Impact Labs
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Impact Labs

Eliminating Racism in Tech

In memory of George Floyd: a call to action

Like so many of you, we on the Impact Labs team have been gravely disturbed by the most recent display of police brutality in the painfully long history of violence against people of color. The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests for racial justice have reminded us all of the stark inequities experienced by millions of black and brown Americans; those inequities exist nearly everywhere, with the tech world being no exception.

As many individuals grapple with their own internalized racism and seek to reduce their prejudices — a process that is continual and never-ending — it can be helpful to turn to the communities and organizations around us and reflect on the ways in which we can lessen the racist thoughts and behaviors in our midst.

It is difficult to fathom the depth and breadth of discrimination in the tech industry. Between overt hostility, microaggressions, prejudiced hiring practices, and more, it can be hard to wrap our heads around the scope of the problem we’re trying to address.

While many scholars can provide statistics and cite the research that highlights these racially charged inequities, such reports tend to make the problem seem abstract and nebulous. We should acknowledge the lived experiences of people affected by a racist technology sector and seek to understand their struggles.

Let’s not forget that biased machine learning recidivism algorithms are being used in courts across the country that disproportionately affect black prisoners.

Let’s not forget that white employees outnumber people of color by 8 to 1 in the tech industry.

Let’s not forget how a facial recognition software once classified a black man as a gorilla.

For more manifestations of racism in tech, read Algorithms of Oppression, by Safiya Umoja Noble.

Clearly, the tech industry has a big problem.

Many engineers are thankfully already aware of the racism that permeates the tech sector, and they actively work to make the industry more antiracist.

We often wonder why it is that people who attend our events and apply for our programs don’t reflect the population of engineers and computer scientists writ large (the 2020 cohort of 46 Impact Fellows had only 2 white men). We hypothesize that those who have been systemically disenfranchised within the tech community (e.g. people of color, women, people who are LGBTQIA+, etc.) are compelled by the mission of our organization: to use technology for social good. Is it surprising that those who have faced discrimination and marginalization would wish to dedicate their time and attention to ameliorating that discrimination? If you have been affected by racism, misogyny, or any other form of bigoted behavior in the tech industry, wouldn’t you feel even more compelled to use your skills to ensure that others don’t experience the same behavior?

It is these feelings that motivate the amazing organizations that are actively seeking to unstitch the fabric of discrimination that quilts the tech industry, such as Black Girls Code, Code Cooperative, Out in Tech, The Violet Society, Rewriting the Code, and so many more.

It is vital to support these initiatives however we can. If we hope to create a more inclusive environment in which all members feel valued and loved, we owe it to ourselves and to each other to examine the ways in which we can be allies to the movement for diversity in technology and racial justice in our broader society.

During these unprecedented times of social isolation, when we feel paralyzed and fearful to even leave our homes, it’s more important than ever to recognize the privileges we have enjoyed and the opportunities we are afforded as members of the tech community. We as engineers hold a distinctive advantage in the ways we can affect the world. Most of us, if not all of us, are able to comfortably work from home, and while some of us have lost our jobs and endured terrible hardships as a result of the pandemic, our skills as technologists generally enable us to weather the plague more easily than those who don’t have those skills.

True, we can’t leave our homes, but as people who are intimately familiar with the 1s and 0s that form the architecture of cyberspace, we can create new structures and strengthen existing ones that empower and uplift.

There are so many organizations to volunteer for in this time of crisis if we widen our considerations. Consider the local activists who need a smarter tech stack to organize protests more effectively. Consider the grassroots event organizers who need help setting up their websites. Consider reaching out to NGOs in your area that are actively working to educate police officers. Consider starting a company that makes police bodycams practical and efficient.

Perhaps more importantly, we as engineers typically command much higher salaries on average than many of our peers in other professions. With capital comes agency, and with agency comes obligation. If you are able to reasonably spare $5, $50, $500, or 5% of your income without even feeling the money’s absence, there is a strong moral argument to be made for donating a portion of your wealth. Importantly, we ought to donate effectively to organizations with data that can back up their claims: here is a list of organizations compiled by Chloe Cockburn of the Open Philanthropy Project that we can strongly recommend.

If nothing else, you can take this time of forced isolation as an opportunity for introspection and education. Examine your own workplace and talk to your teammates and HR reps about diversity and inclusion initiatives. Examine the ways in which you yourself can actively work to become antiracist. Read, read, and read some more about the experiences of black and brown authors, artists, engineers, and activists who have shaped our world. Here is a great resource, compiled XingJian Li, that can help readers navigate unfamiliar concepts.

Now is the time for action: volunteer, get involved, donate, educate yourself, and most importantly, raise these conversations with other people.

No amount of time spent volunteering or amount of money donated as an individual will dismantle the systems of oppression that perpetuate the inequities around us. The work of ending racism in our days is an endeavor that must be done collectively, and we can only succeed when we work together. Thankfully, we’re no stranger to that concept.

Engineers dedicate their lives to the idea that problems are solvable. Yes, those problems may seem intractable and insurmountable, but we know that with patience, resolve, and teamwork, almost any challenge can be overcome.

It is time to continue the hard work of building a world without racism and brutality.

We simply must.

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