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How the tech sector can become anti-racist

patterson-kylie-col-sigAs the nation works to address white supremacy and commits to ensuring Black Lives Matter, tech companies have issued statements touting their commitment to racial justice. They’ve also made philanthropic contributions, bought from black businesses and stood up offices of diversity and inclusion.

Yet, to realize a future of equity, the tech sector needs to do more than support #BlackLivesMatter; it needs to become anti-racist.

conwell-mckeever-col-sigAnti-racism requires taking deliberate steps to change beliefs, actions, movements and policies to oppose racism. As popularized by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, anti-racism means it’s not enough to say you are “not racist” – you must take actions to end racial inequities.

As a sector, tech has more ground to cover than most. For its relatively short existence, tech has a tumultuous history with race. There are many examples of some of the largest companies in the world having toxic, chauvinistic and prejudicial cultures.

The idea the tech sector is a complete meritocracy, that no one cares who is behind the computer screen, is a fallacy. In reality, it has been built on networks and structural systems that exclude people of color.

Here are some initial actions tech leaders can take to be anti-racist.

Address white supremacy and institutional racism. The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. In the United States, Blacks and Hispanic/Latino/as make up 32% of the population, yet most tech companies hover between 4-8% Black and Hispanic/Latino/a employees. There are currently no Fortune 500 Black tech CEOs.

It was just five years ago Apple said a call for more diversity on its board was “unduly burdensome and not necessary.”

Evaluate your organization, share the data and make diversifying in your organization everyone’s responsibility. You prioritize what you measure. One reason for a lack of diversity in the tech sector is companies are not gathering staff data to understand representation both vertically (top down) and horizontally (on teams). If you want to work against this dynamic, you must understand your staff’s composition.

Johns Hopkins shares this data publicly to demonstrate our commitment to diversity and to keep us universally aware and accountable. At your company, is there diversity across all functions and staff types? Is advancing diversity the responsibility of one person, function or all staff?

If so, what is their power to effect policies and hiring? Are they adequately equipped with data to make informed decisions? How are employees held accountable or rewarded for their efforts?

Complete applicant and vendor journey maps to remove barriers that perpetuate racial inequities. Black people still have fewer degrees, on average, than their white peers due to structural racism manifested in underfunded schools, redlined neighborhoods, environmental pollution – the list goes on.

Yet education often is first among a list of position requirements for roles at companies. What does a post-secondary degree confer? Are you inadvertently decreasing the size of the pool of applicants? Might your organization consider years of work experience as an equivalent for education? Or consider an assessment of practical skills to fit a job?

We are seeing a rise in such practical assessments for software development jobs, and these same principles can be applied to other positions within your organization.

On the vendor side, has your company put up barriers? If so, why? Do you have goals for minority procurement? If you require certification, what is the process in your state? Does it cost money? How easy is it for possible vendors to find opportunities? How long does it take to fulfill an invoice?

If your company has goals for minority procurement is it based on the number of businesses or the amount of money spent? If you are using three minority vendors with large contracts to satisfy a goal but your other 100-plus vendors aren’t minority-led than you’re not truly moving the needle.

These are the questions to ask to unearth the barriers your firm may have inadvertently raised and that exasperate racial inequities.

Donate money to community-based and minority-led organizations. Tech firms should be commended for making multimillion-dollar commitments to address racial injustice. However, these funds are often funneled through white-led nonprofits.

Corporate leaders may argue that they prefer to support organizations with audited financials or a longer track record. Yet this is another example of perpetuating white systems, now in the philanthropic and nonprofit space.

Also, there is no reason why your corporation can’t work with such organizations to help them implement proper auditing or, to create a set of funds specifically to empower those organizations to develop a longer track record.

If the tech sector wants to embrace anti-racism, it must ensure that funds are sent to those closest to the ground and reflect the communities they wish to affect. At the end of the day, these communities also represent your customer base.

The work of anti-racism is not a sprint but a marathon. Tech companies can shake off the tendency to be incremental and strive to be true agents of change and empowerment as allies. Together we can work to create a world where access and opportunity are spread as freely as talent and ability.

Kylie Patterson is director of economic inclusion at The Johns Hopkins University. She can be reached at McKeever (Mac) Conwell, II is managing director of RareBreed Ventures. He can be reached at