Over the past few months, some of Silicon Valley's big players have released their employee demographic data. It's been what we expected—the companies are almost entirely white and male, especially in the upper ranks.
Last week, Pandora quietly joined their ranks, posting a statement to their LinkedIn account blog.
Their numbers look very similar to those of other companies. This was not particularly surprising to me since, after all, we've heard about disparities in race and gender in the tech world. Perhaps, as I've heard some suggest, there just aren't enough women, black, and Latino programmers to go around (we'll get to this later).
But I was surprised to see that Pandora's non-tech employee diversity was just about as abysmal as the rest—or maybe even worse.
[note: All companies used different categories, and are combined for simplicity's sake: e.g., Apple's 9% 'Undeclared' is included in its 'Other' stat]
Again, we're talking about a company that deals in providing music to people, that is based in Oakland, one of the most diverse cities in the country. Why is almost everyone white?
Are we supposed to believe that there are no black, Asian, or Latino people out there that have expertise in music?
This is especially strange if you consider that most of the Pandora consumer base is minorities.
Exploiting Blacks and Latinos for Profit
For example, one recent study of the service indicates that the average user of Pandora is an 18-24 year old black or Latino person (males and females are about even). In other words, people who are probably on the market for a job.
Speaking particularly of Latinos, a recent Billboard article confirmed that the group makes up at least twenty five percent of Pandora's listenership. Nearly 2 in 5 of Latinos nationwide listen in each week. Pandora boasts three separate genre subdivisions for the music catered to the population. According to Billboard, there are "27 stations under the 'Latin' umbrella alone, and 15 stations under the 'Mexican' umbrella."
Of the top stations on Pandora, a majority are genres featuring primarily artists of color: Today's R&B and Hip Hop Hits, R&B Love Songs, Bachata 2014, Pop and Hip Hop Power Workout, and so on.
Pandora isn't alone in its consumer/provider disparity. Twitter's just about the same, except more shameless.
Twitter only released their employee demographics this year after a lot of work from Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, but last year, they were using their user demographics to make money. Specifically, they'd begun to court potential advertisers about the possibilities of marketing to Latinos, who are very active on the service.
They were also happy to market to black people. Forty percent of blacks aged 18-29 are on Twitter, and nearly one in five US Twitter users are black. This is why #BlackTwitter is such an ironic phenomenon—black people provide both an advertising income stream and a ton of marketable content, but reap none of the reward.
The effect is the same, though, at Pandora. The consumers are largely blacks and Latinos. And the music—that is, the product—is mainly black and Latino music. But the people controlling that product are white men.
A History of Exploitation
If this sounds familiar, it's because it exactly mirrors the trend of the music industry.
TK Kimbro, Director of Marketing at Zooshine, explained that while Pandora may be doing interesting things with regard to technology, their business seems to simply be following the exploitative tradition of the existing record industry.
T.K. told me about "A Study of the Soul Music Environment", a 1972 study that was produced by a group of Master's students at Harvard. It contained recommendations for larger, white record companies on how to break into the lucrative soul music market. At the time, racism prevented black artists from being able to sign recording contracts or even tour in many parts of the country. So, the black community created its own business model, and was also making money from white fans. There were a handful of large black-owned labels, such as Motown and Stax, as well as a few dozen smaller independent black labels.
The Harvard Report, as it is now known, advised against interfering with the big players, and instead approaching smaller, weaker ones, so that they could later fold them back into major labels. CBS Records did this when it approached indie producer unit Gamble and Huff and helped create Philadelphia International Records, which in turn was responsible for the O'Jays, the Soul Train theme, and some of the Jacksons' early work.
By 1975, they owned all of Philadelphia International's master recordings, and had a 17% share of the pop and R&B market. And within a few short decades, there were no longer any black-owned record labels. Record companies have consolidated, and blacks have been pushed out of the upper ranks of the business.
It's hard to deny that this trend away from minority ownership in media has had some influence in not only the kinds of music we hear today, but the kind of people who are hired to make that music.
An easy example would be the hip-hop (non-)response to the events in Ferguson. Sure, there have been some public statements made by artists, such as Talib Kweli actually heading to the scene, Lauryn Hill's lo-fi 'Black Rage', and Two-9's 'Riot'. Perhaps hip-hop's 'top tier' is silent, but there are a few people out there responding.
But consider that it's much easier to find a black entertainer posting videos of themselves dumping ice water on their head than it is to find one making a 140-character mention of Ferguson, and you'll understand my point. (Then consider that all of those Silicon Valley heavyweights have been all over the ice water, but very quiet on Ferguson—only weeks after talking about how much social justice meant to them).
Then, compare that to, say, Harry Belafonte's activism. Or the fact that James Brown managed to keep a whole town calm after the assassination of a civil rights leader. Of course, it's only been, what, two weeks? Perhaps we should wait. After all, it took Nina Simone a while to come out with "Mississippi Goddam".
But then again, Nina Simone didn't have the Internet. And I can't help but wonder if the messages we hear from artists would be different if there was more black and brown representation in the music industry. And I can't help but worry that Pandora is simply continuing this pattern.
After all, Pandora's non-tech demographic is probably worse than the average record label. It's hard to imagine a record label that has only 3% black or 8% Latino employees.
It's hard to call this anything but colonialism, as Mark Anthony Neal wrote in his essay on the Harvard Report: the colonists take material from the people, then sell it back to them, but never let them control it.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
If this is the future of music, what's the point?
A Recipe for Exclusion
This still leaves us with the question, though: why is this happening, and what can be done about it?
As for the first question: some of it may have to do with how hiring works in Silicon Valley.
A recent article in The Atlantic noted that when left alone, white people tend to simply not talk to anyone but other white people:
Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 93 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence.
Again, 75% of white people don't have serious interaction with other races, at all. Combine this with the fact that a lot of Silicon Valley jobs reward their employees for giving referrals for hires of their (probably not white) friends—sometimes as high as $10,000, and you might start to understand the problem:
Silicon Valley is literally paying itself to avoid hiring minorities.
Even companies' outreach efforts seem to be ineffective. Various tech workers have told me that their companies regularly bring in inner-city kids to visit their offices for tours, but when the time comes for internships, only white kids are being recruited. These white kids, of course, are later fast-tracked for job offers.
The issue is not that blacks, Latinos, or women are not qualified for Silicon Valley jobs—it's that they are not even being allowed into the consideration pool.
Silicon Valley Lacks Real Innovation
I mentioned that Pandora's numbers were similar to those of the rest of the tech industry. Actually, their press release is pretty close to a lot of the releases that have been coming out lately. In fact, if you diagram them out, they seem to follow a rather eerily similar pattern.
Companies tend to stress how important diversity is to them (green), then talk about how much of a "challenge" diversity is (red), then brag about the work they're doing in the community (blue). Somewhere in there is a good amount of trying to say that they're already diverse (purple), whether it is name-dropping of differently-abled employees like Apple does, or Pandora's padding its photo with inner city kids they mentor in the Year Up program.
But, as Butch Wing of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition points out, these statements can actually work to paint the company in a more negative light. They've been volunteering with local youth and reaching out to people for years and all that they have to show for it is two percent black employees? That's it?
This is coupled with the bizarre proposition that inclusion is "hard". After all, we're talking about the industry that put a supercomputer in your pocket, a network of a billion friends on your table, and a set of hyper-intelligent glasses on your face, and now they're trying to tell us that finding a talented black woman is hard?
Silicon Valley, we know you're more creative than that. You simply aren't trying hard enough.
By the way, if you're wondering what the color code for "specific plan of action" is in the diagram above, there isn't one. All of the companies carefully avoid making any sort of concrete statement about what they plan to do about their embarrassing numbers.
Pandora comes the closest, promising to "[work] with the youth in our community" and recruit from underrepresented communities. But there are no timelines given, no targets described. This is where Elanor Ramachandran, a Business Development Manager at Microsoft, was disappointed in Pandora: "I want to see innovation not just in products, but in the workforce. For example, tell us that in the next year, you will increase women in technical jobs by 20%, or even 10%. Be specific. Make a commitment."
Butch Wing also agrees with this, pointing out that if companies are serious, they should treat inclusion like they do any other part of their business: "You don't say 'we hope to sell a lot of iPhones in the 4th quarter'. You don't say 'I hope we make lots of money.' You make goals, targets, and timetables. And you are held accountable for success and failures."
To be fair, Pandora's press release seems more genuine than anything that's come out of Silicon Valley thus far. They've also been the most responsive, releasing their data only a few months after being asked to, whereas their peers fought tooth and nail for years—sometimes in court—to hide their dirty laundry. And they're also the only music streaming service to release their data. I contacted Rdio, Spotify, Beats, and the US office of SoundCloud, and asked them if they had any plans to release their data, and what their stance on inclusion was. I waited a week. Spotify said it had no data to give. The rest didn't reply.
On the tech end, there are certainly gaps in opportunity. I spoke to Dr. Kenneth R. Perry, the head of Morehouse's department of Computer Science, and he said that much of the problem is that computer science courses are not taught in many middle and high schools, and only a few hundred black students are able to take and pass the Advanced Placement exams in Computer Science each year. In place of serious support from schools, minority students are expected to make the leap from underfunded school program to Facebook Engineer on their own. There have been slow improvements, though: Morehouse has recently seen the establishment of a new Introduction to Computer Science course, with assistance from three Google Engineers. He said that he'd seen recruitment for students of color on campus increase recently.
Chip Dizárd, a tech educator at Digital Harbor High School in Baltimore, wants to see things happen on a local level. He had a personal recommendation for Pandora, or any other tech company looking for an idea to jumpstart their inclusion: create a local partnership with ten local schools. Commit a $5000 scholarship upon high school graduation for a promising young underrepresented student, and provide them with mentoring throughout their college career, as well as summer internships. Or, start a bit later, with community college kids. By the time they are ready to graduate, they're accustomed to company culture, well-trained, and a better entry-level candidate than anyone could ever hope for.
This would be a concrete, measurable way to provide a serious pipeline for underserved kids into the tech industry, and a great start on breaking that suffocating feedback loop.
This might seem a little simple—and it probably is. But it's the result of a two-minute brainstorming session by a teacher in Baltimore and a writer on the Internet. Your move, Silicon Valley.
(Not) Making the Grade
Starting in October, the Rainbow Coalition plans give grades to each of the tech and telecom companies that they've worked with, based on progress and actual efforts to improve. I don't expect that any of the companies listed here will get very good marks, but we probably will be seeing the Coalition reaching out to more streaming music services in the future.
Pandora's made the first step. At a little over 1,000 employees, they're by far the smallest publicly-held company to release their information, and they're the first in their industry. They seem to be willing and interested in improving, but to put it charitably, they need a lot of help.
Fortunately, in their letter, Pandora has asked anyone that works with organizations that focus on inclusion to contact them. Maybe someone reading this will take them up on their offer.
California-born, Tokyo-based Dexter Thomas, Jr is a scholar of music and Internet culture at Cornell University. He is finishing his book on Japanese hip-hop this year. He tweets at @dexdigi.