Race in Tech is Still an Issue

Blair Hanley Frank

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






A couple months ago, Jamelle Bouie published a piece examining why it is that so many members of the tech press are white. What he said, essentially, is that the way the tech press is structured subtly excludes people of color, especially African-Americans and Latinos.

Of course, the tech industry would like to see things differently. Jason Calacanis got into an argument with Bouie on Twitter, arguing that all it takes to succeed is putting in hours and hours of work. As Calacanis put it: “There isn’t a race wall in tech.” Calacanis’ view is not a unique one. After all, tech is supposed to be the great equalizer. Code doesn’t care what race you are, or so the story goes. But if you look around at who’s helming the hot new startups, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

As Bouie points out in his article, African-Americans and Latinos are “huge [I]nternet users,” and according to a survey done by Nielsen, are more likely than whites to own smartphones. So clearly, the problem isn’t that people of color don’t use technology.

We’ve created this myth that anyone with sufficient talent and vision will be able to succeed in the tech industry. After all, Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed to build Apple. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories involving enterprising software developers who built an app in their spare time and managed to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars selling it independently, or who managed to parlay their creation into venture capital funding and create a successful company.

What Bouie made clear in his article is that a system that requires a lot of investment of time and personal capital into a career that may or may not prove profitable is only an option for those of us who have a backup plan. For many students at Whitman, it’s possible to move back in with our parents and spend the time it takes to get a job in our field rather than have to go and get any job immediately in order to pay the bills.

Actually sitting down and building proficiency in a programming language is a process that takes a very significant amount of time. If you come from a background where you need that time in order to pay for your education, or support yourself and your family by working multiple jobs, you’re not going to have four hours at night to devote to hacking away on a potentially revolutionary iPhone app.

Another problem is that when the tech industry promotes itself at conferences and company keynotes, there’s a good chance the voices on stage will be primarily white and primarily male. As a white guy, I can look at Tim Cook on stage at an Apple keynote and identify with him. He’s like me at least in some way. Those role models don’t exist in tech for a number of communities of color yet. And that’s important. We need to do a better job of promoting the work of people of color who are doing great things in this industry.

It’s not enough to just expect that the best will spontaneously rise to the top. We’ve tried that, and look at where we are now.

I care about this so much because I want the tech industry to live up to its promises of an egalitarian meritocracy. We’re not there yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to get there. There’s a lot going for us: We’re a young industry, with fewer barriers to entry than older markets.

But we have to do a better job of outreach. This is an industry built on the idea that if you have the free time and willpower, you can do well. That only goes so far. We have to be proactive about creating opportunities and resources for people of color who are under-represented in this field, and do a better job of recognizing that just putting faith in the idea of a meritocracy will not, in itself, create one.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email