As America Reckons With Racism, So Must The Tech Industry

Last week, a video went viral of Michael Lofthouse, a Silicon Valley IT services company CEO, angrily yelling anti-Asian racial slurs and making obscene gestures at the family beside him in a California restaurant on July 4th. Just a few days later, Lofthouse was no longer part of the organization.

According to reporting by Channel Futures, Lofthouse has a history of vandalism as well as violence, including domestic battery. Information available about his former firm, Solid8 (not to be confused with the UK-based consulting firm of the same name) is limited. On LinkedIn they describe themselves as “Cloud Transformation Experts.”

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As this incident comes amidst the current uptick in racist incidents stoked by President Trump and the reckoning with racism happening throughout the U.S., the tech sector must also confront racism within the industry.

Just two days before Lofthouse’s verbal attack, a shareholder of Oracle Corp., R. Andre Klein, filed a 106-page lawsuit regarding the company’s lack of diversity. Klein characterized Oracle’s public statements that diversity and inclusion are important to the company as “gross misrepresentations” in light of the company being “one of the few remaining publicly traded companies without a single African-American director,” as well as having no African American, Latino, Asian American “or other minority representatives” besides one. In 2019, Oracle was sued by the U.S. Justice Department for pay discrimination against women and minorities, and were also called out by Congress for discriminatory hiring and management practices.

Caroline Karanja, web developer and CEO of Hack the Gap, an organization that promotes equity and inclusion in tech, has pointed out the prevalence of racialized coding terms such as “whitelisting” and “blacklisting,” and “slave” and “master.” She advocates for replacing terms like these with “descriptive words that actually showcase or indicate what it is the code is actually doing,” and that such gestures need to be followed up with far greater investment in Black- and people-of-color-owned companies.

A 2017 report by Open MIC titled “Investing in Racial Diversity in Tech” found that Black people, Latinos, and Native Americans are underrepresented in tech by 16-18 percent. Those who do enter the industry report experiencing isolation, discrimination, and toxic work environments that cause them to leave the field at over 3.5 times the rate of white men.

The report makes four key recommendations to create change: “collecting and publicly disclosing more detailed industry data on demographics…; developing and publicly disclosing time-bound goals, with built-in accountability mechanisms; linking employee compensation and incentives to the achievement of goals, especially for senior leadership staff; and engaging white executives to make change.” They emphasize the multitude of evidence that shows diversity does not only make for healthier, more equitable work culture, but that it also “leads to stronger economic gains for companies, no matter the industry,” and that failure to take such steps “poses serious risks for investors, the tech sector and society at large.”

The report is hopeful: “[t]he challenge – for an industry that usually welcomes challenges – is to transform the workplace into one that works for everyone. It can be done.”