Technology industry is more racially unjust than you may think, panelists say

Aug. 21, 2020, 2:39 p.m.

Panelists at the Advocating for Racial Equity in Tech panel recently spoke on the various ways the technology industry perpetuates racial inequities, from the job application process to the gentrification of the communities in which these companies are based. On Aug. 6, student moderators, Dina Safreno ’20 and Priya Chatwani ’20, fielded questions for four guest speakers who work in the technology industry. 

Eni Asiembo ’18, a former SpaceX engineer, provided insight into how Stanford’s computer science department’s culture is connected to the larger racial injustices of the technology industry, given his experience as a former student. He explained that the department, and Stanford, can act as a bubble. 

He reflected on his experiences at Stanford as a dual reality filled with impressive faculty and a strong disconnect between Stanford life and real world problems. The disconnect came largely from the minimal amounts of discussion about technology’s negative impacts, which he believes “is no way to learn at all.”

“It’s so easy to get away from what’s really happening, “ Asebiomo said. “Whether that’s how the technology that you are building or working on affects real people or whether or not the solutions that you are proposing… will actually help people at all.” 

In response to these criticisms, professor Mehran Sahami ’92 M.S. ’93 Ph.D. ’99 said that “the CS department is committed to continuing to engage in the ethical and social implications of computing with our students at a variety of levels. This is an area of on-going and expanding work.” 

Panelists also spoke on the larger missteps of the technology industry, such as gentrification. Technology companies are infamous for gentrifying the areas in which they are based, and displacing local communities. Maurice Wilkins from Fastly, a cloud computing service provider, explained that companies should provide resources for local communities. 

“Tech companies move to a bunch of cities that had living and thriving [communities] well before they entered the doors and have now displaced people and don’t necessarily create space for the folks who [have] been living there to be productive in these tech spaces,” he said. 

Wilkins feels that companies must proactively support communities they may displace. He said that companies can invest in housing and reimagine the job application processes so that people from a wider range of backgrounds can be hired. He emphasized that providing donations to local nonprofits is not enough.

Brandon Anderson, founder and CEO of nonprofit, further discussed how systemic issues of generational wealth have helped generate the inequity that make gentrification possible. Discrimination against people of color has led to the racial wealth gaps that make these communities vulnerable.  

“[As a] result of institutional racism, slavery, the death of black people and the revenue by which those very things increase the possibility for tech companies to move into the community and set up shop” he said. 

In addition, panelists criticized technology companies for a lack of diversity. Wilkins said the job application process is part of the problem. Wilkins explained how many companies fall into “pattern matching” where people with similar educational backgrounds or work experiences are more often seen as someone who can fit a job description, which constrains improving diversity.

“If we are only imagining the way in which we recruit people in that [patterned] vein, Black people will always remain at less than 3% in technical roles,” Wilkins said.

When people of color are hired by technology companies, they are often employed in lower-wage positions. Jason Prado, Stanford ’08, an engineer at Facebook, and member of the Tech Workers Coalition, spoke on how many people of color in the technology industry are wage workers, security, or content moderators. According to Prado, this means that supporting racial justice in technology includes supporting all levels of the technology workforce. 

“I think there needs to be a demand for dignified work at every level of the tech industry,” he said. “You can’t say you promote a diverse workforce and then when that workforce demands a living wage you ignore it.”

Listeners were reminded to be cognizant of the privilege Stanford grants.

“At Stanford, in technology, in Silicon Valley, we found ourselves in a lot of very privileged spaces,” Asebiomo said. “I think one of the biggest first steps you can take is acknowledging that, acknowledging the fact that maybe the racial or gender makeup of your department or company is not necessarily representative of the United States.”

All four panelists encouraged listeners to do what they can, no matter how small it may seem. They promoted supporting companies with Black workers, changing the minds of those around you, and giving back to your community. 

“Literally start with what’s next to you, who you know,” Asebiomo said. “That’s a great place to think about how you can promote equity in technology.” 

Contact Rae Wymer at raewymer ‘at’

Rae Wymer is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.

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