Silicon Valley's Invisible Blacks
CNN's Black in America 4 ignores the history of African Americans in technology. Here's what it missed.
The Internet has not escaped a black influence, either. One of the earliest startups was BlackPlanet, the social networking site founded by Omar Wasow, now a consultant to The Root. Black entrepreneurs such as E. David Ellington, who founded the news site NetNoir, and George Jackson, who founded the content portal Urban Box Office, realized early the potential of the Web for African Americans, a demographic that was not in the minds of the founders of Yahoo, MSN and other entrepreneurs in the mid-1990s to early 2000s. In 1999 our own editor-in-chief, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., and colleague Anthony Appia collaborated with Microsoft to produce a CD-ROM compilation of black history, Encarta Africana Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Black History and Culture.
It is important to reiterate this history because the historians of technology tend to gloss over the reality of the black presence. This is not unique to tech; the diminishing of black contributions to America is endemic. In his book The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture, Albert Murray points out the essential role that African Americans have played in American history: wars; Western expansion (explorers, cowboys and buffalo soldiers); music, art and literature; the age of invention (Lewis Lattimer, Elijah McCoy, George Washington Carver); social change (Martin Luther King Jr.) and politics (culminating with the election of Barack Obama in 2008). By lacking a historical context, programs like Black in America contribute to the collective amnesia that is only partly offset by mechanisms such as Black History Month -- or a focus on the struggles of contemporary black entrepreneurs.
But with such a distinguished history in technology, why are there so few black-led startups now? Or, as the popular press likes to put it: Where is the black Mark Zuckerberg? The expectation is unfair. The spectacular success of Zuckerberg's Facebook is rare; more than 80 percent of startups fail, and only one in 10 gets to pay back its investors.
There is little blatant racism in Silicon Valley. The small pipeline of African Americans with technology education means that few are in a position to seize the opportunities that exist. But subtle and unintended obstacles are part of our new racial reality today.
Hank Williams, one of the eight participants in the NewMe incubator, may have put it best in a blog posting after the Arrington flap. Tech markets are a meritocracy, concedes Williams. "But the market makers operate in a world that is not particularly evenhanded," he argues. "The market makers are the folks that help new young companies and entrepreneurs by providing insight, mentoring, capital and relationships. And this part of the tech world is driven by all the same types of biases that exist in the non-tech world."
Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of The Root, has edited several technology publications including PC Magazine, Information Week and Silicon Valley-based Red Herring, which covered venture capital and startups.
"The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley" will air Sunday, November 13 at 8 p.m. ET, and The Root will live stream a panel discussion about it hosted by Mario Armstrong, "Innovation Nation: Startup Success," from 9-10 p.m. ET. Follow the discussion on Twitter during the panel discussion, at #biaLIVE and #BlackInAmerica. We'll be live Tweeting from @TheRoot247.