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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Just as Tech Looked Serious About Diversity, Trump Intervenes

Hiring is necessarily exclusionary. Hiring one person for a position means not choosing someone else. Some forms of exclusion are acceptable (an applicant lacks talent); some are unacceptable (an applicant lacks a penis); and some seem good, but mask bad intentions (an applicant wouldn’t be a good “culture fit,” often a smokescreen for race or sex).

The Trump administration is stepping up its scrutiny of diversity initiatives, creating a dilemma for tech companies. Many promised to support racial justice this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Now, they must navigate conflicting pressures to both increase and suspend their efforts to hire more people of color.

Both sides of the diversity culture war pledge the same value: It’s wrong to exclude someone because of their race or sex. But unfair exclusion is in the eye of the beholder. The Trump administration says recruiting and hiring more people of color is exclusionary. Activists and many employees hold that the paltry number of Black and brown employees at all levels in Silicon Valley is proof of exclusion.

Last week, the US Labor Department sent an inquiry letter to Microsoft, warning that its June commitment to doubling the number of Black leaders in the company “appears to imply that employment action may be taken on the basis of race.” Dev Stahlkopf, Microsoft’s corporate VP, posted a lengthy rebuttal, disputing that the company was doing anything illegal and defending its goal to diversify.

“We hire and promote the most qualified person,” Stahlkopf wrote. “And nothing we announced in June changes that.”

The Labor Department letter is just one part of an administrative assault on diversity efforts nationwide.

In September, Trump issued an executive order banning critical race theory and racial sensitivity training from federal agencies and organizations that receive federal funds, which includes many universities, as well as tech companies like Microsoft. Trump’s order called this “blame-focused diversity training” that uses “ subtle coercive pressure to ensure conformity of viewpoint.” Since then, some colleges and businesses have suspended anti-bias training and reviewed diversity initiatives to avoid falling out of compliance. Earlier this month, the Justice Department sued Yale, claiming the university discriminates against white and Asian applicants.


The Trump administration has been hostile to diversity efforts since its inception, but the effort shifted into overdrive as the election nears and companies are asked to make good on their pledges for racial justice. After the September executive order, the Office of Management and Budget encouraged federal agencies to review diversity training material that contains terms like “white privilege,” “intersectionality,” “systemic racism,” or “unconscious bias.”

Last week, the actor William Jackson Harper tweeted that the order amounted to “censorship” after two military academies pulled out of a planned screening and discussion of Spike Lee’s 1992 film, Malcolm X. The nonprofit Arts in the Armed Forces, which offers arts and film opportunities for service members and cadets, invited Harper to screen a film of his choosing followed by a Q&A. After Harper, the son of a Marine, chose Malcolm X, officials from two academies said they were concerned the film would violate the order against encouraging critical race theory. The screening continued without the two academies.

“This executive order is an attempt to censor certain difficult truths that still haunt our society,” Harper tweeted.

Fundamental to the field of critical race theory is the idea that certain groups of people are rewarded with advantages they haven’t earned and rectifying this takes years of intentional effort. Ideas and concepts relating to critical race theory are present in Big Tech’s June statements on racial justice as well as annual diversity reports.

Whatever the rhetoric, there's been little result. Between 2014 and 2018, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft each reported that the percentage of Black tech workers at those companies increased by less than 1 percentage point.

Diversity has long been a challenge for the tech industry. If public support for the ideals of racial equity meant substantive change, the industry would look very different. But to those who believe attempts to increase diversity are exclusionary, the lack of results is immaterial.

If a company-wide commitment to hiring a Black manager over a white manager is evidence of unfair discrimination, what does it mean that only 3 percent of Microsoft’s leaders are Black? Since 2015, the company’s workforce has climbed to 4.5 percent Black from 3.4 percent Black. Presumably thousands of white applicants were selected for leadership positions over black candidates. If both of these statements are true, which one is proof of unfair exclusion?

The Trump administration’s new pressures on diversity initiatives will likely impede the hiring of people of color across multiple industries, including tech companies that don’t have Microsoft's legal budget. This will have a bigger impact on the makeup of companies than diversity initiatives, which was likely the goal. What won’t change is whether anyone sees the statistics as evidence of systemic exclusion. If these diversities initiatives do little, Trump’s goal is to do nothing.

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