There’s Jim Crow in Silicon Valley

(The brothers and sisters are equipped; they’re bringing up prospective members, even from elementary schools, who are interested in these careers. So why isn’t Silly Con Valley using them?)

A couple of decades back, in the late Seventies and mid Eighties when I was living in Silicon Valley, there had been a couple of discrimination suits involving tech companies that I had been following. The black engineers involved also claimed they had the perception that blacks (or Latinos) entering or employed in this industry would be horning into what I would call the last bailiwick of white male endeavor in the United States. Therefore, the atmosphere or environment there could be stiffly hospitable to hostile. (During one economic downturn, one company had decided to let go of more white senior and intermediate, than minority, newly-trained junior engineers so as not to piss off the Feds; when this leaked out it caused even more division and animosity among hard-pressed employees.)

I do not recall off-hand the names involved and the dates or whether these suits had concluded in favor of the black engineers or the companies or a whether it resulted in a split decision; that is, a settlement for the engineers instead of rehire. I recall more the engineers’ contention of a hostile environment with white engineers who were jealously trying to hold on their jobs, seniority–and privilege.

I don’t think that this has changed in some twenty years.

The San Jose Mercury News recently released employment data supplied by the Department of Labor regarding how many minorities–particularly blacks and Latinos–fared at Silicon Valley IT companies–except for Google, Apple, Oracle, Yahoo and Applied Materials. These companies had originally filed suit against the Mercury News‘ obtaining this data through the Freedom of Information Act, stating that it would cause them “commercial harm” by potentially revealing the companies’ business strategy to their competitors. All of five companies won their suit before the Department of Labor (except for H-P, who did not give a sufficient reason why the Mercury News should be kept from viewing its data.) But some industry analysts and critics think that the suit was less about harm and more about how these companies circumvent civil rights and economic opportunity laws in keeping things status quo.

Stats don't lie

[…] The Mercury News initially set out to obtain race and gender data on the valley’s 15 largest companies, and nine — including Intel, Cisco Systems, eBay, AMD, Sanmina and Sun Microsystems — agreed to allow the U.S. Department of Labor to provide it.

“There’s nothing to hide, in our view,” said Chuck Mulloy, a spokesman for Intel, which contacted the Mercury News to share its employment data after learning of the newspaper’s federal FOIA request filed in early 2008. “We just felt that we’re very proud of the (diversity) programs we have in place and the efforts we put forth, and we don’t have any trouble sharing it.”

Experts in the area of equal employment law scoffed at the idea that public disclosure of race and gender data — for example, the number of black men or Asian women in job categories such as “professionals,” “officials & managers” and “service workers” — could really allow competitors to discern a big tech company’s business strategy. A bigger issue, they said, is the social cost of allowing large, influential corporations to hide their race and gender data.

“One of the main ways that we track how society is doing in terms of race relations, in terms of eliminating discrimination, in terms of promoting diversity, is by looking at statistics,” said Richard Ford, a Stanford University law professor who is an expert in civil rights and anti-discrimination law. “But if we can’t get the data, we can’t know if it’s a problem or not.”

John Sims, a law professor at the University of the Pacific and an expert in FOIA law, called the objections of Google, Apple and other companies “absurd.”

“The whole debate on affirmative action is based on the question, ‘Is racial discrimination a thing of the past, or is it still going on?’ ” Sims said. “These companies are very interesting to look at, because they are new and they are not just in the rut of what they were doing 50 years ago, because they didn’t exist 50 years ago.”

The Labor Department data ultimately obtained by the Mercury News shows that while the collective work force of 10 of the valley’s largest companies grew by 16 percent from 1999 to 2005, an already small population of black workers dropped by 16 percent, while the number of Hispanic workers declined by 11 percent. By 2005, only about 2,200 of the 30,000 Silicon Valley-based workers at those 10 companies were black or Hispanic.

In addition, among the roughly 5,900 managers at those companies in 2005, about 300 were either black or Hispanic — a 20 percent dip from five years earlier. Women slipped to 26 percent of managers in 2005, from 28 percent in 2000.

(Dr. Mark Dean, the brother who led the IBM team that created the first personal computer.)

If Wisconsin–and especially Madison–plans on becoming the Midwest’s outpost of information technology, it cannot afford to be making the same mistakes here as they have and are on the West Coast. Otherwise, there are going to be problems…and lawsuits in the docket. And this is nothing but energy, time, and money draining.

Some suggest that more should be done in the schools to steer science-minded black and Latino students towards careers in electrical engineering or information technology. In fact, a few analysts blame, “a history of valley companies hiring well-trained tech workers from the Pacific Rim, a weak pipeline of homegrown candidates, and a hyper-competitive business environment that leaves little time to develop workers.” Um, somehow, I just can’t believe that the second is true, and that needing it now for the third is no excuse for allowing for circumstance to sharpen and enhance people’s skills. How are they going to learn if they don’t get the opportunity to step up? Just saying I will, like Drs. Frank Greene, Roy Clay, and Mark Dean did in their time is enough. It still remains a career choice where only a few women and other minority geek-types are represented, but that is slowly but surely changing. In an industry that thrives on innovation, the same faces around the table, says Caroline Simard, research director for the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, tends to come up with the same ideas over and over again. These people would freshen the pot.

Tech trailblazers

Dr. Frank Greene, who died suddenly December 26, and Dr. Roy Clay were feted in early January 2009 as two of the 50 most influential black technologists in Silicon Valley (Courtesy: San Francisco BayView)

As a stopgap measure, there still remains the tendency for some of these corporations to import Asians–namely Indians–to take up the talent and the minority representation slack. If that is the real “commercial harm” that the companies were fighting against disclosure with the Mercury News, then the revelation of the other companies who freely allowed the DoL to release their data shows that it could be worse, if not the same at the five corporations that won their case. Believe it. Supposedly, Google, Oracle, Yahoo and especially Apple, enjoy reputations as “liberal” organizations. The revelation is a public relations minus, not a blow for corporate privacy. As Henry Alford relates in his opinion piece at BlackVoiceNews on March 10:

What they think they can do is import a massive amount of Asians via H-1B visas and count them in their collective minority numbers. First of all, only US citizens can be counted in these numbers and all groups, especially Black and Hispanic, must not be under represented. It violates law and should prohibit these corporations from doing business with the federal government or any other entity that receives federal funding or benefits from a federal program or regulation.

What’s the solution? Henry Alford is adamant:

  • The NAACP, Urban League, La Raza, etc. should cease receiving money from these bigot corporations. Certainly they should stop doing their bidding and representing them as good outstanding corporate citizens.
  • They should be protesting and suing them in the courts.
  • They should put serious pressure on the U.S. government to enforce standing civil rights and Equal Opportunity laws.
  • If they don’t than I guess the National Black Chamber of Commerce will have to go after them in their absence like we did in the telecommunications and auto industries with success back in the 1990’s. It is not exactly our mission but someone has to do it.

Somebody has to do it, indeed. But count on an internecine fight in all these civil rights organizations about not taking money from these companies. Some really do need the money. It might open up division among folks when they really should take the lead in confronting these corporations.

At the same time, I agree with Alford that it is a kind of blackmail to give grants to these organizations and then they turn the other way and don’t squawk if the company policy, real or implied, is to discriminate or to only hire a few for the comfort level of other employees. La Raza Unida and the NAACP are going to have to make a decision too, but chiefly these five companies and their rivals. As the Great Recession eventually lifts, there are going to have to be fewer excuses anyone can make about this issue.

~ by blksista on March 12, 2010.

One Response to “There’s Jim Crow in Silicon Valley”

  1. Outstanding article! The analysis and commentary are dead on.


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