Stanford graduates get schooled on how to solve Silicon Valley’s sexism and racism problem

Class dismissed.
Class dismissed.
Image: Stanford News Service
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The pomp and circumstance of Stanford University’s graduation ceremony on June 14 was coupled with the promises of grand success and prestige regularly enjoyed by students of Silicon Valley’s most revered talent farm.

But alongside the well wishes came a far more sobering cry, warning graduates of what will happen if they overlook the pervasive problems of racism and sexism festering beneath the riches of the tech world.

Stanford graduates will have no trouble snagging top jobs at companies like Google or Facebook, but that won’t shield them from the inequality problem plaguing Silicon Valley and the country overall, said Vernon Jordan, the longtime civil rights activist and Washington lawyer who addressed Stanford’s 2015 baccalaureate ceremony the day before graduation.

Jordan invoked the words of black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, who declared that the problem of the 20th century is the “problem of the color-line,” and explained that “no society that leaves out a significant percentage of its people can long endure.”

He asked graduates from what he called “America’s ‘it’ school'” to wake up and recognize that the problems of racial and gender imbalances that pervade the world’s technology and innovation hub are not going away. Now, it’s up to the graduating students to find a better solution than what’s already been offered up by today’s Silicon Valley leaders.

From Jordan’s speech:

The color line persists when black and Latino workers, respectively, make up 2 percent and 3 percent of employees at Google … but according to a recent study, blacks and Latinos comprise 41 percent of Silicon Valley’s security guards … 72 percent of its janitorial staff, and 76 percent of its groundskeepers.

The color line persists, as Van Jones writes, “when we see a young black man in a hoodie, [and] think of Trayvon Martin, but not Mark Zuckerberg.”

The color line persists – and is compounded by the gender line – when Twitter has three times as many people named “Peter” on its board as it does women.

Thanks to the thousands of men and women who suffered beatings and bombings with quiet dignity and resolve, we have knocked down what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the sagging walls of segregation.” What we are dealing with now – what defines the color line in the 21st century – is the rubble. Less imposing, perhaps, but no less critical to clear away. And for those of you who witnessed the demolition of [Stanford’s] Meyer Library, you will understand that tearing down the walls takes a matter of days, but clearing the debris takes far, far longer.

As Martin Luther King Jr. put it at this very university not 50 years ago:

It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality.

But that is the challenge at hand. For all of the new technologies being developed, I believe the solution – at its core – is not new. The solution is the tough task of getting people registered and out to vote and informed on the issues. It is the slow but necessary process of changing corporate cultures, so that a brother can be a “brogrammer,” and a “brogrammer” can be a “sister-grammer.”

It is the daunting project of shaping institutions that live up to our ideals and ensuring that the winds of freedom truly continue to blow. That is the ultimate test. And that responsibility does not rest on anybody but ourselves.