Crossed Wires: Tech and the Movement for Black Lives

I remember sitting at my dorm room desk and reading the news that Trayvon Martin’s killer George Zimmerman was a free man. Trayvon was a couple of years younger than me, he still had the chubby cheeks of childhood. I didn’t really understand the term gutted before, but at that moment I felt hollow – like my spirit had been scooped from my center. I had watched the news unfold, the shooting and the trial, alone and on a laptop screen. That night I started a playlist for Black grief – it gets played too often. Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” slides out of my speakers, swinging from major to minor – from pain to confusion to anger to resignation. I find solidarity and some solace in the shared sentiment that stretches across decades. I love my Blackness, and I worry most days if I’ll survive this anti-Black country. It’s a contradictory existence that the Blues perfectly captures. As I sat alone in my room finding some sense of connection through Louis a movement was beginning across the country – that night the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was started.

The role of technology in the modern movement for Black lives is undeniably essential. Through Twitter, we watched the BLM hashtag start as a spark after Trayvon’s murder, and watched the breath of Ferguson blow the embers into a righteous fire after the murder of Michael Brown. We no longer needed to translate and transmit our message through reporters, we could keep tabs on the actions of police in real-time. I watched tanks roll down the street where Michael Brown took his final steps on the tiny screen of my phone. Through social media I watched other Black folks share their rage and exasperation, and non-Black folks either attempt to elevate the news and cause or demand we acknowledge #AllLivesMatter.

As the years marched on, our devices kept us a tap away from the latest brutality, while those that made our devices tried to navigate their role and responsibility in the movement for Black lives. I’ve watched countless videos of modern lynchings while casually scrolling through my social media accounts – and I’d watch these people that look like me and my family go from human to hashtag. The companies that made my phone, created social media platforms, and gave me the ability to access the internet have all given their two cents on this issue.

In the wake of Michael Brown’s slaying, the two largest social media companies shared messages in support for Black lives, while their companies remained only 2% Black. Former tech industry insider Justin Edmund puts it simply, “Silicon Valley does not treat Black people like people, it treats them like a statistic.”

In the summer of 2020, I once again watched a Black man die on a screen in the palm of my hand. I watched Minneapolis and the rest of the country rise up for George Floyd and went to some of the largest protests I’ve seen in my lifetime. I also watched with surprise and apprehension as company after company, especially in the tech industry, swore their allegiance to do right by the Black community and interrogate white supremacy within their ranks and practices.

Reading lists were shared, money was donated (notably millions of dollars to a questionable organization whose GoFundMe descriptions described their central goal of strengthening ties with the Black community and the police), Juneteenth was suddenly added to corporate calendars, and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) pledges and committees were formed. But did this really change anything?

A year later Blendoor launched a study to see how far these pledges went. Following the Ferguson uprising, several tech companies made similar pledges and released demographic information about their organizations. In 2020 159 tech companies pledged a total of $4.56B for DEI. In the years between these two major DEI surges in tech, it’s apparent that the industry doesn’t seem to think change begins at home. Analyzing 240 tech companies they found that from 2014 to 2021 the number of Black workers in the industry went from 4.3% to 4.7%. They also found that “A little less than half (110) of the BlendScore™ 240 tech companies analyzed made a #BLM pledge or statement, but only 70% (77) of those companies publicly disclose the percentage of Black employees in their workforce. Further, companies that made a #BLM pledge have 20% fewer Black employees on average than companies that did not make a #BLM pledge.”

Given these numbers what is a pledge with no action? Tech continues to be a white man’s club. While the industry’s products helped propel the movement for Black lives, it continues to fail our community. Companies that made pledges or statements in support of the movement for Black lives continued to hire and retain fewer Black employees – how else can this be interpreted other than a marketing ploy and not a genuine good faith call to action? Donations to organizations doing on-the-ground work is important to keep the fight going, and it can’t be the end all be all.

At Bocoup we are still navigating how we can best show up for the movement for Black lives so that we aren’t just reacting to anti-Blackness in the moment, and instead we’re trying to build a company and a practice that is structured around addressing and uprooting white supremacy culture. This is the commitment we made last year, we think it’s important to make our commitments public to keep us accountable – we still haven’t reached all of these goals and standards, but we won’t stop trying. Tech companies, including ours, need to take a harder look in the mirror and ask why there are no Black woman executives at any major tech companies, why the number of Black employees has barely increased in almost a decade, and how our practices perpetuate white supremacy. Who is our company signing contracts with? How do we protect user data? How are the algorithms we create potentially augmenting the discrimination minoritized communities already face? These are all questions we still wrestle with at Bocoup, and we know we’re far from perfect.

The violence hasn’t stopped. This Black History Month alone I’ve watched the bodycam footage of Amir Locke getting shot as he was roused from his sleep during a no-knock warrant arrest, and the cellphone footage of a young man getting beat by a campus cop in my hometown. If tech companies truly believe what they preach, they need to start practicing. We need more than reactionary surges in donations and commentary, we need a structural change from within our organizations to actually move towards equity.

Here are some of Bocoup’s recommendations for examining the role of tech in the movement for Black lives, and the work we have left to do.

Books:

Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin

Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne

Film

Coded Bias

Articles

“Get Up, Stand Up” by Bijan Stephen

“Weighing Big Tech’s Promise to Black America” by Victor Luckerson

“Why the History of Black Twitter Needed to Be Told”

“How Artificial Intelligence Can Deepen Racial and Economic Inequities” by Olga Akselrod

“Who is Making Sure the A.I. Machines Aren’t Racist?” by Cade Metz

“A Move for ‘Algorithmic Reparation’ Calls for Racial Justice in AI” by Khari Johnson

“Racial Bias in Health Care Artificial Intelligence”

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