Editor’s corner—In search of a woke tech response to George Floyd

Reaction to George Floyd's tragic death has resonated around the globe, but what meaningful change will come of it? (Getty Images)

There’s skepticism in the air since so many white protestors and companies dominated by white men have expressed outrage over the death of George Floyd.

One skeptic, Stacey Patton, in the Washington Post expressed it well: “While there is a long history of white participation in black freedom struggles, efforts to achieve substantive interracial solidarity are still plagued today by white activists centering themselves and levering movements for their own purposes.”

So how do we sustain something meaningful beyond Floyd’s tragic death?  One approach is to recognize white privilege, which is especially pronounced in the tech industry.

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To be frank, the tech industry sucks at attracting blacks and other minorities, including women, into its ranks, much less its boardrooms.  Go to any trade show and the crowds are 95% white and male, with women mostly relegated to running the event and the marketing. (Almost all the members of the trade press are white males as well.) You meet more African-Americans at a typical U.S. trade show who are driving the shuttle buses and cabs or opening the doors and cleaning the bathrooms than you are likely to meet, much less converse with, in a booth or at a lecture.

A young black person, even one with a master’s degree in engineering, might easily be excused for thinking, “Why would I want to be part of that crowd?”

Educators talk all the time about how important it is to interest young girls and minorities in math and science to increase their focus on engineering careers.  Maybe one step toward meaningful change in light of George Floyd’s death would be to boost investments in STEM with creative educators working at the pre-school level, not just the elementary grades, with rich involvement with parents.

The action needed for social justice needs to come from government, but our national leaders are so divided and inept that the job is going to have to fall to some more enlightened minds, maybe someone like Apple’s Tim Cook or other visionaries in the private sector.

Could industry find a way to create a stock index of companies that consistently hire an above-average number of minorities or promote them to high ranks or place them on their boards? It wouldn’t be that different from an index that allows investors to trade on green companies that preserve water and clean air, while also looking after the bottom line. (To that end, Forbes ranks America’s best employers for diversity, and enterprise software maker SAP topped this year’s list.

At the smaller end of the business scale, many white employers seemingly do care about racial injustice and boosting racial diversity. The challenge comes with turning talk into action, as Tobias Dengel, CEO of app designer WillowTree, told FierceElectronics.  The tech company, seated in liberal Charlottesville, Va., engaged in a “much more open discussion of racism” following the August 2017 Unite the Right rally that resulted in mayhem and death.

In a more dramatic and recent response, George Floyd’s death and massive international protest marches have preceded Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s order to remove a massive statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a prominent location in Richmond, Virginia.  

Even as some strong symbols of racism are taken down, there are still nagging questions about how to make institutional changes.  Could we use more affordable broadband in poor neighborhoods?  Could governments and the private sector find funds to provide more computers and training for urban minorities and people living in native territories?  Would it help if even 0.1% of the bottom line got converted to boosting minority internships and outreach to STEM students in urban high schools? How much corporate self-interest in actual dollars has to be converted to “other-interest” to make a difference?

Further, what change of heart will it take for white people to recognize their inherited privilege?  Or do white people mostly ignore privilege? “White Fragility” author Robin DiAngelo said Friday on CBS This Morning that white folk ignore white privilege because “it serves us not to see it… We are told that we deserve it and that we earned it and we take great umbrage when that is challenged.”

In recent years, an industry has cropped up around helping people recognize white privilege.  One approach called White Ally Toolkit offers a workshop to help “anti-racism allies do their part in the fight against racism by empowering and equipping them with best practice communications skills based in listening, storytelling and compassion.”  A North Carolina-based organizer of that effort, Dr. David Campt,  has been offering Twitter insights on the recent protests, but the starting point of his approach is active listening to people who are grieving. I attended one of his workshops and I can imagine he might say in these days, “Please listen when somebody says, ‘I can’t breathe.’”

How far apart is our nation on matters of racial justice? Please permit this glimpse from the past:

In 1968, in the days after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, a teacher in my junior high classroom asked us to discuss riots that had broken out in Kansas City, Missouri.  I spoke up and said my family regularly attended a church in a neighborhood at the center of the riots. I described being proud to know a few black people who lived there and had come to our church to worship. I said I was worried about their safety. My comment wasn’t that special except my school was all-white in an all-white working-class suburb.

After school that day, I started walking home and was surrounded by 10 or so students from my class and others.  One boy started chanting a taunt picked up by the others: “N-----lover! N-----lover!”

In quick response, I broke through the ring and ran off toward home, yelling, “You don’t get it! You are all idiots!” I left town for college later on, and I never moved back. 

It was a tiny, tiny incident in the grand scheme of all the racial injustice in the world.  In retrospect, it reminded me again in recent days how far apart some people can be regarding matters of hate. And, once again, it made me wonder if grievous wrongs can be changed in America.

Maybe now, Mr. Floyd, there is a way forward.

Matt Hamblen is editor of FierceElectronics. His views are his own.

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