This is part 1 of a guide about collective action in tech for organizing against racism in tech.
In recent weeks, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and countless other Black Americans have compelled thousands of people across the US and the world to take collective action against systemic racism. Mass protests have made headlines and forced a renewed reckoning with centuries of violence inflicted on Black communities by white supremacy. As many Black activists and scholars have argued, ending white supremacy will require the radical reconstruction of our entire society.
Crucially, this involves changing the material conditions that make Black lives matter less. “We cannot achieve racial justice and create a secure and thriving democracy without also transforming our economic systems,” Michelle Alexander wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. This point is frequently emphasized by Black Lives Matter organizers, who have centered the demand for economic justice from the beginning. The Movement for Black Lives platform calls for universal health care, a living wage, and stronger labor rights, while abolitionists have consistently drawn a link between divesting from policing and prisons and investing in services that feed, house, educate, and employ Black people.
Within the tech industry, the link between racism and economic deprivation is particularly stark. Black people are disproportionately represented in roles that are contingent, poorly paid, and highly surveilled, from delivery workers to ride-hail drivers to warehouse workers. An open letter from Gig Workers Rising describes how tech firms exploit such workers: denying them living wages, essential benefits, and representation within the workplace. The conditions that make police killings of Black people possible and inevitable are the same conditions that make the exploitation of Black and brown workers possible and inevitable, the letter reads. Racism is profitable, in other words: it lets the tech industry’s predominantly white male leadership devalue certain kinds of workers and certain kinds of labor.
Yet tech executives attempt to erase this reality by issuing bland statements in support of Black Lives Matter even as they profit from making Black lives matter less or create technologies that enforce systemic racism. To take one particularly egregious example, Amazon leadership affirmed its solidarity with the Black community in the fight against systemic racism and injustice one month after firing Black warehouse worker Christian Smalls for organizing to demand better health protections and then concocting a racist smear campaign against him.
But the tech industry doesn’t run on the labor of executives. Like any industry, it runs on the labor of workers. And, as tech workers, we are in a unique position to leverage our power over production to force meaningful change. Executives wont save us. Only collective action by workers across the entire industry—warehouse workers and software engineers, content moderators and ride-hail drivers—can dismantle white supremacy within tech and beyond.
Anti-Racism in Tech
For the two years that we have been archiving the history of collective action in the tech industry, we have seen workers across roles, companies, and geographies building anti-racist coalitions. Now is the moment to elevate that organizing into an industry-wide movement for Black lives. Here are some next steps:
1. We have to acknowledge that the tech industry has a long history of anti-Blackness.
In 1979, IBM’s computer system was being used to run South Africa’s apartheid-era passbook system. Workers at the company formed an organization (IBM: Speak Up!) to protest the company’s role in perpetuating racism. Under worker pressure, the company officially divested from South Africa in 1987. In 2019, white-collar Black employees at Facebook published an anonymous memo documenting how the micro and macro aggressions they experienced on a daily basis left them feeling like they did not belong. These actions are forty years apart but show a continuous thread of anti-Black sentiment, rhetoric, and action within tech companies. They also demonstrate how tech workers can organize to hold our employers accountable. Too little has changed during this time. Organizing is a proven pathway to change.
2. We need to understand the ways in which technology can be built to be racist.
In a 2019 article for the academic journal Science, sociologist Ruha Benjamin points out that algorithms, far from being neutral, can perpetuate racial oppression. An open letter by the Algorithmic Justice League highlights numerous examples of how surveillance technologies developed by tech companies are used by law enforcement agencies to criminalize Black and brown communities. Mijente has documented the extensive work performed by the tech industry to facilitate ICE’s deportation and detention regime. Meanwhile, AI has revived outlawed forms of institutionalized discrimination such as redlining.
Tech workers have taken collective action against these injustices. Since 2018, we have recorded 16 visible collective actions in tech to protest the industry’s complicity with ICE. Moreover, Amazon workers have organized to demand that management stop selling facial recognition to law enforcement, citing the government’s targeting of Black activists as a particular cause for concern. These campaigns offer a promising foundation on which to construct a broader movement. Tech workers, especially those from Black, Indigenous, and POC communities, must have a say in what they build and how it is used.
3. We need to recognize that achieving racial justice requires raising standards for all workers.
Anti-racism is a project of collective liberation. White supremacy divides workers from one another, and prevents them from engaging in shared struggle. This is why the struggle for Black liberation, from the Reconstruction era to the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter, has always also been a class struggle. As Jamelle Bouie writes, “the fight against the privileges and distinctions of race can also lay the foundations for a broader assault on the privileges and distinctions of class.” The emancipation of the American working class as a whole requires the emancipation of the Black workers who have historically been its most oppressed members.
This is especially evident in the tech industry, where Black people and people of color are heavily concentrated in lower-paid roles. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, while Black people represent 13% of the total U.S. population, only 3% of employees at the top 75 Silicon Valley firms were Black in 2017. More recent diversity reports from Facebook, Google, and Microsoft indicate that only 3.8%, 3.7%, and 4.5% of their employees identify as Black. An even smaller proportion fill technical or leadership roles. Amazon’s diversity report boasts over 26% Black representation. This is both true and misleading, because only a small fraction of that 26% gets to build or manage Amazon’s technology. Most of the Black people Amazon employs work in fulfillment centers doing the physically taxing and emotionally draining work that drives Amazon’s profits.
Moreover, Black workers in tech are far more likely to be subcontracted than directly employed. A 2016 report by Silicon Valley Rising found that Black and Latino workers make up only 10% of Silicon Valley’s directly employed workforce, but 26% of its white-collar contract workforce and 58% of its blue-collar contract workforce. We call for improved compensation, benefits, and representation for techs subcontracted, contingent, and blue-collar workers.
Undervaluing the labor of one group of workers hurts all workers: an injury to one is an injury to all. When Black workers gain power, all workers benefit. Additionally, any agenda that seeks to confront anti-Blackness in tech must seek to address the absence of Black voices in decision-making and to recognize those who are leading the charge.
4. As organizers, we must all be a part of the change and shoulder the burden together.
Over the past few years, an unprecedented wave of rank-and-file mobilization has swept the tech industry. But despite the fact that white men dominate the white-collar rungs of the industry, collective action has generally been led by women, non-binary workers, and people of color. This is no coincidence. An analysis of the tech worker movement suggests that people who have been marginalized in tech are more likely to endure the injustices perpetuated by the industry and thus more likely to see the need for collective action, as well as to forge solidarities across roles and levels.
But such workers also face constant discrimination and harassment and may be less able to take risks. While leadership for anti-Black racism movements has been Black-led, we must recognize that workers in a system biased against them cannot shoulder the burdens and risks alone while also fighting oppression in the workplace.
Read the next part of the guide here.