Unpacking tech’s response to the killing of George Floyd

The brutal police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, has prompted one of the greatest civil uprisings of the modern day. In the weeks following Floyd’s death, the conversation around diversity and inclusion, as well as tech’s role in upholding white supremacy, has returned to the forefront. 

But it is action, not words, that has the potential to effect real change in the tech industry. Otherwise, the hundreds of statements from tech companies and leaders in the industry won’t count for anything. Once society has moved on to its next distraction weeks, months or years from now, the words of today will have been forgotten. That’s why it’s essential the tech industry not let Floyd’s tragic death be just another statistic, but an impetus for a shift in representation in the tech industry and, ultimately, for a shift in power.

Amid this tragedy, many tech companies and leaders have spoken out against racism, saying things like, “We stand with our colleagues and the Black community” (LinkedIn), “We stand with the Black community against racism, violence, and hate” (Salesforce) or “we all have the responsibility to create change” (Facebook) — while simultaneously fostering an environment where employees defend racism, contracting with U.S. Custom Borders and Protection, which has been deployed to police protests, or enabling President Donald Trump’s post inciting violence to remain on its platform. These are just a few examples of many, but they all evoke one thing: complicity.

LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky later addressed the town hall where employees were defending racism.

“Many of you shared the hardest part was realizing that this company we love and hold to such a high standard still has a lot of work to do to educate ourselves and our colleagues on how to create a culture that is truly anti-racist,” Roslansky wrote. “We will do that work.”

Beyond complicity, lip service has long been an issue in the realm of diversity, inclusion and equity in tech. Consider that those in the tech industry have made statements before about police killings of unarmed Black people. Also consider how little has changed in the industry in terms of representation of Black people and other people of color in tech, as well as policy changes to keep people safe from racism and other forms of harassment on the internet.

Thumbtack, for example, in a post about how the company stands with Black voices and wants to invest in the success of its D&I program, said it would hire a new head of diversity and inclusion. That’s in light of having just recently let go of Alex Lahmeyer, who served as the company’s diversity and inclusion lead for four years, in April. According to Lahmeyer’s LinkedIn, he was laid off along with 250 of his teammates amid the COVID-19 pandemic

“While it doesn’t surprise me, I’m upset that companies use DEI programs for PR strategy and then slash them like they’re deadweight,” Lahmeyer wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “Yes, some companies are facing difficult financial decisions, but there could not be a worse time to reduce the function that ensures your marginalized employees feel seen and heard.”

In a statement to TechCrunch, Thumbtack said its business “has bounced back from the effects of COVID-19” and has opened up hiring solely to find a new head of diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We are intentionally making this our first before any others as part of a plan to build a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive team,” a Thumbtack spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Lahmeyer has since told TechCrunch he’s aware Thumbtack is looking to hire, but that he is “not interested in returning.”

Google, similarly, has reportedly rolled back many of its diversity efforts over the last couple of years. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai spoke words of solidarity in light of Floyd’s death and changed the Google and YouTube homepages in support of racial justice. But actions speak louder than words.

Despite years of inaction and backtracking in the tech industry, this has the potential to be the moment when the tech industry finally turns a corner and starts to make meaningful change as it relates to racial justice. But in order for this to be that moment, tech companies need to double down on diversity and inclusion efforts, not scale them back. That means hiring more Black and brown people, implementing a consistent and equitable performance review process, closing the pay gap as it relates to race — not just gender — and laying out clear paths to raises and promotions. Again, action.

Already, there have been some promising first steps taken in the industry in light of Floyd’s death. For example, investor Jason Lemkin committed to trying to only meet Black founders in June and Andreessen Horowitz has a new program to financially support Black and other underrepresented founders in tech.

“I think there are some people who are doing a great job at this even though there is no perfect way of doing this,” Backstage Capital founder and Managing Partner Arlan Hamilton told me last week during a conversation for the Commonwealth Club. “And I think there is a disgusting silence from some people that it just tells me everything I need to know.”

The best thing an investor can do right now, according to Hamilton, is to do their job.

“It’s your job to look at these founders,” she said. “You’ve been able to hide in the shadows and not do your job because the boss hasn’t been walking around. But right now everybody’s watching and there are no tears for you if you can’t find the pipeline.”

In perhaps the boldest move to date, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian announced his decision to step down from the board of directors. Reddit, which has long been a platform rife with racism, sexism and other problematic content, was founded by Ohanian back in 2005Now, he’s called for the company he founded to fill his position with a Black board member. Additionally, Ohanian said he would use future gains on his Reddit stock to serve the Black community. 

Boards of directors at tech companies have long been lacking Black people. It’s something Rev. Jesse Jackson has called for since at least 2014 and the Congressional Black Caucus has demanded since 2015. Over the years, tech companies have made slight progress in the area. In 2015, just months after the CBC called for more diversity at the board level, Apple appointed James Bell, former CFO and president of The Boeing Company, to its board of directors. In 2018, a handful of tech companies added Black people to their boards of directors, including Airbnb, Facebook and Slack. Still, boards of directors at tech companies are predominantly white and male.

That’s what makes Ohanian’s resignation and recommendation all the more important. It effectively removes himself from a position of power to make room for a Black person at the table. Now, Ohanian is making a shortlist of potential candidates to present to the board.

Tiffani Ashley Bell, founder of The Human Utility, is one person who has thrown her hat in the ring. As she noted, she “literally gave the entire technology industry (and some others based on messages I’ve gotten) the source code for eliminating white supremacy.”

It’s a great read, so be sure to check that out here. In it, she argues that dismantling white supremacy comes down to willingness. She presents a number of questions designed to foster self-reflection and enable people to examine their role in upholding white supremacy. She also emphasizes action.

She writes:

Are you willing to hold space for Black employees? As in, are any Black people even on your team―especially in leadership positions? If not, are you willing to treat hiring Black people as another growth challenge and hack it? Are you willing to recruit at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as enthusiastically as historically white colleges and universities? Has your company ever set up a table at the National Society of Black Engineers career fair?

As I mentioned earlier, this is not the first time the tech industry has responded to the brutal killing of a Black person. But something about this moment does feel different. Hamilton believes it’s because most people have been stuck at home for a long period of time in light of COVID-19.

“It is like the world and the country has a front-row seat to what Black people have to witness, take in, and feel all the time,” she told me. “And it was before they were seeing some of it, but they were seeing it kind of protected by us. We were kind of shielding them from some of it…It’s like a VR headset that the country is forced to be in because of COVID. It’s just in their face.”

At the moment, it’s hard to gauge what is performative and what might result in true change. But we’ll be following closely to see what, if anything, manifests from the latest platitudes from tech CEOs and investors.

TechCrunch has reached out to Salesforce. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

If you have any inside information about what some of these companies are doing, please get in touch. You can reach me at megan@techcrunch.com. PGP: E0B2 45C7 5FC7 545B 46B8  269C 0F6C 1A7F FFB5 E031