Soledad O'Brien's public spanking of Tech Crunch founder Michael Arrington is, in my opinion, the stuff that legends are made of. During a recent interview, Arrington, who prides himself on covering the tech industry in detail, actually told Soledad that he doesn't know of any black entrepreneurs in the tech industry. He then had the audacity to go on and say that he firmly believes that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy and that your level of success is determined by the size of your brain.
So, in Michael Arrington's small and polluted reality, black people must not succeed because we have tiny brains and an even tinier level of ambition. So, I'm sure Arrington would have a great pow-wow with Herman Cain, who also believes that if you're not receiving riches and glory for your work, you only need to blame yourself. You already know my thoughts on the Arrington issue, as well as those of our political contributor Yvette Carnell, so let's just talk about Soledad.
After she humiliated him in public, Arrington struck back at O'Brien in a way that reminds me of the infamous "&*$@ you set me up!" statement made by Marion Barry when he was busted smoking crack in a hotel room many years ago. Rather than admitting that he made a mistake and could use this as an opportunity for reflection, Arrington responded with the arrogance of an entitled white male by arguing that O'Brien deliberately misled him during the interview and that he did nothing wrong.
Well, Soledad wasn't having any of it. She came back at Arrington with a well-written blog post on CNN's Financial page, where she said the following:
"As the conversation heated up, Arrington wrote a blog post -- titled "Oh sh*t, I'm a racist" -- in which he accuses me of bullying him in our 30 minute interview.
But the reality is very different. Our interview was pleasant, not the light-in-the-eyes third degree Arrington is now recounting in his blog. We were at an AOL office with the publicists who negotiated the interview."
Soledad also notes the fact that Arrington accused CNN of being unprofessional in the way they approached the interview:
In his blog Arrington says CNN "went to great lengths to hide the topic of the interview." He posts an early e-mail from one of my producers asking him for a general interview about the tech industry.
He omits the second e-mail we sent four days before the interview that spells out that the documentary is about a "group of entrepreneurs we are following who are participating in the NewMe accelerator. The first accelerator of its kind set up specifically for entrepreneurs of color. Their inspiring stories will be the focus of this CNN Black in America documentary."
I didn't ambush Arrington and I don't think he's a racist. He's a realist.
Soledad goes easy on Arrington, to a point, by mentioning that only 1 percent of all tech companies are started by African Americans. But she then asserts that many experts don't buy Arrington's argument that Silicon Valley is a meritocracy. In fact, she mentions Duke University Professor Vivek Wadhwa, who actually encourages African Americans to find a white man to front for their companies.
This is where Soledad and I connect... the idea that you need a white man fronting for you in order to be successful is directly indicative of black people possessing a form of second-class citizenship. Being black continues to be a social liability that many of us are forced to carry on our skin, and when we are not as successful as the white guy down the hall, we become the target of accusations that we aren't smart enough, creative enough or otherwise worthy of the rewards that are granted to others.
Making this complex phenomenon even more interesting is the fact that many African Americans are fooled into buying into our own inferiority. From an early age, we are taught to accept the falsehood of an American meritocracy, which then leaves us banging our heads against the wall when we find that our outcomes are not in alignment with our efforts. So, when the well-intended folks in charge tell us that our test scores/performance evaluations/qualifications are not quite up to snuff, we end up concluding that it's because we simply aren't good enough. I recall my mother being told when I was in school that I wasn't smart enough to go to college or keep up with the other kids; it continues into adulthood when the companies/institutions we work for are more critical of our abilities than they are of their own racially-exclusive hiring and promotion records.
Whether any given African American is qualified to receive a particular opportunity is a debatable factor that varies widely within the societal cross-section. But one fact that is undeniable is that most of the economic infrastructure in America was built on a highly-racist and asymmetric foundation. So, when the company, law school, etc is revealed to have only had one or two African American hires in the last 50 years of existence, only a racist will conclude that this outcome occurred because no black person on the planet was qualified to receive that particular job or promotion. Even the Harvard Law School has only granted tenure to two African American women in the last 194 years of existence - black female attorneys should not be blamed for a hiring record that would make David Duke proud.
The bottom line is that men like Arrington must be confronted at every available opportunity, because most of us work with a version of Michael Arrington within our own organizations. The goal is not to attack them or make them feel bad; but rather, we should push them out of the comfortable bubbles created by an unacknowledged economic aristocracy. If Arrington truly wishes to create the great Silicon Valley meritocracy that he loves to brag about, he's going to have to open the door for everyone to compete and stop making excuses for dismal outcomes. Blaming Soledad O'Brien for pointing out the obvious is clearly a losing strategy.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.