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‘We’ve seen many of these pledges before . . . and not much impact at all’

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In summer 2020, protests erupted across the U.S., sparked by the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans. Within the tech industry, many leaders made public statements, financial commitments, and policy changes meant to improve equity and inclusion within their walls—and in the products they peddle.

To commemorate the first anniversary of these protests, Fast Company partnered with The Plug, a publication that covers the Black innovation economy, to examine what those commitments are, what they have achieved—and how much work still remains. (You can see the resulting data visualizations and first-person testimonials from Black employees, entrepreneurs, and customers here.)

For Charlton McIlwain, a vice provost and professor at NYU and author of the book Black Software: The Internet and Racial Justice, from the AfroNet to Black Lives Matter, the structural problems inherent to the tech industry’s mode of operation will take much more than lip service to address.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The George Floyd protests prompted companies in the tech industry to acknowledge their failure to be inclusive places for people of color and to promise to do better in the future. Particularly from your historical perspective, do you have any thoughts on the promises they made and whether there has been any progress since then?

Charlton McIlwain: I do think there’s some optimism in the pledges that were made after George Floyd and related incidents. Across the board with tech companies, you started to see familiar lines, familiar pledges, which had to do with everything from diversifying the tech workforce, to pledging money and financial resources to civil rights organizations, to boning up on the work that companies do amongst their own organizations to fight for racial justice.

I’m optimistic in the sense that the times and circumstance generated this volume of attention and response from the tech community and from the highest leadership in many of these organizations. That said, I remain relatively pessimistic. That’s because in some way, shape, or form, we’ve seen many of these pledges before. And essentially the impact has been stagnant. If you really want the barometer, it’s been across the last 50 years. The same kinds of efforts that we’ve seen mentioned over the past year have really yielded not much impact at all.

I was struck by the story in your book about Thomas Watson Jr. at IBM feeling........

© Fast Company

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