Ignoring Black Experiences in Favor of Equality

Welcome to Part 2 of what could potentially be a never ending series on race in America as observed through the Tech industry. In Part 1 I broke down statistics and research to show that qualifications are not preventing Black people from joining the tech industry, but racial discrimination is. In Part 2 I want to explain the differences between equity and equality and connect how the tech industry can combat these inequalities, hoping they can use this knowledge to better approach diversity and inclusion initiatives and offer Black candidates fair pay and benefits. Throughout this entire series, I am looking to bring attention to past events and academic discourse in relation to the current environments of Silicon Valley’s tech industry to show how racial discrimination pervades hiring practices and internal culture, keeping Black people out.

In 2016, Michelle, a 28-year-old Black woman, applied for her next job in tech. She is responsible for every bill she accrues and has been since she could remember. After paying rent, student loans, phone, utilities, recurring medical bills, groceries, and transportation, she’s out $4800/month. Having 4 years of direct experience and 10 years of work experience in total, she applies for a management role seeking entry and mid-level applicants and gets an offer to join TechCompanyX.

Brittany, a 23-year-old White woman also applying for the management role, has 1 year of general work experience. She is a single woman, pays no rent because her parents have the means to take care of it for her, has no recurring medical bills or conditions, and graduated college without debt because her family could pay for it. Other than transportation around the city, food, and personal entertainment, Brittany has no recurring bills or debt.

When both offers come through, Michelle and Brittany are each presented with the same salary of $60K. The company founders believe everyone should be given the same opportunity to succeed and get ahead, and they don’t want to contribute to inequality, so they offer everyone equal salaries for equal work. Based on their calculations, the founders decided that $60K is enough to live in the Bay and have a good life.

While $60K is great for Brittany, who has no financial responsibilities and 1 year of experience, it’s less than what Michelle is currently making by $25K. If Michelle were to accept that salary, she would not have enough money to pay her bills, let alone save money or pay down her debts. Not wanting to be another Black person trapped in a cycle of poverty, Michelle negotiated, only to find the founders unreceptive to her claims, restating their views on equality, and finishing with, “This is a fair offer,” giving her 24 hours to accept.

In a 2014 Pew Research Study, on average, White American families have around $142,000 in savings and assets, minus debt, while Black families’ have only $11,000. The stark differences in wealth and savings, while complicated and intertwined with a variety of intersecting contributing factors, can be explained, broken-down, and understood by examining the economic and social outcomes of capitalism and racism, starting with slavery. Because of the intergenerational effects of slavery, Jim Crow America, and Mass Incarceration, Black Americans have historically been disadvantaged when it comes to safe, well-paying employment opportunities, limiting their chance of economic mobility. In the Slave Era, Blacks did not earn payment for work, and upon freedom, Blacks were denied entry to white companies and denied entry to higher paying and white collar jobs, subjecting to them to menial labor or dangerous working conditions rejected by Whites. A century and a half later, Black Workers are still discriminated against despite having the sought-after experience and degrees. Because of this persisting inequity, the wealth gap between White and Black Americans is the worst it’s been since the 1980s, with White families carrying 13 times the wealth of the average Black family.

Why am I telling this story? Because Michelle’s scenario above is based on true experiences and only the names have been changed, because this is not the only instance of pay inequality in the Tech industry, and because Silicon Valley has some confusion about achieving equality. By misunderstanding what equality means and how to get there, the tech leaders in this scenario actually lowered Michelle’s total income and contributed to a cycle that traps Black folk in debt and poverty, stifling future endeavors. With information available about the Black-White Wealth gap, the debt Black families carry, and the inequalities we face every day, how does the same salary work for everyone and what were the calculations based on? My guess says the founder’s personal life and experience, not those applying, and certainly not Black Americans. The questions that needed to be asked never were because no one thought to think of the individual in favor of treating everyone equally. This is a problem.

Equality vs. Equity

It’s understandable why everyday Americans cling to this belief in equality versus an understanding of how it’s achieved. Fundamental to American democracy is the idealized notion of equal access which is often demonstrated by giving everyone the same exact thing or claiming to. Despite the dreams of our founding fathers and the laws put in effect to ensure such equality exists, exclusion, social stratification between the advantaged and disadvantaged, and a series of never-ending racial codes have built a splintered society where everyone, unfortunately, does not have the same level of access available to them and not everyone starts at the same place.

Referring back to the example above, Michelle is still $75K in debt from school and car loans while Brittany is starting with nothing weighing her down. It’s not Michelle’s fault her family didn’t have money, and it’s not Brittany’s fault that hers did. But for those who are excluded or denied entry to societal institutions because a lack of means, as Black Americans historically have been, they then must work to overcome the obstacles to access in order to maintain fairness, often accruing debt while doing so. To overcome the inequality many Americans face today, initiatives need to focus on equity and addressing historic injustices, not just equality. What am I talking about? Take a look at the two scenes in the image below. One panel depicts ‘Equality’, and one depicts ‘Equity’.

(Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire)

On the panel on the left, it’s assumed that by giving everyone the same exact thing, everyone will benefit in the same exact way. In this panel, and like the $60K offer, everyone is being treated equally. Unfortunately, in the same panel, not everyone is benefitting equally. While 2/3 of the individuals can now see the game with the equal support provided, the shortest one still cannot. Similar to Michelle’s job offer scenario and the situations of so many other African Americans, the shortest is suffering from circumstances handed to them. While the tech founders seemed to have good intentions with wanting to pay everyone equally, they never stopped to consider if that was 1. Fair and 2. A benefit to all. It’s important to recognize this because giving everyone the same thing only works if everyone starts from the same place. We can see very clearly, in the image above, various height differences in the individuals, so why would the same ‘step up’ help all three equally?

On the right panel (pun intended), everyone is given individual support to ensure each person has equal access to the game because it is very obvious that not everyone is going to benefit from the same support. The person in blue is very tall and can see the game just fine. And while they do not receive support, they also do not lose out on anything. I want to make this clarification because it’s important to recognize that supporting individuals’ needs does not hurt others currently benefitting or take away from their resources. The tall person in the blue can still see the game, which is what’s at stake.

Continuing on with the panel, the person in red needs a little boost to see the game, so giving them one step is perfect. No need to waste resources on those who don’t need it! Lastly, the third person needs the most help, as they’re short, and despite all of their best efforts in life, the genetic lottery has ensured they will never be tall enough to see over this fence. That doesn’t mean short people should give up trying to see events or adopt permanent stilts, it just means events need to offer support for those of lower heights to provide equal viewing access.

The same goes for all industries looking to provide employment opportunity to all, especially tech, as the money to make change is there. If the tech sector is looking to build fair and equitable workplaces, which is what a majority of tech CEOs claim, then these leaders need to adopt remedies to combat the historic injustices that have made equal access for Blacks so elusive. Step one in creating equitable access to tech opportunities for Black people, who may not start at the same financial starting point as their White peers, is committing resources and efforts to ensure all candidates enter on a level playing field. While many have jumped on the bootcamp and tech education train to address one issue, a lot of disbelief around racial discrimination still exists. In his 2017 farewell address, President Obama said it best:

“For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised. ”

Racial injustice and systemic racism is a problem in America, a problem Blacks have always faced and talked about, and a problem White Americans need to finally admit. Discrimination affects every facet of Black lives, just take a look!

my brain on paper

The continuation of this problem needs to be addressed in order to actualize an equitable society. So what intergenerational inequality does your company want to focus on? The image above, while not comprehensive, offers a modicum of issues. Understanding even one of these issues and how it’s connected to your current culture and environment, while challenging, will present leaders with a new range of insights previously inaccessible to them, opening opportunities for great empathy and change. So pick one, any one, and commit to improving the world. I’ll be back next time with more insights from the 1%*.

*1%: As in, the 1% of black people in the tech industry. #rarefind

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