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.
CNN’s “Black in America 4: The New Promised Land — Silicon Valley” hasn’t even aired yet and it has already ignited a fierce debate about whether or not tech start-ups succeed based on a pure meritocracy or the culture is tainted by racism like the rest of society. The documentary posits that Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs are mostly young, white and male and follows eight Black entrepreneurs who live together for a two-month immersion program called the NewMe Accelerator.
Online War of Words
As a largely African-American audience watched a screening of the documentary at the Time-Warner building in New York City October 26, a Twitter feud between two tech entrepreneurs featured in the program broke out. The debate started when an audience member tweeted that she wondered what TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington would think of Duke University scholar and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa’s advice to the group that they hire white men to front their companies.
Both in the theater and on the internet, people expressed displeasure with statements Arrington makes in the film. He says, for example, that he doesn’t know a single Black entrepreneur and that he was so eager to promote diversity that he would have put a Black guy onstage at a tech demo event he hosted even if the guy presented a “clown show.”
CNN fanned the flames with an article about the debate on its website Friday and Arrington followed with a response on his blog accusing CNN and journalist Soledad O’Brien of deception and gotcha’ journalism.
“Maybe now some of you can begin to understand why I never wanted to be called a ‘journalist’ at TechCrunch. It is a shameful profession,” Arrington said.
“I didn’t ambush Arrington and I don’t think he’s a racist. He’s a realist. What has everyone upset is that what he is saying is true — there are not many blacks entrepreneurs succeeding in Silicon Valley. Fewer than 1% of funded tech startups are run by African-Americans.”
Highlighting a Cross-Section of Black Entrepreneurs
Samuels said he was fascinated by the idea of featuring eight African Americans who represent an economic, social, and educational cross-section of America.
What stuck with Armstrong from the documentary was a statement by tech investor Ron Conway, who said he didn’t know how to recruit Black entrepreneurs. Armstrong wasn’t alone in his response.* The room erupted in indignation and laughter when Conway made this statement on screen.
“I can tell you kids right now that want to be future technologists, but they don’t get the exposure, they don’t have the access, and they don’t have the role models like we’re trying to present. … It’s an inherent problem with the mindset of people holding the purse strings when they say, ‘We can’t recruit; we don’t know how,’ ” said Armstrong.
Helping African Americans Navigate Silicon Valley
Wright was an advisor to the NewMe entrepreneurs and said he focused 60 percent of his time on helping them navigate the race issues they would face in Silicon Valley.
“I had a unique perspective in making them understand the unique challenges they had as African Americans in the valley. Understanding that merit is one thing, but you kind of have to navigate. You have to be ready for the VC [venture capitalist] conversation when the VC brings up, ‘Hey, I’ve watched “Martin,”’ to create a commonality between you in the meeting, because he’s as uncomfortable as you are,” said Wright.
Williams, the oldest and most experienced of the entrepreneurs featured in the documentary, compared his own efforts to those of an nineteen year old Israeli entrepreneur who received $5 million in funding for an undeveloped idea.
“That’s not my experience. I’ve never been able to go and convince somebody to give me money based on a dream. It had to be the train leaving the station,” said Williams.
Consumers, not Creators
The most passionate and vocal member of the panel was Armstrong. He argued that African Americans were early consumers of tech products and made them cool, but said they have generally not been creators.
“It’s not that we don’t want to create. Clearly that’s not the issue. We know how to hustle. We know how to pitch our ideas. We know how to wear multiple hats and be effective in that realm,” said Armstrong.
The technology gap, as he sees it, is because the so-called “digital divide,” focused on everyone gaining access to technology at the expense of asking how it would be used.
The Skill Gap
A budding tech entrepreneur in the audience wanted to know how to make up for a lack of programming skills.
“Get a partner or get a book. Literally, you either have to learn how to do it yourself or have to be the business guy and find a technology guy to partner with to build your company,” said Williams.
Armstrong concurred, advising the young man to learn enough coding to earn the respect of programmers and to gain the knowledge necessary to avoid getting ripped off by them.
“When you hear Michael Arrington talk about the meritocracy and how everything’s equal, they use data and they use those things to keep us shut out, but we have to own the fact that to a certain degree we shut ourselves out,” added Wright. “The reality is if you want to be in this business, you have some onus that there are skills you need to have to gain entry. …Today the barriers are lower than they’ve ever been.”
Armstrong likewise expressed irritation with Arrington, saying, “Out of these eight people, that damn Michael Arrington needs to answer that question and get one out of this so he doesn’t have to say, ‘I don’t know where they are’ anymore.”
Waiting to See What Happens
We weren’t shown the conclusion of “The New Promised Land — Silicon Valley,” so I’ll be watching when it airs November 13 at 8 pm ET on CNN.
How about you? Will you be watching? If you have any thoughts on the debate, please share them with us in the comments section.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed this statement by Mario Armstrong to Jason Samuels.
Go to page 2 for our bonus interview with Soledad O’Brien.