Tech + Health

08.22.14

We Need to Talk About Silicon Valley's Racism

America’s fastest growing financial and political powerbase is totally dominated by white men. This is not progress.

In a culture that maintains its belief in the individualism of the American entrepreneurial spirit, we tend to turn Silicon Valley tech founders into heroes and public figures. When Steve Jobs passed away, shrines were built for him around the world, from Cupertino to Beijing. In 2010, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg received the star treatment in David Fincher’s The Social Network. Even Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey is entering the public eye, thanks to his recent march alongside protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting.

But if you don’t work in the tech industry, you have probably never heard of people like Chris Sacca, the tech investor behind Lowercase Capital, which has, as his company website notes, “quietly become one of the largest venture funds in the United States.” Sacca has invested in dozens of tech start-ups including, most notably, Twitter, Uber, Instagram, and Kickstarter. You’ll never see a Chris Sacca biopic but his behind-the-scenes influence in the tech sector is substantial.

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Sacca belongs to an elite set of tech investors that Forbes labels “The Midas List,” 100 venture capitalists with staggeringly profitable portfolios in the tech industry. And if you scroll down the complete Midas List, some visible trends begin to emerge. The featured photo for the list, first of all, is as white as a loaf of Wonder Bread and as male as a football locker room. There are only four women on the list, none of whom rank in the Top 20. And of the 96 men on the Midas List, the overwhelming majority appear to be white, including every single member of the Top 10. Chris Sacca comes in at number 12.

These wealthy Silicon Valley tech investors gain access to a level of influence that far outstrips their public visibility. Like celebrities, they have the ability to broadcast their opinions to millions of people because of their position in the tech industry but, unlike celebrities, they can remain out of the public eye, speaking loudly from hidden podiums. And given the rising financial and political power of the tech industry, the racial homogeneity of this elite group of investors is troubling, especially in light of their occasional public comments.

Sacca, for example, recently used his own podium to publish a blog post entitled “A few thoughts on race, America, and our President” on the official Lowercase Capital website. In reaction to President Obama’s perceived discomfort with his role as president in the Ferguson situation, Sacca speaks out against racism, chides Obama for his lack of energy, and urges him to “be brave” in his public comments on the Ferguson shooting. This blog post is marked by an overwhelming paternalism as Sacca, a wealthy white man, advises Obama on how best to navigate his precarious position as a black president. Even though Obama supposedly told Sacca last year in a private conversation that he needs to avoid the label of “angry black man,” Sacca nevertheless claims that “what we need now is for our President to be angry,” adding that “the fact that he is black is even better.” Sacca puts himself in position to judge the political value of Obama’s blackness with no acknowledgment of his own social position as a wealthy white man.

And although he chides Obama for his “middle-of-the-road stuff,” decrying his “reasoned, parsed, calm rhetoric,” Sacca himself fears being labeled as “one-sided” in his opinion on Ferguson. In a paragraph that has since earned the ire of Gawker’s Valley Wag, Sacca writes:

Now before you label me as one-sided on this issue, let me say from what I have seen, it appears Michael Brown was an asshole. If it is in fact him in the videotape from the convenience store, then he was acting like an asshole and likely would have deserved some form of criminal prosecution. The store owner deserved justice.

Sacca goes on to clarify that he does not believe that Darren Wilson was justified in shooting Brown but, for some reason, he still feels it necessary to weigh in on the issue of Brown’s character based on the security footage. Sacca wants to push Obama to the left, it seems, because the middle of the road properly belongs to white men like himself.

And Sacca’s own road of unexamined racism has been paved by several tech investors and startup executives before him. Last year, Uber investor Jason Calacanis claimed that “there isn’t a race wall in tech,” publicly berating critics who were pointing out the obvious underrepresentation of non-white people in the tech industry and tech writing. In a wince-inducing blog post, Calacanis claimed that “we’re on the precipice of a post-race world” and that the tech industry “accept[s] anyone based on their performance.” Far from acknowledging his own privilege, Calacanis snarked: “I’m a white guy so I’m not allowed to talk about race. At least that’s what they tell me.”

But if Sacca represents the unexamined racism of a “well-intentioned” white man and Calacanis represents the conservative racism of a white man who believes there is a meritocracy despite all evidence to the contrary, then tech executives Peter Shih and Greg Gopman bring up the rear with a noxious brand of elitist racism that has survived the 19th century unscathed. Earlier this year, as Pando reports, Shih and Gopman wrote blog posts that expressed a visceral disdain for the visible, racialized dynamic of homelessness that characterizes downtown San Francisco. In his blog post, Gopman implied that in an ideal city, there should be “an area of town for degenerates and an area of town for the working class,” unlike San Francisco, where homelessness is hypervisible in the wealthy downtown area. While both men later retracted their comments, their careers do not appear to have suffered for them. As Sfist reports, Shih just received a $2 million investment for a new company and Gopman runs a seminar that helps other tech start-ups “develop stronger culture.” Yes, a man who unironically uses the word “degenerates” feels qualified to develop culture.

In light of the increasing political clout of Silicon Valley, the fact that black entrepreneurs continue to face barriers to access is even more concerning.

It is easy to dismiss white tech investors like Sacca as people who suddenly gain access to a wide audience despite the fact that their social views have not advanced alongside their fortune. As Sam Biddle writes at Valley Wag: “This is what happens when we turn professional check-writers into pundits: they fill the vacuum with noise. They are in over their heads, with an audience of millions.” But writing them off with such a casual brush of the hand belies the enormous political influence that white tech investors are beginning to demonstrate in the United States. Blog posts from tech investors aren’t just meaningless bloviating; rather, they reflect the social attitudes of a group of people who control the money behind one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing industries in the United States.

As Forbes reports, the technology sector is “now the second-most common way American billionaires made their fortune,” right behind investment. And the political influence that inevitably accrues alongside these burgeoning tech fortunes is only now beginning to manifest itself. As The New York Times noted in 2012, the “technology industry [is] more engaged than ever in the wheeling and dealing of Washington,” as political candidates vie for the approval of Silicon Valley founders and executives like Facebook investor Marc Andreessen, who has historically supported Obama but gave over $100,000 to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Peter Thiel, too, who clocks in at No. 4 on the Midas List, donated nearly $5 million to right-wing efforts in 2012. The tech industry, it seems, is flexing its political muscle more than ever before.

In light of the increasing political clout of Silicon Valley, the fact that black entrepreneurs continue to face barriers to access is even more concerning. In 2011, CNN’s series “Black in America” drew attention to the underrepresentation of black people in the tech industry. At the time, CNN reported that less than 2 percent of entrepreneurs receiving venture capital were black. The documentary sparked a national conversation on race in the tech industry with entrepreneurs like Angela Benton and Vivek Wadhwa drawing attention to the racism implicit in tech investment’s practice of “pattern-matching,” undisclosed techniques that investors use to determine whose projects to back. Pattern-matching supposedly favors inherently successful candidate traits but, in practice, as CNN notes, it tends to favor “white computer-science graduates of Stanford University or a similar elite school.”

In an email interview, Monique Woodard, a tech entrepreneur and co-founder of the Black Founders project, noted that tech investment is still failing black tech entrepreneurs:

The biggest obstacle for black founders is still access to capital. The numbers of venture-backed companies founded by black and Latino entrepreneurs is still embarrassingly low and we are a less innovative industry because of it. At early stage, black entrepreneurs have limited resources for ‘friends and family’ rounds. At later funding stages, black entrepreneurs often don’t have access to the networks of investors where funding decisions are being made.

It was with this obstacle in mind that Woodard helped to create Black Founders in 2011 to make black entrepreneurs “more visible to investors, tech media, and the tech community at large.” Woodard shies away from dismissing Silicon Valley as categorically “racist” but she does believe that its current lack of “diversity” and “cultural sensitivity” have created an environment in which black entrepreneurs are not getting backed by venture capitalists and tech investors.

What this means is that, while white tech investors like Chris Sacca are increasingly using their platforms to comment on race, they are also failing to invest in black entrepreneurs in the first place. As Model View Media founder and cultural critic Shanley observed, almost none of the startups that Sacca has invested in appear to have black founders. “Maybe a good place to start” in combating racism, she told him on Twitter after his blog post went live, “would be using your power and money to fund black founders instead of blogging.”

White male tech investors like Sacca are more than just a privileged class of people who have a follower count that surpasses their understanding of the social world. Because of their wealth, they gain access to political power and influence in a nation whose economy is beginning to orbit around Silicon Valley. They feel entitled to comment on race in the United States even as they fail to invest in black founders in their own industry, in effect, barring black entrepreneurs from gaining a foothold in the increasingly powerful tech industry. And because they are one step removed from the founding figures that tend to enjoy the public spotlight, white tech investors like Sacca will continue to fly under the radar, exerting a quiet social influence. Their blog posts might not be well-written but their money speaks volumes.