Taxes, pensions finance high tech bias

Why are only one in 60 computer professionals in Santa Clara County, CA (the area known as Silicon Valley) African-American and two out of three in Prince George’s County, MD?

The quick response would be that more black people live in Prince George’s County.  But when I was attending Howard University in the 1970s, PG was a rural white farming enclave just like Santa Clara County was filled with orchards.

But when a new job as editor of the San Jose Business Journal brought me to San Jose in 1987 at the dawn of the personal computer age, I was quite surprised to find a lot of African-Americans in Santa Clara County in the technology business.  Many were military veterans like Dr. Frank Greene and some were scientists and mathematicians like Roy Clay Sr. and Howard Smith.  Others were management experts like Ken Coleman or Linda Parker or Theresa Isaacs.

We even formed a Black Executive Forum in the early 1990s where you couldn’t get in the room unless you had a budget of $10 million and had 200 people show up.  

How we got from there to here is a lesson in the importance of public policy.  When the Dept. of Defense was Silicon Valley’s main customer and financier, the makeup of the companies was near the 20 percent of African-Americans in the armed forces. Hands that fire missiles are usually pretty good with software too.  Many of the veterans branched off into their own businesses. It also helped that Hewlett-Packard founder David Packard took from his experience as Deputy Defense Secretary the importance of equal opportunity programs.

Rather than being harnessed to improve society, high tech became a financial speculation arena with billions being tossed through pension funds that average people worked hard to accumulate into venture capital funds.   The goal became the biggest IPO (initial public offering) instead of creating integrated learning systems for schools. The drive to boost earnings led to the approach of bringing technologists from low-wage countries to the United States, instead of the folks who had served our country; and then shipping plants overseas.   So the Cold War dividend, no pun intended, went to the “losing”‘ side like China, Romania and Georgia (the Central Asian one).

When some of the early black tech pioneers asked me to do an exhibition at the Tech Museum of Innovation in 1998, the African-American presence in Silicon Valley had practically disappeared already.  An article in the San Francisco Chronicle by Julia Angwin, now with the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that fewer than four percent of high tech employees were black.

In 2006, according to the latest government estimates, only 1.7 percent of computer professionals in Santa Clara County are African-American.  In Prince George’s County, where state and local officials fostered entrepreneurship, actually helping black businesses gain federal contracts, that percentage is 64 percent.

Even in Los Angeles County, which has roughly the same total number of computer professionals, the black percentage is 6.5 percent, close to the national average of 6.8 percent.

We’ve pointed out in the eight annual Silicon Ceiling reports since 1998 that 80 percent of the high tech government contractors in Northern California do not file the required EEO-1 reports and in the second report, ran a sting operation where we sent the resumes of qualified black technologists to 100 companies which had applied for H1-B visas and not a single one got an interview.

The Congressional Black Caucus was solidly behind our efforts.  Reps. Maxine Waters, D-CA, Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-TX and Barbara Lee, D-CA even stormed down to the White House insisting that then-President Clinton not sign a bill to increase the limit on guest worker visas.  Clinton did anyway.

A proposal being negotiated between the caucus and high tech lobbyists to actually create a national training program made some progress, but the negotiations ended as soon as the Supreme Court gave the presidency to George Bush. And we know how he’s felt about civil rights.

It’s ironic that the very folks who like to question other folks patriotism and attack “Communism” have given away the United States’ technological advantages unconditionally to countries across the globe. We can’t find Al Queda in Pakistan, but your medical records are likely being processed there.

It takes one week to fax in a foreign guest worker’s visa application to the Labor Department and have it processed, but six years for the federal government to process a civil rights complaint against a federal contractor.

Whether by our taxpayer dollars, our consumer purchases or our pension funds, we’ve paid for the privilege of boosting foreign economies so much that their demand for gasoline is driving up our prices.

So who gets elected to Congress, your state legislature or the Presidency matters. There could be 200,000 more blacks working in high tech if their ratio was the same as blacks in the general labor force. In cities like Chicago and Houston, that is the case so the fiction that blacks can’t be found is just that.


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