Tech’s lip service to racial injustice

As protests of police violence continue in the US we’re beginning to see the steady trickle of large tech companies posting to social media about the events in solidarity.

These companies only started putting out statements after massive civil unrest started to form. George Floyd was killed May 25. The next day footage of his killing became widespread, but it wasn’t until days later, when there was massive protesting in the streets, that companies began putting out statements expressing empathy.

And as kind as these gestures appear, they don’t make up for the fact that these same companies are more than happy to participate in being racist in the first place. Companies will happily pay lip service to a less racist world, but if it meant having to turn a way a customer that embodies institutional racism (like ICE, for instance), that company will just throw up its arms and insist that it’s their duty to sell to these customers.

When employees try to object to this behavior, the companies’ executives will dismiss these employees’ viewpoints as a “difference of opinion” and that they can’t just use opinion like that as a basis for doing business with a customer.

A difference of opinion.

As in, “it’s my opinion that we shouldn’t do business with an organization that is rounding up people and putting them in literal concentration camps.” You know, just a little difference of opinion!

Law enforcement agencies around the US have deep-seated cultural issues of institutionalized racism. It’s baked into the behaviors of police officers and misconduct is incredibly widespread. Law enforcement is able to carry out its misconduct because it has the help of thousands of vendors that sell them the things they rely on, from cars, to uniforms, to computers, to software.

Every tool and service that a police department uses is made by a vendor, and every vendor has a choice not to offer their products and services to police departments if they don’t believe the police departments are behaving with good conduct.

But none do.

I’ve yet to see a single tech company come out and say “we’re going to audit our relationships with law enforcement agencies and we will end our relationship with agencies that don’t meet our standards”. Shopify’s CEO shared a heartfelt comment expressing his disgust with the injustice of George Floyd’s killing, but apparently he felt that cutting ties with Breitbart would be too much of an injustice to them (he since deleted his original post on Medium).

It’s nice and cheap to put out a statement denouncing racism and companies are happy to do it. But ask a company to take a meaningful step to stop racism and they’re all too eager to shy away from it.

To tech companies, systemic racism is a PR problem to be managed as long as it’s easy to do so, not an opportunity to acknowledge their own substantial role in it.