While most of the controversy surrounding the kerfuffle between Michael Arrington and Soledad O’Brien has died down, the issues remain salient. And the recent airing of CNN’s latest “Black In America” documentary, focused on Black Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, might bring it back up.
So quick, let’s get in some meaningful conversation before it heats up again into another Internet flame war.
I’m speaking, of course, about the maelstrom stirred up by a promotional clip released in advance, a controversy covered by UrbanFaith’s own Christine A. Scheller. In the clip, Michael Arrington, former head of TechCrunch, admits to host Soledad O’Brien that he doesn’t know any Black tech entrepreneurs. Later, Arrington and his supporters decried this as a setup and accused O’Brien of “gotcha” journalism. Meanwhile, Black folks across the blogosphere and the Twitterverse, many of whom have been lamenting the dearth of diversity in Silicon Valley for years, see this as just another example of a White dude who doesn’t get it.
I’m generalizing, of course. Many people have weighed in with a variety of perspectives. But most of the responses seem to fall on a continuum of responses in favor of either O’Brien or Arrington, as if one’s credibility as a member of either the African American community or the creative tech community depends on attacking one and defending the other.
And most of us, especially those with backgrounds in creative technology who identify as Black, know that’s not true. We know that it’s not about taking sides. And we don’t like to throw around the R-word. We just want to see people understand the underlying issues. We’re on the side of people who get it.
Round One to O’Brien
Which is why, if I had to pick a side, I’m starting off with Soledad O’Brien, and not just because she was gracious enough to give UrbanFaith an interview. The facts are the facts. Michael Arrington DID say that he didn’t know any Black entrepreneurs, he said it on-camera, and as far as we know he wasn’t under the influence of any mind-altering nano-robots. Arrington’s protests of an ambush were quickly rebutted by O’Brien herself on her CNN blog.
So round one went to O’Brien, for sure.
But before we use Arrington’s ill-timed words to judge Silicon Valley for its sins, we also have to remember who’s doing the talking. Michael Arrington has always been something of a loose cannon. There’s a reason why he’s no longer at TechCrunch. Michael Arrington can no more speak for all of Silicon Valley than Metta World Peace can speak for the whole NBA. His viewpoint is just that, his viewpoint.
And in defense of his viewpoint, I will say that there are several things that he said right. When he said that he doesn’t think of people that way (meaning as members of racial groups), he was being very candid and forthright. And when he speaks of the tech ecosystem of entrepreneurs, coders, marketers and venture capitalists as being a meritocracy, where what matters most is the strength of your ideas and the amount of innovation you bring into your particular field, there is a lot of truth to that. The consumer tech market is certainly a meritocracy, because consumers don’t care what a product’s creator looks like, as long as it meets their needs and fits their price range.
In the same way, as African American entrepreneur Stephan Adams tells O’Brien in the video clip below, investors will quickly forget about race if you present them with an idea that they believe will make them a lot of money.
In this sense, Michael Arrington was mostly right — and so was Herman Cain. Racism isn’t always the thing that holds people back.
Bias in the Making
But as Hank Williams pointed out in his tech blog, Arrington and others in his position miss critical nuances with that argument. The market itself may be a meritocracy, but the market makers — the venture capitalists, the hiring managers, the relational gatekeepers, the journalists and their editors — all the people who help shape the public perception of who is or isn’t an innovator, of who’s hot and who’s not, of who’s on the cutting edge and who’s lagging behind, and most importantly, whose ideas are worth investing in and whose aren’t … these roles are filled by human beings with specific cultural biases.
These biases, while not being actively racist, artificially reduce the field of qualified applicants into narrow profiles that match certain patterns, patterns that are more culturally palatable to the people already in charge, a vast majority of whom are young adult White males.
(This is why, for example, there were hardly any Black people in The Social Network, despite it being primarily set in an Ivy League institution like Harvard, where diversity is supposed to be a core value.)
So the questions remain … how can these truths be communicated in meaningful ways? What will it take for the status quo to change? In what ways is it already changing? And how can people of faith respond?
I’ll attempt to address these questions in my next column, but in the meantime I welcome any critiques or observations that you might have regarding this issue or the CNN special. Please chime in below, and then stay tuned for Part 2.