Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) visited Apple, PayPal, Twitter, Square, and Airbnb this past week to hold Silicon Valley accountable on the quest to become more racially diverse. Although the CBC has made the trip twice before, this time they sent the most members yet: Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA).
Lee, who serves on the diversity task force as a co-chair, said to The Verge in a phone interview that some of the companies they visited this time had made “small progress” while “others have gone backwards.” She credited the drop in numbers to tech companies’ failure to retain employees of color, but she would not name specific companies that have done poorly. “Look at the numbers,” she said, referring to government-mandated public EEO-1 diversity numbers. (Here are 2017 numbers for Apple, Paypal, and Airbnb.)
“This time, we met with a lot of the workforce that works on diversity and inclusion and learned that the majority of them have been hired within just the last two years,” said Lee, “That tells me that they haven’t really thought about racial inclusion until we started really focusing on this.” She characterized their visit as more forceful than earlier visits in 2017 and 2015. As Waters put it during a panel discussion held at Lyft on Tuesday: “I’m not urging, I’m not encouraging. I’m about to hit some people across the head with a hammer.”
Numerous tech companies have presented dismal percentages in recent reports. For example, Uber reported late last month that its corporate workforce (excluding drivers and support contractors) consisted of 2.6 percent black employees in 2018, compared to 1 percent in 2017. Twitter reported having 3.4 percent black employees in 2017, compared to 3 percent in 2016.
Besides becoming more adamant that tech companies improve their workforce diversity, the CBC also added a new request this time: companies should help fund more affordable housing for communities in need and fight the effects of gentrification. There are several pieces of legislation the group is also considering. Those include the Community Reinvestment Act, which will require financial institutions to meet the needs of the low-income communities they serve and a computer science bill that Lee has been working on since the Obama administration. Representatives are also raising funds to help girls, people of color, and those living below the poverty line receive STEM educations. A lot of the policies the Caucus would like to see enacted depend on whether Democrats can win this year’s midterm elections.
During the trip, the Caucus also met with nonprofits like Girls Who Code and the Workers Lab to discuss the so-called pipeline problem, which posits that not enough African Americans and Latinx are studying computer science in school and as a result, make up less of the tech industry workforce.
It’s a nuanced issue, and it’s complicated by factors like availability of entry-level tech jobs, the geography of where those jobs are located, and other barriers to entry in the industry like existing lack of diversity at startups and corporations that could impact workplace culture and lead to poor minority retention. There’s also the question of how policy makers can help people who may have the right education but have a felony record. Lee said that legislators would continue to work with groups, including STEM education funding for Merritt College in Oakland, California, on issues like these.
To sum up this week’s Silicon Valley visit, at a Lyft panel, Rep. Butterfield put it best: “We are not making a political visit to the Bay area this week. We are just here presenting facts.”