Is Silicon Valley Adding to the Jobs Depression for Blacks and Latinos?

The U.S. high tech industry employed 5.87 million people in 2009 -- and its total payroll given high average salaries was 10 percent of all wages paid in the country. Yet blacks and Latinos are horrendously underrepresented in the industry, especially in Silicon Valley itself.
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There are hesitant signs of economic recovery but high unemployment is still chronic and black and Latino communities face a full-fledged jobs depression. As calculated by the Department of Labor in December, Latino unemployment was at 11.4 percent and black unemployment at 15.5 percent -- fully twice the rate of whites.

The cause of high unemployment in these minority communities has broadly been understood to be the disappearance of jobs in the construction, manufacturing and public sectors, which all had disproportionately high black and latino employment. But you could just as well ask why those communities were disproportionately NOT employed in sectors like high tech, which have ridden out the recession far better than other sectors?

The U.S. high tech industry employed 5.87 million people in 2009 or 5.5 percent of the private sector workforce -- and its total payroll given high average salaries was 10 percent of all wages paid in the country. Yet blacks and Latinos are horrendously underrepresented in the industry, especially in Silicon Valley itself.

Blacks make up 12.8 percent and Latinos 15.4 percent of the U.S. population, yet according to an analysis last year by the San Jose Mercury News, they make up only 7.1 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively, of the "computer and mathematical occupations" nationally and a pathetically small 1.5 percent and 4.7 percent of employment in Silicon Valley's high tech industry. And the problem has been actually getting worse over the years:

An analysis by the Mercury News of the combined work force of 10 of the valley's largest companies -- including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Cisco Systems, eBay and AMD -- shows that while the collective work force of those 10 companies grew by 16 percent between 1999 and 2005, an already small population of black workers dropped by 16 percent, while the number of Hispanic workers declined by 11 percent.

Hiding Data on Lack of Silicon Valley Diversity: The problem is probably even worse than these numbers show. When the Mercury News sought to compile its study, five companies -- Google, Apple, Yahoo, Oracle and Applied Materials -- refused to share their data on employment diversity and succeeded in convincing federal officials that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data on the companies was "propriety information" and not to be shared with the public.

So once again, companies engaged in massive surveillance of the public and destruction of consumer privacy invoke so-called "proprietary information" to shield themselves from public accountability. And there's good reason to suspect these particular companies have even deeper diversity problems than the typical high-tech company.

As I noted in an earlier Huffington Post piece, Apple for instance has gone out of its way to bypass American communities for its manufacturing -- which would no doubt have increased its black and Latino hiring -- in favor of overseas outsourcing (where work conditions are pretty horrible). So these companies preserve an enclave of elite, largely white and Asian professionals while avoiding employment for working class communities, which might create stepping stone jobs for many blacks and Latinos displaced from other sectors.

Silicon Valley firms refusing to make public their diversity information makes it even more likely, as a report this year by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Counsel (MMTC) argued, "minority applicants will be discouraged from applying for work at these companies."

Second Tier Employment Even When Blacks and Latinos are Hired: Tech companies no doubt would argue it's a whole range of educational factors that lead to the disparity in employment and that they would enthusiastically embrace any black and Latino employees who actually met their hiring needs. Except there's pretty clear evidence that Silicon Valley companies go out of their way to create two-tier employment structures, often along racialized lines, in order not to fully embrace black and Latino employees.

For decades, Silicon Valley firms have combined lavish benefits for their elite employees, while subcontracting out jobs like janitorial maintenance, which often employs local black and Latino workers. A more provocative example is highlighted by the video Workers Leaving the GooglePlex, with commentary by filmmaker Andrew Wilson, who worked as a contract worker at Google and detailed the precise hierarchy of different colored badges for core Google employees and contract workers:

a fourth class exists at Google that involves strictly data-entry labor, or more appropriately, the labor of digitizing....The workers wearing yellow badges are not allowed any of the privileges that I was allowed - ride the Google bikes, take the Google luxury limo shuttles home, eat free gourmet Google meals, attend Authors@Google talks and receive free, signed copies of the author's books, or set foot anywhere else on campus except for the building they work in. They also are not given backpacks, mobile devices, thumb drives, or any chance for social interaction with any other Google employees...

I think Google does a lot of great things socially and politically but found it interesting that these workers, who perform labor similar to that of many red-badge contractors, such as software engineers, custodians, security guards, etc., are mostly people of color and cannot eat Google meals, take the shuttle, ride a bike, or step foot anywhere else on campus.

So a racialized caste system seems to permeate companies like Google, even for most of the handful of black and latino employees actually hired by the company.

Ending the Gated Communities of Silicon Valley Firms: The history of Silicon Valley and much of the high tech industry is that of "white flight" deploying jobs away from urban areas to suburban "campuses." Companies became gated communities in multiple ways, allowing a handful of local black and Latino workers in only to metaphorically and often literally to mow their lawns.

Even in a more crudely racist era of the early twentieth century, the great companies of that era in the auto, steel and related industries created a far more integrated set of benefits and treatment for all employees, regardless of their color. Less-skilled workers might enter in one job at lower pay but move up to the higher ranks of skilled engineer. Those kinds of job ladders disappear with the global outsourcing and local caste hierarchies too pervasive in Silicon Valley and many other tech firms. The result is little opening for black and Latino workers to find work -- and often less chance to move up to the elite privileged benefits that those companies pretend are available to all their employees.

There are a range of public policies that could encourage more diversity in such firms, and the report mentioned above by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Counsel highlights many of them. But a good place to start would be for the federal government to stop burying the data about the lack of diversity in firms like Google and Apple under the rubric of "proprietary" information. As the MMTC argues, hidden business practices "impede attempts by stakeholder groups to identify discriminatory work environments" and prevent effective strategies to pressure those companies to fix the problems.

High tech firms preach how more open information can change the world. Applying the logic to their own hiring practices might help prove them right.

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