An article published in The Guardian in 2016 explored how tech companies (particularly but not exclusively social media companies) were exploiting the Black Lives Matter movement. These companies would put out a statement or, worse, promote a new product or service, in the name of supporting BLM, but without making any changes to company policy or committing to working towards societal change.
Recent studies have found that about eight to ten percent of full-time workers in science and engineering fields were Black Americans, but the numbers tend to be even lower at highly visible social media companies. Google’s 2020 Diversity Report states that less than six percent of the people hired identified as Black, while over ninety percent identified as White or Asian. At Twitter, six percent of workers are Black, and at Facebook, that number drops to only four percent. (It’s worth noting that all of these companies also have low diversity in terms of gender, especially in their technical divisions).
Beyond their hiring practices, nearly all social media companies have been criticized for a lack of regulation of what gets posted, and for allowing posts (ranging from casually racist to blatantly white supremacist) that violate user guidelines to remain on their platforms and foster communities based on racist ideologies.
Now, in 2020, we are seeing another wave of unrest and protests as part of the BLM movement, and the same cycle of platitudes without action from tech companies is beginning again. Consistently, CEOs of social media companies have posted statements about their supportfor the Black Lives Matter movement and committed to donating money to charities and organizations working to bring justice to minority communities. Nonetheless, these companies have not acknowledged their own participation in systemic racism or their failure to hire diversely.
One article has dubbed this practice “Black power-washing,” akin to the pinkwashing (the practice of revamping marketing and branding to be LGBTQ+ friendly and forward in order to be perceived as progressive and increase revenue) that tends to occur during Pride each year. Companies are changing their profile pictures and releasing new advertisements, but what change are they actually making? What are they doing to show Americans that they actually stand for what they’re saying? Without first doing the work to actually make a company anti-racist (or at least not discriminatory), these statements feel like diversions to keep scrutiny away from what’s actually going on and to placate their consumers.
If these companies are claiming to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement, the very least they can do is demonstrate that support in the diversity of their employees and in their company policies. It’s easy, as engineers and scientists, to fall into the idea that our jobs are impersonal and race-blind, regardless of the instances that have shown this idea to be false(the first that comes to mind is facial recognition software that is more accurate for White faces compared to minorities). We have to take accountability for our industry and ask ourselves: what can we do to improve the situation? What steps should be taken to increase diversity — not just in the workforce, but in education? How can we make sure that we, as individuals, are contributing to progress?