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.