Are Race Focused Tech Meetups Wise?

I was on Meetup last night to see what’s going on in the tech scene in the Baltimore area and came across, “Baltimore Black Techies Meetup” for which the tag line is:

Black + Techie = Us

This makes me nervous, but not for the reasons that you may expect.  One of the biggest problems in Baltimore City is integration.  It has simply failed on many counts in the city.  It may sound odd, but frankly living in the county is a far more diverse experience for me than when I lived in Baltimore proper.  Here my neighbors and who I run into in stores run the gambit in race, color, and even nationality, whereas when I lived in the city frankly there were white areas, black areas, ethnic areas, with a tad bit of overlap. Races live beside each other, but generally not with each other…

As someone that has pushed for more minority involvement in tech, and argued to high hell and back about employers expanding there horizons for where they look for candidates, what I know to be true is a huge problem for minorities trying to get into tech is that they are not known about.  Employers, and owners go to the wells that they know to find talent. If they don’t find talent there they are as likely to hire someone from 4 states away as they are to spend the time to delve further into the local community. This is a reason I question why segregating people off by race is a good idea? This is creating an environment where folks like me are explicitly uninvited. It may sound small, but I wouldn’t go to an event by this meetup, which means I wouldn’t get to know anyone at a meetup like this, nor would I talk about a meetup like this to my audience. If success in tech is as much about who you know, as what you know this type event would seem to be the antithesis of what is wise.

I understand some black folks would say that the society is institutionally racist, and therefore an event like this is simply explicitly doing what white folks implicitly already do.  That is an argument that can go on for days, but even if it’s true (which is where I would lean) the question still stands of is it wise?  If the problem is one of integration then can promoting segregation lead to success?

This also delves into curious legal issues.  When you make your organization explicitly race based can you use any public resources?  When people think of Equal Opportunity laws they always assume it’s protecting minorities from white people, but the reality is that racism is simply treating people differently based on race.  If your organization is explicitly racist, even for “good” reasons, do you set yourself and your supporters up for legal challenges?  What jeopardy does this put your members into?  If I say I only hire people I find at the Balto MSDN meetup there is no explicit race requirement there, and so legally there would be no, or few question marks.  What happens if a business owner says they only hire from Baltimore “Black” Techies? That’s a real question that should not be shrugged off quickly.

You’ll notice I have made the distinction between explicit, and implicit in this post.  In the real world there are a ton of implicit barriers, but they simply are not codified in writing.  Selection bias is a way to easily skew demographics for a group without actually saying anyone is not invited.  You hold your event in a location that can only be reached by car, or by mass transit.  You hold your event at a place with a particular dress code, and rules for decorum.  You promote your group through word of mouth so only people like the people you know learn about it.  I came up with saying after a particularly white tech event in Baltimore city… “The door is open to anyone who knows it’s there.” You don’t block anyone from coming, but you don’t go out of your way to tell the “wrong” people about it.

Now at this point more that a few people are probably waving their middle fingers at the screen, but just stick with me for a second.  There is a reason why implicit is better than explicit if you are going to go this route.  The first reason is the members of the group themselves.  What does it say to young blacks, or minorities to say they require their own event? Is it “empowering” or are you implicitly stating that they cannot compete? Are you looking at the people you are trying to help in the eye and saying, “You can’t be good enough.  You need something separate?” That’s a hell of a thing…

The second reason is that implicit rules can be changed very quietly.  When you write a rule, then you’ll need to go through a nasty process to change the rule. If things are simply done in a certain way, it’s easier to just do them slightly differently.  The group is formed focusing on one set of people, but then a year later someone slightly different comes along, and it helps everyone.  Focus on “Bootcamps for Disadvantage People in Baltimore”.  Day 1 it’s 100% black people, 10 years from now it may be 90% Syrians.  It can change, and evolve without a screaming match.

The third reason is that you limit the resources and support you’ll get.  To be clear I’ll be more than happy to teach a room full of 100% black people how to do YouTube and distribute content.  There’s no way in hell I’ll attend a “black” meetup though.  One happens to be made up of a demographic, the other is explicitly racist. How many professionals want to go within 100 miles of anything race specific right now?

My final concern is that it gives an argument to the folks that believe in “white genocide” and the subjugation of white people.  I don’t think anyone believes they could get away with a “white” tech meetup.  So when there are “black” ones it lends to the argument that white people are the ones being victimized. I just want to bang my head through a wall every time I hear it, but there is a real belief by a surprising amount of people that white folks are now the oppressed class. When a kid holds up groups like this as an example it’s REALLY hard to try to explain nuance…

These are just some of my thoughts, after seeing a meetup in my area that really does exist. My business practices stand for themselves in this venue, and I do believe that black folks in our area need more support.  The issue is that when I see things like this it just seems horribly wrong headed.  The tech industry is as much about your social networking as it is the skills you have.  Whether it’s for “blacks” or “girls” or “GLBTQ” I have to ask why walling people off get’s them to where they are going. I would argue building open groups with diversity as part of the growth strategy from the ground up would do better.  Much of what currently exists is implicitly biased and racist, but is the answer to create groups that are explicitly that way?  Maybe just building new groups based off of different goals and assumptions would do better for all involved….

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