A Critical Media Moment? CNN on Race

We have to be grateful that CNN is drawing attention to issues of race in Silicon Valley. Or do we? The cable network’s documentary “The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley” airs tomorrow, and if it hones in on structural and institutional racism in American computing and electronics industries, great.  The world of high tech R&D is too easily cast as above or outside of social factors; I spend my days teaching engineering undergrads how to question that presumption.  Specifically, with some powerful reporting by CNN we may see how familiar meritocratic claims about “genius” as the source of American high-tech innovation  (lately fueled by retrospectives of Steve Jobs’ career) have long helped support race-based exclusion in U.S. technology spheres.  I blogged about this the other week.

But I’m a little worried. Advance screenings and media commentary on the film have generated a great deal of conversation, among bloggers and mainstream media alike.  Yesterday the New York Times reflected on the buzz itself, in “CNN Documentary Sets Off Debate on Race and Technology” by Brian Stelter and Jenna Wortham.  And much of that buzz has been about the ways in which individuals depicted in the film, such as Michael Arrington, do or don’t recognize structural inequities; that is, about the talking heads themselves. Their views provide interesting evidence but we need to go from thinking about those individuals  to a broader view.  Hank Williams lays out some of these larger issues for CNN as the network builds hype for the documentary; for example, pervasive economic impediments to the scale-up of minority-led projects. If CNN proves willing to keep that conversation going, bucking a mainstream media tradition of downplaying the race, class and gender inequities still going strong in 21st Century America, then we may have something to thank them for.

Trade Secrets

Last week, the San Jose Mercury News offered two articles by Mike Swift that are must-reads for anyone concerned with diversity in technical occupations. The title of the first, “Blacks, Latinos and women lose ground at Silicon Valley tech companies,” makes the importance of that piece clear. The newspaper analyzed combined work forces of ten regional companies, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard and eBay, and found that already small numbers of black and Hispanic workers in those firms declined from 1999 to 2005. Swift analyzes this data, provided through the U.S. Department of Labor, in a rare and commendable inquiry into the social dimensions of high-tech industries–usually so venerated as a source of the nation’s economic health and international competitiveness that we dare not “quibble” about their involvement with diversity. 

But it is the second article, posted the next day, that I want to hone in on.

That piece, “Five Silicon Valley companies fought release of employment data, and won,”  tells us something new and worrisome about why minority involvement in high tech enterprise may have dropped. Swift recounts how five other firms, including Apple, Google, and Yahoo, declined to have the Labor Department provide the Mercury News with information about their workforces’ race and gender representation. The newspaper’s 18-month pursuit of the data through the Freedom of Information Act resulted in federal regulators confirming the companies’ claim that such revelations would cause them “commercial harm.” Let’s think about the implications of both the claim and official support for it.

Maybe these companies, which together employ tens of thousands of people,  are trying to hide poor performance in this area, a failure to engage or retain a diverse workforce.  Maybe not; We don’t know. But we do know that their argument against releasing the data itself bodes ill. For one thing, the idea that public disclosure of the number of female managers or Hispanic engineers working in a company could provide competitors with  information about a firm’s operations or productivity is positively creepy. Is the presumption that employees’ genders or ethnicities enhance their performances, or diminish their contributions? Or does that depend on the gender or ethnicity in question?  Either way, highly problematic…After all, how can information about workers’ race, ethnic heritage, gender, age, or sexuality be linked to productivity or business strategy in any way that is not discriminatory? It is hard to see how those characteristics could have anything to do with employees’  work or the conduct of business, high-tech or otherwise.

Second, what exactly is the Labor Department, which accepted the arguments of lawyers from the five firms against releasing their workforce data, up to? They seem to be placing corporate privacy above the goal of diversity.  Haven’t we long accepted that  proportionate representation of women and minorities across the labor pool is a collective national good that transcends the profit schemes and business priorities of free enterprise? Apparently not.

Swift is clear that the five companies are not easily critiqued: He reports that Google recently donated millions to groups like the National Society of Black Engineers. But the secrecy here and the rationale offered for it are deeply disturbing. If this is what inclusive management ideologies look like in 21st century high-tech enterprise,  we need to worry. And keep Mike Swift on the case.