Race + Tech: Michael Arrington Can’t Ctrl-Alt-Delete His Foot From His Mouth

By Arturo R. García

There’s been something ugly brewing in Silicon Valley, and now it’s starting to seep to the surface, following preview screenings for Soledad O’Brien’s latest CNN special.

The clip up top is an excerpt from her interview with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington. The interview was taped in July, and is slated to air during the Nov. 13 episode of her Black In America documentary series focusing on the eight black entrepreneurs taking part in the NewMe Accelerator program.

In a commercial for the show, Arrington describes Silicon Valley as “a white and Asian world,” and in the interview, he goes so far as to tell O’Brien that he doesn’t know any black entrepreneurs.

Except that he really did. And Arrington’s been digging himself – and seemingly the tech industry around him – into a deeper hole ever since.

Here’s a transcript of the clip:

O’Brien: Who would you say is the Number 1 black technology entrepreneur?
Arrington: You know, that’s a weird question. Who would you say is the Number 1 black technology -
O’Brien: I don’t cover technology.
Arrington: I’m trying to think of any black CEOs in Silicon Valley, and I’m not even coming up with any.
O’Brien: Okay, so the entrepreneurs – the people who are making companies.
Arrington: I don’t know a single black entrepreneur.
O’Brien: And you cover the industry.
Arrington: I mean, there aren’t -
O’Brien: What does that say?
Arrington: It means there just aren’t any. It’s not a perfect meritocracy, but generally speaking, it doesn’t matter what your education is, it doesn’t matter who your parents are here. You can become very successful, based purely on your brain size and how you use it.

According to CNN’s Laurie Siegall, however, Arrington did correct himself at another point in the interview, telling O’Brien about one black entrepreneur who launched his company at a TechCrunch Disrupt event, at Arrington’s urging:

“His startup’s really cool,” Arrington said. “But he could’ve launched a clown show on stage, and I would’ve put him up there, absolutely. I think it’s the first time we’ve had an African-American [be] the sole founder.”

Arrington might be surprised to know, then, that there happens to be (gasp!) more than one black person running their own company in Silicon Valley, and as ZD Net’s Violet Blue has reported, they are furious with Arrington over his comments. One of them, consultant Adria Richards, knows who he was referring to:

The guy he had on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt NYC, he’s known for several years…and he basically called him a clown. Clarence Wooten sold his company, ImageCafe, for $23 million to Network Solutions in 1999, that’s over 10 years before Arrington sold TechCrunch to AOL for the same amount.

I’ve now likened it to Southern White male slave owner saying he has no idea why there are mixed babies cropping up on this plantation even though he damn well knows he’s been creeping down to the sheds at night.

Arrington has since compounded his gaffe on various online platforms, thanks to tweets like these:

And on his blog, where he uncorked this doozy of self-congratulation:

See, my brain database doesn’t categorize people in terms of skin color. Or hair color. Or sexual orientation. When I queried that database, under stressful circumstances, I got zero results.

That kind of statement would barely sound cute coming from a kid cosplaying a Cylon. Coming from a man who makes his living writing about and investing in the tech industry, it sounds skeevy and arrogant at best. And according to Mitch Kapor – an investor in NewMe, who has also been involved in developing seminal programs ranging from Lotus 1-2-3 to UUNET to the Mozilla Foundation to the company behind Second Life – it’s also, to borrow Arrington’s techno-babble, working from a deeply corrupted operating system:

A recent study, The Tilted Playing Field, indicates there are practices in recruiting, promotion, and retention within the IT sector which are problematic for women and under-represented people of color, and reduce their participation. Specific experiences of exclusion, bullying, difficulty balancing work/family are reported at much higher rates by underrepresented groups — i.e African Americans, Latina/o/s, and women of all backgrounds. Another vicious cycle at play. “If I’m not going to be valued or respected, then I’m outta here.” Meanwhile, Caucasian and Asian male engineers and managers report that their companies spend the right amount of time on diversity.

Silicon Valley likes to think it operates as a pure meritocracy, e.g., it’s the best teams and ideas which get funded. In practice, as luminaries from John Doerr to Ron Conway acknowledge, key decisions are often guided by a combination of pattern-matching based on superficial characteristics and the network of people you already know. More on this here and here.

If “young, white, geeky, and Stanford/Harvard/MIT dropout”, then “invest”, is a kind of mental shortcut that is anything but objective. This is mirror-tocracy not meritocracy.

Being meritocratic is a really worthy aspiration, but will require active mitigation of individual and organizational bias. The operation of hidden bias in our cognitive apparatus is a well-documented phenomenon in neuroscience. We may think we are acting rationally and objectively, but our brains deceive us.

Arrington has also accused CNN and O’Brien of sandbagging him, writing that the network did not mention race in its’ original interview request from O’Brien’s producer for Black In America, Kimberly Arp Babbit, which read in part:

We are producing, what we think is the first major broadcast news documentary on the Silicon Valley accelerator phenomenon and start-up culture. In this culture, Michael Arrington is God and TechCrunch is the bible.

The CNN “In America” documentary unit, led by special correspondent and anchor Soledad O’Brien, has produced a number of award winning long form documentaries.

This particular documentary will be told through the experience of a group of digital entrepreneurs who travel to Silicon Valley to chase their dreams.

He also wrote that, when O’Brien asked him if he’d heard of the NewMe program, to which he answered, “Nope. But [Arrington] said that sounded awesome.” Another TechCrunch writer subsequently covered NewMe’s inaugural demo event.

However, O’Brien has posted another e-mail sent to someone working with Arrington sent four days before the interview, at least one of which specifically mentioned NewMe and the program O’Brien was interviewing him for. So either Arrington’s memory storage capacity is limited, or somebody didn’t upload the proper talking points for him. Or maybe, like a lot of people before him, Arrington has only just realized his default setting was on Privileged this whole time, and doesn’t want to fess up to it.

  • Anonymous

    Do you work in tech?  B/c I can tell you that it doesn’t happen, and the people you mentioned didn’t drop out of college b/c they were geniuses who had it all figured out and who knew everything.
    Steve Jobs dropped out of college b/c he had no money.  His working class parents couldn’t pay his tuition so he only made it through one year.

    Both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were upper middle class, and Bill Gates has well-connected parents who could either help him meet the right people and/or could support him through whatever he liked.   He went to Harvard for about a year or two and I think Zuckerberg went for 2 years.   See, dropping out would not have had permanent consequences had either of them failed and needed to return to school.  I actually know black people who dropped out of places like MIT or Stanford to give things a go-do you think they get treated special or were able to get access to funding despite having the skills that you mention.  But it does cause problems with scholarships and financial aid and most of them never manage to return.  If your parents can pay for it or borrow the money for you, then dropping for for a possible business idea is a safe gamble to take.  

    Young guys like Zuckerberg benefit from the stereotype of young, Ivy or MIT/Stanford/Cal Tech drop-outs and when people like him make pitches, they get money.  When people like me(e.g. black) make pitches they probably don’t.  

    Also, don’t underestimate the role that others played in the success that you mentioned.  They all encountered and worked with people who had ideas and skills that they used.  Wozniak was the programmer at Apple, not Jobs. Jobs was the visionary.  He didn’t have the technical skills.  They were not the singular geniuses that people like to sometimes make them out to be, and esp. in the case of Jobs and Gates, they most definitely DID use the kinds of guys who were living in their parents’ basements or garages and could do little more than program.  You need people like that, esp. in the EARLY days of computing when things were not dumbed down for the average user. At one point you had to really understand programming language to use a computer.  You had to have people who knew Fortran for example.  Now you only have to push a button.

    And finally, the companies you mention do not hire dropouts anymore.  They go to the schools that they dropped out of to hire people who were top of their class.  They don’t go below top 10 schools and grad schools.  They go to the top 3 consulting firms and the executive ranks of other major companies and hire grads from HBS, Wharton, and Stanford GSB (and a few select others).  

    There are a LOT of myths about how these people got to where they got and they are given  credit for ideas and skills that they never possessed.  What they did possess however was the ability to connect with people and to get people who had what they needed to work with them AND each other.  That is really the genius of it all.  No one climbs to the top of the mountain alone.  

    • Anonymous

      I do work in tech (well, back at The Farm for the time being, so…still connected but not in the day to day).  Drop-out hiring absolutely does still happen.  Less as a firm gets bigger, but at the startup <30 employee level?  Absolutely.  

      There is absolutely a bias against (nontraditional SV) minority founders and I won't argue with you on that point.  See (http://images.magnetmail.net/images/clients/NVCA/attach/VentureCensus2011PRFINAL.pdf) for the latest.

      The only company I mentioned in my post was Facebook, and they usually don't hire consulting and B-school types for their engineering positions.  I have no idea where you got that from.

      I agree that no one gets to the top of the mountain without help, but it certainly hurts when people who say they're looking out for you are actively trying to push you down — see the rest of my post, where I talk about my friend getting actively discouraged from continuing in engineering.  It's not isolated; even Neil DeGrasse Tyson has had to deal with this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0I5Fl1Qn-Do&feature=BFa&list=FLhRewRWzM-vh6AQkYY9tLew&lf=mh_lolz#t=30m0s 

      • Anonymous

        Yes, and my point though was that that companies you mentioned don’t do the drop out hiring anymore.  You contradicted your own example.  You mentioned FB as your example, and I countered that they are quite elitist in their hiring practices.   Their CEO is a drop-out but he surrounds himself with seasoned, highly degreed, management types.  Not innovative drop outs. A tiny start-up will hire a drop out b/c they can probably pay then less and offer shares to make up the difference.  A person with a formal education won’t be inclined and probably can’t afford to do that.   And a minority can’t risk being a drop out b/c if the job or business plan fails, employers will just treat you like an ignorant, black drop-out.
        Also the fact that for all of the hype, the early employees who are still around aren’t that impressive b/c when they started, there were jobs a plenty and in some cases the bar was low.  I work with a lot of people who don’t have college degrees and aren’t technical geniuses but make a lot of money and/or are in the upper echelons of management b/c they were here first.  I’d be first to admit that companies in the SV seem to have a love/hate relationship with pedigree.
        But my biggest beef is that when you are black or brown, none of it matters.  You won’t find black or brown people who got hired early on just b/c there were lots of jobs.   Maybe we don’t make up the majority of programming geniuses but the ones who are won’t get hired as high schoolers(granted, that is a hobby that requires that you be at least middle class if only b/c of costs alone).  You won’t find the ones properly pedigreed who are able to make lots of traction(e.g. my current life).  And you won’t find the pedigreed but drop outs able to get funding or support.

        People might get discouragement from grandma for dropping out of college or not going to law school, but the BIGGEST hurdle is that when making pitches ,there is bias for some groups and against others.  I get it…my parents would have preferred that I stayed in med school instead of dropping out for an MBA . But most parents don’t pay for grad school even if they have the money, so it didn’t really matter.  

        You could probably pitch the same idea at different times and I’m sure that the answer will be different for the founders depending on their race.  

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  • Anonymous

    I work in the tech industry too, and my experience has been that they like to ignore the fact that it even matters that there are no Blacks or Latinos (or at least very few) working at the major tech giants or at the start-ups.  Now in the Bay Area, the black population is definitely a lot lower(and steadily dropping) than in other parts of the country, however it should be obvious to anyone that the large Latino population has missed out on the money that has been raining down from the sky in the region.  The majority of Latinos I see at work are the cleaning staff, the shuttle drivers, and the cafeteria workers.  
    I’ve noticed that the whites that I work with are perfectly content defining diversity by the fact that there are lots of East Asians and Indians.  Or they will mention diversity but claim that the diversity of thought that they possess is actually SUPERIOR than the “other” type of diversity which they lack.  And yet I spend each day being the only black person in the room, in the cafeteria, pretty much everywhere with few exceptions.  But no one else notices that.  And it gets old really fast.  I mean, having been inside some of the big companies, how much of a chance does anyone think that a Black or Latino person has of getting selected…and this includes people who have the kinds of academic credentials that they supposedly foam at the mouth for.  Even working for one of the giants in the Valley, with 3 degrees(2 in engineering, and 2 advanced), being Ivy-educated, I wouldn’t count on having much mobility in the industry, and when I decide to move on, I’m pretty sure it will be from this region.  I had a really hostile interview at one company with someone who I think was determined to show me that I was barely mediocre but I’m pretty sure a white or Asian male with my resume would not have been treated that way.  (So after asking for a story about a particular accomplishment, he kept saying “is that all?” as if the story I told was really inadequate.”The other thing that makes no sense is that now being on the inside, there really isn’t any good reason for it, because at one point jobs were so plentiful that the bar to get inside these companies was not that high and didn’t require an elite education at all, although I feel as though that bar is being used against Blacks and Latinos.  I’d like someone to explain to me why being a white Stanford drop-out is superior to being a black Stanford grad for example.  Loads of people don’t have technical degrees, and certainly aren’t dropouts from MIT, Stanford, etc. So it’s ironic that the people deciding whether or not you are worthy did not have to clear the same hurdles that are being placed in front of you.It is interesting how a nerdy white guy who doesn’t have a formal education is somehow deemed automatically clever enough to deserve $100M in VC funding(I’ve been to some pitches), even though we had the past dot.com bust and some high profile recent stories that show that these people are just as fallible and human as the rest of us (and we know that having too much or too little business acumen can spell trouble when people decide to get “creative” with their accounting).But the hubris in the Silicon Valley is astounding, and definitely rivals what is found on Wall Street.

  • Anonymous

    I work in the tech industry too, and my experience has been that they like to ignore the fact that it even matters that there are no Blacks or Latinos (or at least very few) working at the major tech giants or at the start-ups.  Now in the Bay Area, the black population is definitely a lot lower(and steadily dropping) than in other parts of the country, however it should be obvious to anyone that the large Latino population has missed out on the money that has been raining down from the sky in the region.  The majority of Latinos I see at work are the cleaning staff, the shuttle drivers, and the cafeteria workers.  
    I’ve noticed that the whites that I work with are perfectly content defining diversity by the fact that there are lots of East Asians and Indians.  Or they will mention diversity but claim that the diversity of thought that they possess is actually SUPERIOR than the “other” type of diversity which they lack.  And yet I spend each day being the only black person in the room, in the cafeteria, pretty much everywhere with few exceptions.  But no one else notices that.  And it gets old really fast.  I mean, having been inside some of the big companies, how much of a chance does anyone think that a Black or Latino person has of getting selected…and this includes people who have the kinds of academic credentials that they supposedly foam at the mouth for.  Even working for one of the giants in the Valley, with 3 degrees(2 in engineering, and 2 advanced), being Ivy-educated, I wouldn’t count on having much mobility in the industry, and when I decide to move on, I’m pretty sure it will be from this region.  I had a really hostile interview at one company with someone who I think was determined to show me that I was barely mediocre but I’m pretty sure a white or Asian male with my resume would not have been treated that way.  (So after asking for a story about a particular accomplishment, he kept saying “is that all?” as if the story I told was really inadequate.”The other thing that makes no sense is that now being on the inside, there really isn’t any good reason for it, because at one point jobs were so plentiful that the bar to get inside these companies was not that high and didn’t require an elite education at all, although I feel as though that bar is being used against Blacks and Latinos.  I’d like someone to explain to me why being a white Stanford drop-out is superior to being a black Stanford grad for example.  Loads of people don’t have technical degrees, and certainly aren’t dropouts from MIT, Stanford, etc. So it’s ironic that the people deciding whether or not you are worthy did not have to clear the same hurdles that are being placed in front of you.It is interesting how a nerdy white guy who doesn’t have a formal education is somehow deemed automatically clever enough to deserve $100M in VC funding(I’ve been to some pitches), even though we had the past dot.com bust and some high profile recent stories that show that these people are just as fallible and human as the rest of us (and we know that having too much or too little business acumen can spell trouble when people decide to get “creative” with their accounting).But the hubris in the Silicon Valley is astounding, and definitely rivals what is found on Wall Street.

    • http://twitter.com/starvingwriter1 Ebony Harding

      I’d like someone to explain to me why being a white Stanford drop-out is superior to being a black Stanford grad for example. 
      I can totally relate to this. Once again, this is just another way to make sure that poc remember to stay in their place.  Funny how back in the day, the ivy league schools prevented blacks and other poc from entering their doors–and now that you’re having blacks and other poc with degrees from those schools, it’s suddenly not as “important” or either we get accused of getting in because of affirmative action. 

      Sadly, when I was younger I remember my parents telling me that I will always have to work twice as hard than my white counterparts. I sort of understood what they meant by that, but now as an adult I fully comprehend it after experiencing it. Like I told one of my friends, pretty much all of my white male friends under the age of 40 are steadily employed. And then I have both a bachelor’s and master’s, PLUS the experience and all I’m able to get is a freelance job here and there…

  • Kaydee-P

    I hope Mr. Wooten gives his old buddy a call and rips him a new one.

  • Kaydee-P

    I hope Mr. Wooten gives his old buddy a call and rips him a new one.

  • http://chainreading.com/profile/baiskeli Baiskeli

    I’m black, I’m in tech (I’m a sotware engineer) and have been for almost 2 decades. I’ve worked at both startups and established companies. I love what I do, but the field is definitely not minority and female friendly. And I’ve seen it overtly and at a former company, very directly. So color me surprised at Michael Arrington’s statements (not!)

  • http://chainreading.com/profile/baiskeli Baiskeli

    I’m black, I’m in tech (I’m a sotware engineer) and have been for almost 2 decades. I’ve worked at both startups and established companies. I love what I do, but the field is definitely not minority and female friendly. And I’ve seen it overtly and at a former company, very directly. So color me surprised at Michael Arrington’s statements (not!)

  • http://rvcbard.blogspot.com RVCBard

    “It’s OK, buddy. It’s not you. It’s just like you said – the limitations of your brain size.”

  • Jjoneluv

    I’m shocked about his behavior.  Then they talk about how they hate Affirmative Action when these types of situations are so pervasive in America. 

  • Jjoneluv

    I’m shocked about his behavior.  Then they talk about how they hate Affirmative Action when these types of situations are so pervasive in America. 

  • Digital Coyote

    “I don’t know a single black [person].” 

    There.  Fixed it for you.  Probably why your database had “zero results.”

    Beyond that, if he’s saying we need open immigration, he’s not interested in developing the talents of people from here.  Not surprising if he thinks a person’s brain size has anything to do with their success.  Something about that seems like race–and a few other–biases.

  • k.eli

    Patting yourself on the back for putting a black guy on the stage simply because he’s black and not because of his actual ideas is to me as offensive as it gets. All he’s basically saying is that he doesn’t view anyone who isn’t a white or Asian male as actually being capable and apt for the job. In his mind, they are simply accessories to put on stage so as to deflect charges of bias and discrimination in SV.

  • guest

    ummmmmm…..what did he think they’d ask him about:  Soledad O’Brien. Being Black in America. yes i can see how a question about race would “sandbag” him.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1164481042 Mieko Gavia

    wow.  That clip would have been hilarious if it weren’t so sad.  He didn’t just put his foot in his mouth–he shoveled  it there and ate it for dinner.