Words Are Mercurial

Once again, from the top

Jack Aponte wrote a wonderful short post about the limits and slipperiness of “diversity” and “inclusion” as goals for gender & racial justice movements in tech. They suggested “equity” and “justice” as less co-optable replacements.

I agree about the co-option of “D&I” language as well as the goals of broadening scope and linking struggles. But I disagree with the focus on the power of words here. I expect equity and justice are equally co-optable, as are any choice of words.

As an alternative framing, I want to suggest looking at power structures: specifically economic, political, and organizational, though not exclusive of cultural and psychological dimensions. Rather than being infinitely mutable and devoid of meaning, I believe liberalism more clearly reveals itself via costly and difficult to alter decisions along these axes.

I’ll be unkind, and use Project Include (about one year old) as the most prominent example of a liberal D&I movement/initiative/organization active in tech right now. While this means criticizing Project Include, a common observation about liberal projects applies: they’re often “on our side,” doing good things, and succeeding in their goals.

Project Include can be understood as liberal not because of D&I language, but because of their chosen strategy and org structure. For instance, in a recent Medium post Ellen Pao describes Project Include’s two implementation principles as “Build D&I into culture from day one, and across a whole company,” and “Change has to come from the CEO, leading from the top.” The founders of Project Include are venture capitalists/investors, CEOs/execs, D&I consultants, and a few lead engineers, most of whom are media stars. They are all(?) women, most of color. Project Include has further structured itself as a philanthropic non-profit institution mimicking a corporate structure. They are representative of what I’ve previously called intersectional capital.

Project Include is a top-down class project to improve the tech culture by focusing on startup founders as cultural change agents. These founders predictably tend to slant white & male, and so Project Include will tend to position themselves as getting these white boys to “do better.” They will also focus on advancing women, especially of color, in the upper echelons of the tech industry. They do not have initiatives targeted at mass culture change targeting (white) male workers or advancing women/PoC workers. That change will trickle down.

The dominant aspect of Project Include’s website is a long list of suggestions targeted at a variety of incremental institutional reforms. I find this highly reminiscent of the most liberal and wonkish branch of Black Lives Matter related movements: Campaign Zero. That is an organization largely without a mass base, with high-profile connections/meetings, and with a long list of suggested reforms. This is also reminiscent of the COPS review and Blue Ribbon Panel’s review of SFPD, each of which generated hundreds of suggested incremental reforms to the department.

Jack’s original example was not this liberalism, but a bad liberalism.

Diversity becomes about “diversity of thought,” a phrase used to rail against communities that make it clear that discriminatory and oppressive words, beliefs and actions are not welcome. Inclusion becomes about ensuring that white supremacists, sexual harassers, active misogynists, transphobes and other similar vectors of oppression are never excluded from the community, no matter how many marginalized people they drive away in the process.

Add a perverted invocation of “free speech” and you can recognize this picture.

What mutations will justice and equity inevitably make?

Both words function as approximately synonyms of fairness, with an implication of corrective fairness. Justice & Equity are more legal than political words. “It’s not fair.” “Well, we gotta be fair to all parties.” Equity can be corrective and it can be an “impartial” and equitable arbitrator. Justice can be righteous, and it can be the righteous fury of a patriarchal Judeo-Christian god.

Maybe we need Justice & Equity (J&E) departments at companies. For instance, Facebook could place their new campus housing division under J&E to help monitor and prevent gentrification in East Palo Alto by training their workers to be more culturally sensitive. Likewise, as Uber progresses through their current D&I makeover, why not look ahead to J&E by starting anti-gentrification initiatives in Oakland. They plan to move in thousands new professionals. Maybe Uber can sponsor Sunday carpools to bring displaced families back in for church.

As most people in tech know, (thanks to the tireless work of organizations like YIMBY) the leading cause of racist gentrification is overly restrictive zoning codes that lead to overly restricted supply. By recognizing the explicitly political nature of this issue, tech companies can accept their obligation to lobby Oakland for more dense high rise housing in West Oakland. Ultimately Uber will need to take a more active ($) role in Oakland mayoral races, for the good of the community.

These are just a couple of example initiatives. However, we really need a more extensive and comprehensive list of suggestions to truly reach a just & equitable future. No-one said change would be easy. But these initiatives can do it, one CEO at a time.