A digital cotton curtain? What Selma means to Silicon Valley

4th May 2015 | Posted by Kerri Allen Kerri Allen's picture

It’s not often that you hear about “the cotton curtain” in modern tech circles.

The phrase — referring to the political and social division of race between the American South and the rest of the country — feels pretty antiquated. But a vast political and social division still exists in public relations and the all-powerful tech world.

At this year’s Social Media Week New York in March, the Rev. Jesse Jackson was on the bill. Quick history check: Rev. Jackson was part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and helped lead the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. His nonprofit, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, aims to protect, defend and gain civil rights through educational and economic equality. Then why was this 73-year-old activist relevant to a room of mostly twentysomething tech kids? What does the cotton curtain have to do with the likes of social media analytics or autonomous cars?

A lot, as it turns out. Maybe we think that race isn’t so relevant anymore, especially in digital communications, when our first non-White president tweets and an African-American megastar like Beyoncé drops a digital album.

Those things prove that the struggle’s over, right? Well, let’s go ahead and debunk that notion with one hashtag: #ferguson.

Last summer, Jackson launched a petition demanding that Twitter publicly reveal its employment diversity reports, as there was prevalent criticism about the lack of minorities working at tech companies.

Twitter must commit to transparency, and making a public commitment to improve the recruitment and retention of Black employees is a critical first step,” Jackson wrote in the petition. “Black folks on Twitter are a powerful group, using the platform not only to share news and discuss pop culture, but to create real change in society.”

The data showed that Twitter’s U.S. employee base is two percent African-American and three percent Hispanic. Google affirmed that 70 percent of its workers are men, and, of that number, more than 60 percent are White. Facebook shared similar numbers, with 57 percent White workers and 69 percent male workers.

Eliminating opportunity deficit

While most agree that people should be treated respectfully and fairly, many Americans still feel discriminated against. Some posit that it’s unintentional —after all, we do 98 percent of our thinking in our subconscious mind, where we collect and store implicit biases. Just because an employer or team member isn’t actively making racial, cultural or ethnic judgments, that doesn’t mean that they’re not subconsciously, even unwittingly, taking place.

At Social Media Week New York, the Rev. Jesse Jackson engaged in a one-on-one chat with Anil Dash, CEO of ThinkUp. Jackson noted: “There is nothing in Silicon Valley that we cannot do. There is no talent deficit. There is an opportunity deficit.” If nearly 30 percent of Americans (Hispanic and African-American) are not trending toward careers in the expanding tech sector, a massive part of the next generation will be locked out of capital, influence and power.

Drawing back the curtain of exclusion

Maybe it’s a digital cotton curtain, as the next wave of American wealth, capital and power is in tech. We’ve seen throughout our nation’s history, as shown in the steel, cotton, tobacco and plastic industries, that if you cut out one sector of society, you diminish it overall.

For all of the confetti thrown around the millennial cohort for their alleged color-blindness and multiculturalism, I challenge some real action. Companies must proactively recruit. We must have cross-cultural mentorship inside of our walls, and we must focus on inclusiveness or things will not change. The status quo — apathy — will remain and another generation will stay shrouded behind a curtain of exclusion.

This article originally appeared in PRSA Tactics


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