delgado’s essay Mark Zucker­berg Hates Black Peo­ple.”

It shouldn’t come as a sur­prise that these infringe­ments are inex­tri­ca­bly linked to the eco­nom­ic inter­ests of tech com­pa­nies. Tech­no-cap­i­tal­ists, angling to appease investors and amass wealth, are noth­ing if not noto­ri­ous for their lib­er­tar­i­an antipa­thy to reg­u­la­tion — a force they view as the ene­my of finan­cial pro­lif­er­a­tion. To enter­pris­ing tech­nocrats, the scale of their com­pa­ny is of utmost impor­tance, rel­e­gat­ing legal com­pli­ance — much less, racial jus­tice — to a posi­tion far low­er. A start­up founder doesn’t seek funds for an equi­table, pro­gres­sive endeav­or; he or she does so to turn a prof­it. For the would-be Sil­i­con Val­ley tycoon, legal­i­ty is the truest tar­get of dis­rup­tion,” and hous­ing and employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion stric­tures are no exception.

In an espe­cial­ly rev­e­la­to­ry turn of events, the New York Times report­ed ear­li­er this year that tech titans have begun to shift their polit­i­cal dona­tions to the round­ly anti-reg­u­la­to­ry Repub­li­can Par­ty, view­ing it as a stronger ally on issues includ­ing pri­va­cy, tax­a­tion, automa­tion, and antitrust.”

Such con­ser­vatism extends beyond a com­pul­sion to expand. Though it seeks to befog this fact with pro­gres­sive bro­mides, Sil­i­con Val­ley bears a pro­found con­nec­tion to white suprema­cy. In 2016, 4Chan, for­mer Bre­it­bart tech edi­tor” Milo Yiannopou­los, and Sil­i­con Val­ley supervil­lain Peter Thiel mod­eled the arche­type of a techie Trump sup­port­er. Months lat­er, Moth­er Jones report­ed on the preva­lence of alt-right sen­ti­ment with­in engi­neer­ing enclaves. The inves­ti­ga­tion fore­cast the emer­gence of Damore’s dia­tribe: A soft­ware engi­neer insist­ed that many of the men in his field secret­ly iden­ti­fy with the alt-right, which he attrib­uted to a back­lash against the cor­po­rate fem­i­nist and diver­si­ty agen­da’ of tech com­pa­nies.” Last year, a post on the start­up incu­ba­tor Y Combinator’s Hack­er News forum led a user to inquire, Why is diver­si­ty good?…Why would immi­gra­tion, espe­cial­ly uncon­trol­lable immi­gra­tion, be ben­e­fi­cial? What if some cul­tures are better?…Why is racism against whites and sex­ism against men acceptable?”

If there’s a les­son to be learned here, it’s that, as writ­ers like Jessie Daniels and Kate Knibbs have observed, racism in Sil­i­con Val­ley isn’t a bug; it’s a fea­ture. When the tech indus­try isn’t prof­it­ing from flout­ing anti-racist leg­is­la­tion, it’s out­right exco­ri­at­ing peo­ple of col­or, and it only ren­ders mea cul­pas when it’s caught. Its trans­gres­sions must serve as a reminder that its prod­ucts aren’t ide­o­log­i­cal­ly neu­tral, and when they’re placed in the hands of pre­dom­i­nant­ly white cap­i­tal­ists, dan­ger lies ahead. Soft, incre­men­tal solu­tions like more com­pre­hen­sive algo­rithms and codes of con­duct won’t come close to right­ing these wrongs, espe­cial­ly if the Zucker­bergs and Thiels of the world remain at the helm.

At such an inflamed time in the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal land­scape, we can’t accept the ver­bal and phys­i­cal racist vio­lence that Sil­i­con Val­ley has helped inflict upon us. It’s about time we made that known.

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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