It’s time for the tech industry to make racism a fireable offense

Speak up.
Speak up.
Image: Reuters / Chris Keane
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A funny thing happened in the making of Silicon Valley. Somehow, someone floated the myth that people working in tech were something akin to modern day wizards. Maybe it was the tech media, doing their very best to make sure their hot take on 1998’s rising tech industry sold a bunch of copies of InfoWorld. Maybe it was people in the industry itself. What or whoever began the myth, it stuck, and now many in tech, and some outside of tech, look at people inside the industry as more than mere mortals. They are the chosen ones: the special few, superior to and smarter than all others, powering a new industrial revolution, all while being shielded from the common troubles facing the proletariat. Or so they like to think.

The reality is that the tech industry is made of regular-ass people, ordinary human beings, living mostly ordinary human lives. We aren’t any different from anyone else in the US of A, aside from the fact that we happen to be tech workers. Despite the nonsense words that fill up tech job descriptions, people in the tech industry are not wizards, not ninjas, not rockstars (okay, perhaps a few actual musicians who tour every so often and write code to pay the bills). While we occasionally do extraordinary things that may appear to be magic, we’re all regular Janes and Joshs, from many different backgrounds. Oftentimes, those backgrounds don’t fit into the progressive image the tech industry likes to portray, and so we don’t hear about them or talk about them, and worse yet, we don’t address the issues that arise because of them. One of the most insidious issues facing both the United States and the tech industry is the rise of intolerance, bigotry, and the third-rail that the diversity in tech discussions rarely touch: racism.

After ~18 years of life spent walking in lockstep with the values of their parents, young adults head off to college. Between four and 12-ish years later, they show up in new-hire orientation in the industry of their choosing, including tech, overflowing with new ideas from college, but often bringing along the values they were raised with. Sometimes these values are religious, sometimes they’re pragmatic, and sometimes, they’re racist. Though much of the Bay Area tech industry celebrates Martin Luther King day, there are some here who grew up celebrating Robert E. Lee day instead, because according to them, he was a hero who fought for states’ rights in the War of Northern Aggression (slavery had nothing to do with it). To them, MLK was just some troublemaker. There are many here who aren’t far from home, yet still spent their formative years in places where racial hate and segregation thrive. And still, there are plenty from right here within the Bay Area who still think it’s okay to espouse ideas about the destruction of an entire race. The reality is that though many in tech think they are above and beyond all the problems plaguing the rest of the US. Though they believe themselves to be separate, they’re very much equal. Racism exists in the tech industry, because racism exists everywhere. It’s time we talked about that, instead of dancing around it.

Tech industry racists come in many different flavors. There are those who hold tight to the racist values they were steeped in for nearly two decades, who think people who don’t agree with their views just need to be properly informed of the superiority of white people. Those people are ready and willing to share those values with other like-minded people. If you ever work in a large tech company with open methods of communication, you might see a mailing list wherein members regularly discuss the superiority of white people above all others. Members might insinuate that black people are inherently more prone to violence and aggression than white people. They might wax poetic about the need for anyone who isn’t white to “go back home.” They might suggest that maybe, just maybe, slavery was good for black people.

Then there are those who, while they still hold on to some of the racist ideas they picked up during their formative years, are more nuanced, more cautious about demonstrating that racism. If they trust you, they’ll happily tell you that Asians can’t drive. They can’t fathom the idea of a black person that is as intelligent as they are—or more intelligent—so they might make up reasons why that person got hired. They willingly wore blackface and sombreros to their college sorority parties and sang cheerfully that there wouldn’t ever be any niggers in their fraternities. Behind closed doors and after a drink or two, they’ll earnestly share that it’s not that they’re racist, they just don’t find wide noses attractive, so they’d never date a black person but they might still fuck a black girl, if her body was hot enough.

And then there are the internet youths. Tech companies are obsessed with youth. Completely, unabashedly, unfailingly devoted to hiring young employees. There are whole programs set up in many companies dedicated to “new grads.” These new grads have come of age in the time of 4chan, 8chan, and Reddit. Because you aren’t hacking on computers at 13 without spending a lot of time on the internet, many of them cut their social teeth in the darkest recesses of the web, thinking their bigotry was nothing more than a demonstration of their flavor of contrived contrarianism, and so set out to be the best bigots they could be. They called their online harassment trolling, and the bigger the reaction they could get, the more caustic they could be, the better the lulz. Eventually many grow out of it, but others do not. As many bigotry breeding grounds are very anonymous, those who spent years on them doing their best David Duke impressions while being protected by that anonymity, can get hired and do get hired, and the bigotry they confuse with personality comes along with them.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of racists found at nearly every tech company. There are many more, like the casual racists who think it’s okay to compare a black woman to a black chair, or those who claim the woeful lack of diversity in the tech industry is just a byproduct of people of color not being interested in STEM, or not having enough hustle. The fact of the matter is, if there is a scale of racism from zero to Stormfront, then people everywhere, including those in tech, fall somewhere on that scale. It’s time for tech companies to acknowledge and do something about that.

We’re in a very precarious time in the US, with the KKK fighting and stabbing people in broad daylight; with Donald Trump congratulating those who assaulted black people at his rally; with people championing and cheering for Trump, accepting and even welcoming his platform of hatred, using his name as a symbol. In this racial environment, where blatant bigotry seems to be gaining in popularity, the mostly quiet racists hanging out in tech are going to become emboldened. Those who shrewdly conceal their very conscious biases—those who think bigotry is just a funny joke—will begin feeling safe to start sharing their views more publicly. They will join the ranks of the vocal racists, which will set the tone for discussions within companies.

This does not have to be. If we choose to continue the myth of being the chosen few—of being somehow more progressive and enlightened than everyone else—then right now is how we can live up to that, how we prove our ability to be better human beings.

Leaders who are “dedicated to diversity and inclusion” should start now in establishing clear ground rules regarding racial harassment. Having written language against discrimination isn’t enough. Leaders striving to build an inclusive environment should codify the consequences for racial harassment in the same way consequences for sexual harassment is codified. If writing “Pat is a slut” on a wall is a fireable offense, then so too should be telling Pat that they’re inferior because of their skin color. Leaders of companies should immediately cease dismissing reports of racism as “alternative political opinions” and consider strongly how often they’re asking employees of color give the benefit of the doubt and to assume good intentions.

Now is the moment for company leaders to make bold moves to ensure all employees know very well that racism not only won’t be tolerated, but that racial harassment is a fireable offense. That might force some painful discussions and more painful decisions. There will definitely be times when a company will need to choose whether or not to keep an otherwise high-performing racist on their staff, determining whether or not to sacrifice an inclusive workplace for the sake of productivity. In those moments, a company will determine the culture they build. If time and time again, companies choose to keep the racists, they should not be surprised when their employees reject the idea that “Black Lives Matter,” because they’ve received a clear message: in those companies, they don’t.

This post originally appeared at Medium