Twitter’s Former Manager of Journalism and News Shares What it’s Like Being Black in Silicon Valley

Mark Luckie (Photo: Tinnetta Bell)
Mark Luckie (Photo: Tinnetta Bell)

by Mark S. Luckie

My fingertips danced with delight as I frantically typed away at my computer.

“I just saw a new Black person! Does anyone know who it is?”

I circulated the email to the “Blackbirds,” Twitter’s internal group for Black employees. In my three years as Manager of Journalism and News at the company, I was always thrilled whenever a new hire of color joined our ranks. By the end of the day, the Blackbirds were buzzing amongst ourselves. We lavished the new employee with our customary welcome to Twitter’s vibrant workplace.

Weeks after our new colleague’s induction, I had to break the news to the group that I would soon leave the company I loved. Witnessing firsthand the lack of faces of color instilled in me the desire to apply my technology skills toward the visibility of Blacks in media.

At Twitter, an estimated two percent of employees are Black, a number that is less than shocking to those who work inside its many offices. A cursory look around the company’s San Francisco headquarters would reveal a sea of mostly White and Asian faces.

Facebook and Google’s self-reported numbers reflect much of the same. Both employ a few hundred Black workers among tens of thousands. The widespread underrepresentation of faces of color in tech is already alarming. However, the situation is more dire than raw numbers project. A deeper census would show that few of those accounted for occupy leadership or engineering positions compared to their fairer-skinned counterparts.

So why aren’t there more Black people roaming the campuses of technology companies?

The most impactful detriment to diversity in Silicon Valley is the idea of “culture fit.” Employees are actively encouraged to suggest friends or former colleagues for open roles. The premise is if the employee and the candidate have a congenial relationship outside of the company, the new recruit is more likely to work well with other staffers. The recommended candidates are given preference or special attention during the recruiting process. It should come as no surprise then that there aren’t more applicants of color to select from.

White Americans have 91 times as many white friends as Black friends, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Three-quarters of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. If current employees don’t know any people of color then they have none to recommend.

Additionally, candidates are pooled from the same universities. The Stanfords and Berkeleys of the world, which themselves suffer from low numbers of enrolled students of color, are considered the gateway to top talent.

Black candidates who do get their foot in the door face another set of problems. Employees of color are statistically paid less by a considerable margin, according to the American Institute for Economic Research. Also, they will see very few people who look like them.

At Twitter, the number of service, janitorial and security contractors of color far outpaced the number of full-time employees from minority backgrounds.

Because of this shortcoming, nearly every Black and Latino employee at Twitter knew each other, if not by sight then by name. When we saw each other in the bird-themed hallways, we’d offer a head nod or smile, even if we worked on separate teams. Three or more Black or Latino staffers gathered together was a rare sight, one that would amusingly cause heads to turn.

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Mark S. Luckie is the former manager of journalism and news at Twitter. He is the author of The Digital Journalist’s Handbook and DO U., a novel about life at a historically Black college. Luckie is a career journalist and part of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist team for Local Reporting.

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