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Facebook, Tech Diversity, and the Privilege that Blinds

If you really want to know what people think about diversity and inclusion, just read the comments section of any related Internet article. This was definitely the case when news broke of Mark Luckie’s post that Facebook (like just about every company in Silicon Valley) has a serious diversity problem. To be clear, this isn’t surprising to anyone, least of those Black and Latinx computer scientists. What continue to be surprising though are the comments in response to various news articles reporting it, which included the following paraphrased sentiments:

· “I’m a woman, and it’s not biased when men are chosen over me. It simply makes me work harder.”

· “You can’t force dropouts who have kids out of wedlock at young ages, lengthy criminal records, and no respect for authority to get ahead in life or cry foul when they don’t.”

These were some of the milder comments. A common (and factually ignorant) sentiment centered on “No one asks the NBA or NFL to be more diverse. We shouldn’t ask tech companies to just accept people based on race.” One comment included, “We can’t help if Black athletes are better than others in sports, so they can’t be upset that others are better than them in tech.”

This comment vexed me for a number of reasons. First, the absence of facts yet inclusion of racist stereotypes reads like propaganda from a Reconstruction-era time capsule. Second, and more importantly, it demonstrates the privilege that some in this country (specifically non-people of color) continue to experience, yet deny exists.

That privilege allows them to forget (or remain oblivious to) the fact that diversity in these same leagues required intentional efforts, which were met with more criticism, backlash, and threats to personal safety than present-day tech diversity efforts.

Major League Baseball (MLB), America’s pastime, was founded in 1869. Jackie Robinson didn’t integrate the sport until 1947. When deciding to integrate the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey stated repeatedly that the “right player” was needed to break the color barrier, one who would maintain his composure when faced with the worst forms of racism from fans, players, and owners alike.

The National Football League (NFL) was founded in 1920. While only a handful of Black players (including Paul Robeson) existed in the league at its inception, Blacks were secretly banned beginning in 1933. Some owners argued that Black players weren’t as good as their White counterparts, thus justifying their limited inclusion and eventual exclusion. Sound familiar?

In 1946, the Cleveland Rams signed Kenny Washington, a two-sport athlete from UCLA (and Jackie Robinson’s former baseball teammate), ushering in the reintegration of the NFL.

When originally created in 1891, basketball was an all-White game. Like the MLB and NFL, the National Basketball Association (NBA) did not allow Black players when it was founded in 1946. They were restricted to the Black Fives (a league of all-Black teams) from 1904 to 1950, when Earl Lloyd debuted with the Washington Capitols, thereby integrating the league. Like Washington and Robinson, Lloyd has discussed the racism he experienced as “the first” and later “one of the few.”

All three of these sports are now apparently so diverse that those with the privilege of not thinking about race don’t care to remember or know there was once a time when diversity was not only the furthest from the truth, but also a completely uphill and unwelcomed battle.

So what does all of this have to do with diversity in tech? The similarities should be glaring at this point. The lack of integration of the MLB, NBA, and NFL was not due to white players having innate talent over Black counterparts. History has shown that competitions between the Negro League and MLB All Stars took place, though they were not allowed to count. In 1948, the Harlem Globetrotters (who were birthed from the Black Fives) beat the Minneapolis Lakers. It was never a matter of ability; it was a matter of opportunity.

The same applies now in tech. Representation of African-Americans and Latinx in not only tech companies, but also K-16 computer science courses and majors is still extremely low. The 2017 Taulbee Survey reported that less than 4% and 8% of all bachelor’s degrees in computing were awarded to African-Americans and Latinx, respectively. While K-12 standards development has increased following the introduction of the K12 Computer Science Framework, there is still much work needed to ensure that every student has access to computer science courses that afford them the opportunities that some students have the privilege of since birth.

However, to effect true diversity and inclusion in tech, it will require a few people in positions of power to say “no more” and commit to doing the right thing at all costs. These are the individuals who effectively have nothing to lose but everything to gain. This is how the MLB, NFL, and NBA became as diverse as they are today. Thanks to everyone who indirectly brought this to our attention. It serves as a perfect example of the change that is necessary and the ultimate return on investment that is possible.

Dr. Nicki Washington

Written by

Computer science Ph.D., professor, and author of “Unapologetically Dope.” Advocate of HBCUs, diversity, equity, and inclusion in tech.

Dr. Nicki Washington

Written by

Computer science Ph.D., professor, and author of “Unapologetically Dope.” Advocate of HBCUs, diversity, equity, and inclusion in tech.

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