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‘Time to be brutally honest’: Tech’s reckoning on race and power has arrived

The tension within tech is heightened by a lack of diversity and a political divide among its own ranks.

Protester

A protester kneels in front of police during a demonstration against the death of George Floyd near the White House on Monday.

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

Late Monday afternoon, the fury directed at Facebook — perhaps most powerfully from within — reached a new peak.

Andrew Clark, an engineer at the social networking giant, became one of a growing number of employees to condemn the company in a series of posts on rival platform Twitter. Intentionally or not, he wrote, Facebook had created "the world's most efficient radicalization machine." Echoing others, he said the company was making a mistake by allowing President Trump to freely threaten anti-police-brutality protestors on its increasingly polarized platform.

"Facebook is breaking society," Clark wrote, "and we're not doing enough to fix it."

Clark posted his messages about an hour before Trump promised in a speech in Washington to deploy the military against protesters in the capital, then other states if necessary. As Trump spoke, the National Guard rained tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters outside the White House, who had gathered — like demonstrators in dozens of other cities — to raise their voices against the killing by a white police officer of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd. The violent action cleared a path for a Trump photo-op outside a church.

With his refusal to intervene in Trump's posting, Mark Zuckerberg has broken with many Silicon Valley executives who have rushed in recent days to fact-check the president, issue conciliatory press releases, and announce donations to civil rights organizations. In Southern California, which has seen mass protests and well as fires, looting and live-streamed police crackdowns on demonstrators, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel told employees that "the American experiment is failing" and called for reparations for American slavery in a 2,000-word memo reported by The Information.

From big banks to big-box retailers, tech companies are far from alone in issuing carefully worded calls for reform and social healing. But Silicon Valley occupies a unique, uneasy and perhaps critical role in the conflict because of its dual power as both a growing lobbying force and the architect of online platforms that allow protestors and law enforcement to alternately organize, broadcast and surveil the conflict unfolding on streets across the country.

Facebook employees have railed since the weekend against the company's refusal to take action against posts from Trump and other politicians threatening violence against protesters in what The New York Times called "the most serious challenge to the leadership of Mark Zuckerberg … since the company was founded 15 years ago."

On Monday, the CEO of mental health app Talkspace said it had canceled a deal with Facebook as a result of the decisions. Facebook's refusal to budge has been juxtaposed against Twitter, which slapped warning labels on misleading and threatening tweets from Trump last week. It did so again Monday in response to a post by Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Republican from Florida, because it glorified violence, according to a Twitter spokesperson. Some activists still faulted Twitter for refusing to remove other racist content.

The tension within tech over its role in the country's social divides is heightened by its notorious lack of diversity in hiring and a growing unrest among its own ranks, which are composed of both left-leaning advocates of social equality and conservative free marketeers who have opposed diversity programs at companies including Google. Just 1% of venture-backed startup founders are black, and about 3% of technical employees at the industry's eight biggest companies are black.

For black tech workers like Pariss Chandler, it all added up Monday to another day when it was impossible to concentrate on deadlines. The outpouring of support from fellow developers seemed stronger this time than it did after many past incidents of video-recorded police violence against black people, but she said she still felt a familiar mental and physical exhaustion.

"If we want change, this is the time to make it happen," said Chandler, who runs the recruiting platform Black Tech Pipeline. "It's time to be brutally honest, whether people like it or not."

In a newsletter on Monday that she titled, "Hey Employers: Do Black Lives Matter?" Chandler asked fellow black tech workers what kind of action they wanted their companies to take. Moving from "bandwagon" statements to actions like donations were one priority, along with offering black employees mental health days and explicit acknowledgement of the extra burden after violent events like Floyd's killing.

Longer term, she hopes to win more recognition for black technologists who have made the leap into the field — a turning point that for her came two years ago after she saw her job as a waxer threatened by laser hair-removal technology, then enrolled in a coding bootcamp.

"I was actually losing my job to a machine, so it made sense that I should make that transition," Chandler said. But with her new job in tech, there was a different catch: "I was the only black person."

For the tech industry as a whole, the civil rights crisis gripping the nation is also a political litmus test. Many companies have amassed lobbying clout and campaigned in the past against anti-gay measures and in favor of open immigration policies. In this case, pressure is building on the left to support a range of actions, including restricting surveillance technologies like facial recognition and ending contracts with police and immigration agencies. "Without [tech's] active support, police and ICE simply could not do what they do to our people," tweeted Mijente, a Latinx activist group.

At Google, a decision to post a black ribbon on its website over the weekend after sister company YouTube announced a $1 million donation for social justice causes raised the eyebrows of activists including former technical program manager Bruce Hahne, who quit the company in February over ethical issues including what he called a reluctance to ban white supremacist content. Though he said he's wary of his vantage point as a "naive white guy who was raised in the Midwest," Hahne called it "hypocritical" for the company to sport the black ribbon after recent political calculations including selling Trump YouTube's top Election Day advertising slot.

"I would call this blackwashing," Hahne said. "Google is attempting to blackwash itself with a pocket-change million-dollar donation and putting a little black ribbon banner on its website, while in the meantime YouTube in particular continues to be a hotbed for Nazis."

Google posted the statement, "We stand in support of racial equality and all those who search for it" along with the black ribbon, and CEO Sundar Pichai told employees that the company had set up a new philanthropic giving arm to match contributions to racial justice organizations — up to $10,000 per employee.

Late Sunday, after online backlash from Facebook employees, Zuckerberg said in a public post on the platform that the company would contribute $10 million to groups working on racial justice. "I hope," he said, "that as a country we can come together to understand all of the work that is still ahead and do what it takes to deliver justice."

Elsewhere in Silicon Valley, Tiffany Stevensen spent much of the last week in a wave of emotional internal conversations at Box, where she is chief talent and inclusion officer. Much of the reflection was spurred by an employee group called the Black Excellence Network before Stevenson, who is black, met with other executives to decide on external messaging and pledge a $200,000 donation to organizations selected by its employees.

She doesn't expect that to be the end of the conversation. "There's a permanence to this that's not going to be solved in this week," Stevenson said. "It's not just about a tweet. This work is systemic. It's long term."

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