How to confuse social justice advocates
On Feb. 19 2017, Susan Fowler published an account of the sexism and sexual harassment she experienced while working as an engineer at Uber, two months after leaving for another company. Amongst other things, she described how her complaints of sexual harassment were systematically suppressed by HR, who lied to her and bafflingly refused to track multiple complaints about the same manager. Uber never had a good public image on sexism and gender-issues. And this came just months after Uber was accused of scabbing the New York Taxi Worker Alliance strike at JFK during the #MuslimBan protest. The #DeleteUber hashtag that started in response to their scabbing led to hundreds of thousands of uninstallations of the Uber app. The media scandal Susan Fowler caused only tanked Uber’s reputation further. An external investigative team was hired, led by Obama’s former attorney general, Eric Holder.
Uber decisively leads the market over its closest American competitor Lyft, despite any bad PR caused by Susan Fowler. Uber’s valuation ($68 Billion) as of mid-2017 is nearly an order of magnitude larger than Lyft’s valuation ($7.5 Billion). Lyft only has drivers in 350 U.S. cities, compared to Uber’s international presence in more than 70 countries and 460 cities. “…consumer favorability of Uber has hit a record low, according to Morning Consult Brand Intelligence, a brand survey firm. Using a national sample of close to 40,000 U.S. adults, the firm found that just 40% of the respondents had a favorable impression of Uber…”
Uber has a self-driving car division. Uber is further interested in trying to break into the delivery market currently occupied by other tech companies such as post-mates. Whether Uber, Apple, Google, or Tesla does it first, these companies all have their eyes set on automating trucking. Admittedly, it’s a long-term goal, but if successful, it will send massive unemployment shocks through middle America and further hasten the economic collapse of rural U.S. economies. Robot trucks don’t need a rest-stop service economy.
From early on, Uber has fought massive legal campaigns to reclassify workers, rewrite municipal laws across the country and world, deprive drivers of the right to organize unions, and squirm out of liability for their drivers killing people.
November 2014. In August, protests had erupted in Fergusson, Missouri. The video of Eric Garner circulated. In late November, the non-indictment of Darren Wilson (the cop who executed Michael Brown) would be handed down, followed by a non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo (the cop who murdered Eric Garner). If colorblindness was the dominant American understanding of race, it was rapidly falling to pieces.
Erica Joy Baker came to prominence at the intersection of social-justice and Silicon Valley at this moment when she published a moving account titled The Other Side of Diversity, about her experience up to that point working in the tech (i.e. software) industry. Feminist movement for gender-inclusivity in the industry had been ramping up. Tracy Chou’s push for diversity statistics was starting to force tech companies to release reports. Earlier that year, Shanley Kaine and Amelia Greenhall started Model View Culture, which rapidly developed into a radical and exceptionally inclusive media platform for critiquing the tech industry. Gamergate had just started.
In her article, EricaJoy highlighted how being the lone, token black woman engineer placed the burden of cultural assimilation on her shoulders, rather than on her co-workers. That she was being asked to erase her race, gender, and culture in order to fit in. At one job she was hounded by micro-aggressions from a co-worker. At another she flourished working for another black woman, but ultimately had to quit due to pay inequities and lack of career advancement. In total, she suffered stress and isolation, with physical consequences. Ultimately, she discovered Oakland, a welcoming multi-racial community where she felt she belonged; where she could contribute.
In July 2015, Erica Joy Baker went public with an experiment in pay transparency that she had been working on at Google. She had circulated a shared Google Spreadsheet internally and collected 5% of Google employees’ salaries for all other employees to see. While this activity is protected under United States labor law, Google management pushed back hard. Erica Joy Baker quickly left to work at Slack, where she remained until joining Kickstarter about a month ago.
(In January 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit against Google for refusing to supply pay data in order for them to audit the company on gender pay-equity. Rather than comply, Google has attempted to stall the audit in the courts, claiming that it would cost them $1 Million to compile the requested pay information.)
While it’s highly unusual for this much information to be available about a normal engineer in the tech industry, EricaJoy is regularly consulted by the tech press as a diversity advocate, due to and in reinforcement of her name recognition in social-justice-tech. She uses this prominence to help with efforts like Project Include, which targets startup CEOs as cultural change-makers in their companies. She also volunteers and helps with tech mentorship for youth of color.
Erica Joy Baker is an important and effective advocate for racial and gender justice in the tech industry. My intention in criticizing her comments here is not a petty take-down. However, I strongly believe that refusing to address the contradictions endemic to tech-social-justice circles is hampering the movement.
What place does asking, shaming or beseeching CEOs have in reforming the tech industry? What organizational forms does this movement take? What ideologies does it promote?
Black women have no problem understanding that black men and white women (not to mention other people of color) are not always on their side. This understanding of political contingency is usually summed up in the word intersectionality. Wherever white women conceive of a “universal sisterhood,” there’s a black woman in the background giving them side-eye. According to Kimberle Williams Crenshaw (the woman who coined the term) feminism all too often treats the concerns of wealthy white women as universal concerns of women, and black liberation treats the concerns of black men as universal concerns of black people. The oppressed become oppressors inside their movement.
While intersectionality theoretically incorporates class/economics as a third-axis, Crenshaw (and many others who take up the term) selectively include or exclude economic divisions from consideration as convenient. For instance, the following passage is from Crenshaw’s paper Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Gender, in which she defined the term:
Referring to one of Martin Delaney’s public claims that where he was allowed to enter, the race entered with him, Cooper countered: “Only the Black Woman can say, when and where I enter … then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”
Cooper’s words bring to mind a personal experience involving two Black men with whom I had formed a study group during our first year of law school. One of our group members, a graduate from Harvard College, often told us stories about a prestigious and exclusive men’s club that boasted memberships of several past United States presidents and other influential white males. He was one of its very few Black members. To celebrate completing our first-year exams, our friend invited us to join him at the club for drinks. Anxious to see this fabled place, we approached the large door and grasped the brass door ring to announce our arrival. But our grand entrance was cut short when our friend sheepishly slipped from behind the door and whispered that he had forgotten a very important detail. My companion and I bristled, our training as Black people having taught us to expect yet another barrier to our inclusion; even an informal one-Black-person quota at the establishment was not unimaginable. The tension broke, however, when we learned that we would not be excluded because of our race, but that I would have to go around to the back door because I was a female. I entertained the idea of making a scene to dramatize the fact that my humiliation as a female was no less painful and my exclusion no more excusable than had we all been sent to the back door because we were Black. But, sensing no general assent to this proposition, and also being of the mind that due to our race a scene would in some way jeopardize all of us, I failed to stand my ground. After all, the Club was about to entertain its first Black guests — even though one would have to enter through the back door.
Perhaps this story is not the best example of the Black community’s failure to address problems related to Black women’s intersectionality seriously. The story would be more apt if Black women, and only Black women, had to go around to the back door of the club and if the restriction came from within, and not from the outside of the Black community.
Headline: “Black Woman (Partially) Excluded from Exclusive Men’s Club Alleges Sexism”
The problem with class-impoverished social-justice is first and foremost a strategic problem. Without considering individuals’ structural position within systems of power and money, and the way in which those systems are fundamentally unjust, how can we hope to succeed? There was no need for Crenshaw to visit the men’s club in order to understand it was a sexist institution, or to predict that it would marginalize (i.e. socially exclude) her. It was an “exclusive men’s club.” How can a disproportionately white & asian male industry claim to be a meritocracy without enacting gender and racial superiority in fact, if not also in word?
Why is the goal of the tech-social-justice movement to be admitted to the men’s club, rather than destroying the club altogether? Who believes that a multi-racial, feminist capitalism is more just than a white, patriarchal capitalism? And more to the point, who thinks such a thing is possible or meaningful? As the tech industry expands, most of the people of color, women, and especially black-and-brown women will be workers that the industry exploits—mostly as workers, because there are always more workers than managers or owners.
Like most companies, Uber’s investors are overwhelmingly white and male. However, there are exceptions, like Jay-Z, who pushed black capitalism hard on his latest record; or Kapor Capital, which despite its namesake’s white maleness operates a notable and diverse social-justice capital investment arm based out of Oakland. Ariana Huffington, who is heavily invested in the exploitation of her media workers, is a prominent board member at Uber, leading reforms.
These not-white-men have an interest in keeping the men’s club that is Uber up and running. You could say they’re invested in the company’s success. And being capitalists, for no other reason than being able to sleep at night, they need to view a just capitalism as possible and desirable; a more conscious and considerate capitalism.
Taxi Cab drivers are disproportionately non-white and less educated than Uber drivers. Taxi cab drivers are also disproportionately black compared to the general population. In New York City specifically, the cab drivers are overwhelmingly non-white immigrants. When Uber kills cab companies, who are they hurting? When Uber exploits its drivers, who are they exploiting? And what of the engineers?
uber- comb. form
denoting an outstanding or supreme example of a particular kind of person or thing: an uberbabe | the uberregulator.
ORIGIN German über ‘over,’ after Übermensch.
In 2015, Uber announced that they were expanding their corporate operations into downtown Oakland, with office space for some 2,500 workers. This expansion would single-handedly increase the number of tech workers in Oakland by 50% at that time. In response, a coalition of Oakland community organizations—including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights—got Uber to promise to initially move in only a few hundred workers. But they have very little way to keep Uber from expanding.
The consequences for the multi-racial community of Oakland that Erica Joy Baker loves could be disastrous. Already, the tech boom of the last decade has caused massive upheaval and displacement of poorer residents in the Bay Area, especially the black communities of Oakland, which have started being pushed out to farther and farther towns connected into the economic hub of San Francisco and Oakland by BART, or perhaps by a car.
As the younger, whiter, upper classes of America migrate back into the city cores, poorer Americans are pushed out into the suburbs. Often having to work 2 or 3 jobs, these workers are becoming more dependent on automobiles to survive, and automobiles are expensive. Uber needs more drivers, and these poor Americans need both cars and jobs. So in 2015 Uber launched its own sub-prime auto-loan company Xchange Leasing (after piloting the model in partnership with other companies) to loan money to poor drivers in order to buy a car. The drivers are thus pushed into a form of indentured servitude, where they are forced to drive for Uber in order to keep the cars they need to get to their other jobs and make enough money to pay the bills.
The financial press has started warning that there is a bubble forming in subprime auto-loan debt, although (at $1.2 trillion of debt) much smaller than the housing bubble that rippled through the global financial markets in 2008. As with the housing bubble the people who stand to lose the most immediately are the poor, disproportionately non-white people whose cars will be repossessed if and when the bubble pops.
Bozoma Saint John joined Apple when Apple acquired “Beats by Dre,” becoming the head of global consumer marketing for iTunes. And just recently Boz was hired away by Uber to become their Chief Brand Officer. At Uber, “She has been given the task of turning Uber into a brand that people love as much as Apple.”
Erica Joy Baker is asking us all to not burden Boz with the expectation that she will be an advocate for black women, or women, or black people within Uber. “With the ‘Diversity & Inclusion’ label, people will see her as the person to talk to about their experiences, taking away from her *actual* job.”
What is Boz’s job again? To create a positive brand image for Uber. “I’m a change agent. I enjoy telling stories of brands at moments in time that [they] are going to change culture…” Putting the poor into indentured servitude, rampant disregard for the laws, a work culture so toxic that women are regularly harassed and engineers have committed suicide, gentrification of the black community in Oakland. Boz’s job is to make sure that when you think “Uber” you don’t think fucking evil incarnated in a black car with a name lifted from Friedrich Nietzsche, rolling in to destroy your life.
I sincerely hope that Boz fails miserably at her job. That she listens to the grievances of all the black men, women of color, and white women at Uber. That she takes all those grievances and blows up a fucking marketing meltdown in Uber’s face that kills the goddamn company never to rise again.
But that’s not what Boz is gonna do, cause she’s in the C-suite. She’s an executive. Her job is to make you think that Uber is hip. Uber is progressive. She was hired for this job, because the main threat posed by the tech-social-justice movement to Uber’s bottom line is to tarnish its brand. So hire a black woman to manage the brand and all those threats will be dulled. Boz is being hired for this job so that you have trouble understanding that just like every other member of Uber’s C-suite, she’s an evil capitalist dedicated to exploiting and oppressing the working class, especially black women.
Tech workers need a union. Women working in tech especially need a union to defend their rights on the job to be free of harassment, and to be paid equally. The National Women’s Law Center provides statistics showing that unionization cuts the gender-pay-gap in half. Workers of color in tech need a union to defend them from exploitation and racism, to cut the pay gap, and to defend historically black and brown communities from exploitation and displacement in the Bay Area.
The movement for social justice in the tech industry has already lost too many years to building organizations dedicated to “teaching CEOs,” to asking nicely, to creating a cottage industry of diversity & inclusion consultants who lack the power to force change, and anyway are being paid by the bosses and not the workers who they should be representing. What if for every diversity & inclusion professional working in the tech industry today, there was a labor organizer advocating for workers against the bosses instead?
Cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and security guards in the tech industry, who are overwhelmingly men and women of color, know that bosses won’t take them seriously unless they unionize. Unionized engineers have the power to stand in solidarity with all their company’s workers, and fight the exploitative arrangements of subcontracting.
If you want to be treated equally, join a union that fights for a clear and equal system of pay, and that fights to address your grievances. If you want to fight for social justice in the tech industry, unite. The only thing that ever made the bosses change has been the power of the workers united.
Tech workers, especially engineers and the system admins are critical to keeping the global supply chain, commerce, and information systems up and running. What would happen if everyone at your company refused to go on call? What threat would that pose to your company’s bottom line? To the concerted forces of global capital?
More modestly, what if workers at Google restart Erica Joy Baker’s spreadsheet and make a deliberate effort to get the majority of the employees to enter the information? And then what will happen if they send that data to the Department of Labor, or simply threaten to? What relationships would workers at Google build with each other in the process?
What if the women working in the tech industry create a democratically managed funding pool to pursue cases of harassment? What could that kind of an organization do?
Etsy was long considered one of the leading technology companies in terms of being socially conscious and treating their employees well. They’re a “public benefit corporation” but they’re also publicly traded. In early May, Etsy’s CEO Chad Dickerson stepped down and 80 workers were laid off (8% of its workforce). In late June, another 140 workers (15% of the workforce) were laid off. Etsy was brought down by “activist investors,” rapacious capitalists looking for a way to make a quick buck by eliminating inefficiencies.
Don’t stop at a union. Ultimately if you don’t demand and get democratic control of your workplace, the capitalists will take it from you. It doesn’t matter how nice, and socially conscious your boss is. When push comes to shove, money and investors will take precedence. Unite or perish.