What Can Technologists Learn from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Reading Time: 17 minutes

On the third Monday in January, the United States celebrates the life of civil rights and labor rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK day is a national holiday, and for that reason, the university where I teach is closed.

Rather than cancel class, I elected to hold an optional (UC don’t fire me please) lecture for the students about the state of the tech industry, the role of a technologist in activism, and what technologists can (and should) learn from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center, appears intense as he discusses fair housing with Gilbert Balin, of G. Balin Inc. real estate agents in Chicago on Nov. 3, 1966. (Jack Mulcahy / Chicago Tribune)

I cannot share recordings of this lecture with the public (FERPA rules), but here are the lecture notes and associated resources. Runtime on this lesson plan is ~2 hours. Some things to note about how I compile and present material on civil rights and antiracist topics to my students:

  1. I cannot speak on behalf of a marginalized community to which I do not belong, so I try to source the work of BIPOC (see links below).
  2. There are lots of people wit more expertise than me on this area who could deliver a more informed version of this lecture. But I am these students’ teacher: I have a relationship with them, and they listen to me. Therefore, I give the lecture. The fact that I give the lecture does not mean I think I am an expert on this topic.
  3. I see it as my responsibility as a functionally white teacher in a majority white industry to talk about these topics with my majority white students, but I think the lessons on activism in the tech industry have broad applicability as well.

OK, without further ado: the lecture notes (fleshed out in a couple of places to summarize what I said to the students, but still very much in outline format):

MLK: Very Brief Historic Rundown and Questions for Us to Consider

  • Born 1929 (91 Years ago)
    • What year were your grandparents born? It’s likely that they were born before, or not long after, Dr, King. We are not talking about an ancient historical figure here. Had he not been murdered, he’d be your grandparents’ contemporary. And many people who are your grandparents’ contemporary lived through the conditions that motivated him to be an activist.
  • Best known for activism in the American south (Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma) leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
    • What year were your parents born? It’s likely that they were born before, or not long after, these acts were passed. Maybe they even lived in a world where these laws were not laws.
    • What is the value of a law? What does it accomplish? Do you think we live in a world free of civil rights or voting rights abuses because of these laws? We’ll come back to this.
  • After that, Dr. King’s attention turned northward, and he moved to Chicago in 1966. He lived in North Lawndale and preached at Stone Temple Baptist Church, about 10 miles from the University of Chicago (for reference, readers: this is where I teach, and where my students live and go to school).
    • Was/is racism and racial discrimination a southern thing? Have you historically thought of it that way?
  • July 10, 1966 – 30,000 people saw him speak at Soldier field, followed by a march to City hall to tape housing demands on the door: “End Slums”
    • To students: You have been to Soldier Field for shows! You have been to City Hall to hand in your ballot or get your city ID! These are places you have gone!
    • Dr. King was here working to end housing discrimination. Chicago is famous for having had an aggressive redlining policy, which was a direct cause of Chicago’s condition today as the most segregated major city in the country.

“We are tired of having to pay a median rent of $97 a month in Lawndale for four rooms while whites in South Deering pay $73 a month for five rooms… We are tired of being lynched physically in Mississippi, and we are tired of being lynched spiritually and economically in the North.”

Dr. King in Chicago
  • Aug 5, 1966: Marquette Park march to a realtor’s office. 700 white protesters threw bottles, rocks, and bricks. A rock struck Dr. King. There’s an iconic photo of him trying to recover from this (not included here because it would require a content warning. See it here).

“I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.”

Dr. King, in Chicago

Racism and discrimination wasn’t and isn’t specifically a southern thing.

“You can argue it was easier to identify the visible problems and laws that were disenfranchising people in the South. In the North, it was more muddied, more difficult to find a single thread you can pull out.”

James Ralph Jr., author of The Chicago Freedom Movement

“As long as the struggle was down in Alabama and Mississippi, they could look afar and think about it and say how terrible people are…when they discovered brotherhood had to be a reality in Chicago and that brotherhood extended to next door, then those latent hostilities came out.”

Dr. King in his autobiography
  • Fair Housing Act, April 1968, technically made redlining illegal.
    • Do you think this was effective, given your experience living in Chicago?
    • What is the value of a law?
  • Memphis Sanitation Strike, April 1968: MLK’s last speech (he was shot and killed the next day). 
    • Labor strikes and other movements to shift power from the ownership class to the working class were a centerpiece of MLK’s activism.
    • In fact, housing rights, labor rights, civil rights, and human rights are all inter-connected. Anti-racism often goes hand in hand with better conditions for almost everyone. Here’s an example that affects you directly: this class. This class focuses on providing a good learning experience for everyone by undoing white hegemonic structures in the classroom. But even though the students are mostly white, they still find this class to be one of their favorites. That’s not in spite of its structure. It’s because of its structure.

As Claybourne Carson, editor of the King Papers, put it in his foreword to The Chicago Freedom Movement, the fact that these problems still exist are not King’s fault. “It is also,” he wrote, “the failure of those of us who have outlived him.”

Olivia Waxman for Time Magazine

Important points before we move on:

  1. This is not ancient history. Your grandparents are not far in age from Dr. King and your parents were alive at a time when preventing black people from voting was legal in this country.
  2. What’s legal is not the same as what’s right, nor is it the same as what’s happening.
    1. Laws are helpful for reference while preventing further harm, but rarely do they repair existing damage from past patterns of injustice
  3. The struggles of the civil rights movement are therefore ongoing and relevant.

We’re going to talk about how this relates to tech, but given our current moment of race reckoning in the U.S., I want to note one thing here first:

[It’s a misconception that] Dr. King’s advocacy is far-removed from current Black Lives Matter causes that focus on police brutality. 

[In fact], incarceration and police brutality were also issues during the 1960s civil rights movement. As evidenced by the Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham protests…During the eulogy of Jimmie Lee Jackson who was killed by an Alabama state trooper in 1965, Dr. King said, “A state trooper pointed the gun, but he did not act alone. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff who practices lawlessness in the name of law. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician, from governors on down, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.”

This Diversity Meeting in a Box thingy from the Washington Post

OK: Let’s talk about the tech industry.

BIPOC (adj.) – Stands for black and indigenous people of color. A blanket term helpful for designating those ethnicities most marginalized in the United States: indigenous communities and black people. Specifically includes U.S.-indigenous, Latinx, Mestiszx communities.

When not to use this term: when what you mean is black people. For example, this summer’s marches and protests after George Floyd’s murder by a police officer were about police brutality against black people specifically, not BIPOC.

Because of the tech industry’s homogeneity, key perspectives are missing from the room when tech products are built.

This impacts the products that tech builds. Some examples:

  1. Algorithmic Bias: Amazon’s hiring screen included a model trained on past hires, who were disproportionately men. So the system started choosing specifically men to interview.
  2. Facebook’s marketing options made it possible to specifically misinform black voters
    1. It was also possible to only show ads for employment, housing, and loans to white populations. Facebook has since tried to address this by making a separate portal for businesses whose ads are subject to anti-discrimination laws (notably, just for them—not for everyone)
    2. What is the value of a law?
  3. Predictive Policing: Palantir and Google have built products that helped police target marginalized communities.
    1. Chicago PD actually came under Federal Investigation for this
    2. NYPD Stop and Frisk policy is also famous for this
    3. Facial recognition software from Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft raises huge concerns as it might be applied to identifying “potential criminals”

Tech companies are often not receptive to those missing perspectives.

  1. Google: Jeff Dean terminated Dr. Timnit Gebru last year without informing her manager. Gebru had participated in writing a paper that criticized the impact of some of Google’s machine learning work, which Google asked her to remove her name from. She said she needed to know who, specifically, had asked for that, and why. Additionally, Jeff took issue with some comments Dr. Gebru had made about the futility of inclusion work among Google Brain teams.
  2. Facebook researched the impact of its division-sowing algorithms, but made a decision at the top level to stop entertaining product proposals to reduce divisiveness on the platform in favor of “engagement.”
  3. Many CDOs report to some other CXO, rather than being at the same level as them

What makes change in tech difficult?

  1. Immense power concentrated in like 6 companies
    • Until very recently, antitrust law hadn’t been leveraged against tech companies basically ever, and it’s still not happening often
    • Google controls ~75% of the search ad market and ~40% of the total internet ad market, though they argued in a blog post that they shouldn’t be a candidate for antitrust investigations
  2. In a lot of cases, addressing these issues is fundamentally at odds with large tech companies’ profit models
    • Facebook’s revenue model depends on engagement. The posts on Facebook that generate the most engagement are extremist ones. Same for YouTube.
    • Google, similarly, the way it makes money is by leveraging people’s data to sell ads, or in some cases, selling the data itself in aggregate (there was an attempt to partner with local law enforcement to identify suspects by locating Android devices near crime scenes). 
    • One of the reasons Apple has marginally fewer scandals is that the profit model doesn’t depend on selling user data; instead it depends on wealthy people paying a lot of money for physical devices. But that means Apple products only bring tech to the wealthy. Making tech accessible to people who aren’t wealthy has so far relied on ads—in particular, personalized ads, which by nature depend on people’s personal data. In modern tech, privacy has become a luxury.
  3. Tech culture discourages thinking about these things:
    • It values “technical skills” and systematically devalues contributors who think about social issues and the skill of understanding social issues. Hard technical questions are considered worthwhile and honorable pursuits. But it’s common, if someone hears about a concept like “restorative justice” that they don’t understand without researching it, they dismiss it out of hand as high-minded rhetoric. In other words, tech suffers from anti-intellectual sentiment particularly surrounding social issues.
    • Many of the elements of white middle class dominant culture are integral to the way the tech industry operates (this is an easy place to go down a rabbit hole, so I’m leaving it at this: the first link goes to a piece that describes thirteen cultural mainstays that propagate, and result from, the devaluation of BIPOC voices. The second link brings you to several examples I wrote up about how those different cultural mainstays affect the tech industry specifically. I have written about 8 of the mainstays so far. Ultimately, there will be a piece there for each of the 13).
    • Prioritizing projects based on what’s “interesting,” not based on what’s needed. In tech, it is normal and applauded to chase “interesting” challenges. But when we judge pursuits largely on what’s “interesting,” we are treating those pursuits as thought experiments. Tech, at this point, massively affects most people’s lives. An impact that broad deserves serious consideration. Tech’s impact often feels like a thought experiment to its privileged, wealthy executives and workers, but there are real detrimental impacts to marginalized folks’ actual lives when products do not take their experiences into account.
    • The idea of “disruption” is only attractive vis-à-vis how the disruptors are going to extract wealth. Tech companies ain’t “disrupting” abysmally compensated prison labor. They ain’t “disrupting” the use of excessive force by police against marginalized communities. Companies are chiefly interested in “disrupting” industries where they can route money from one privileged group into the pockets of tech execs and their employees instead.

“You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism.”

Dr. King in Memphis

What is our leverage as tech workers?

  • Individual action is possible in tech in a way that it isn’t in a lot of industries.
    • Companies’ profit margin on one engineer is huge, so one engineer leaving is much more expensive than that person’s individual salary, and so a smallish number of engineers leaving is a meaningful threat.
    • Demand for workers with technical execution capacity outstrips supply, which means we can ask tough questions in interviews (especially if we’re more senior) and force companies to compete for us on things we care about.
    • So to reiterate, it takes a much smaller number of tech workers to enact change than it would take, say, warehouse employees.
      • For example, when 5 engineers left GitHub over their contract with ICE, the tech industry noticed, and now GitHub has a stank reputation and there are people who won’t apply there. We wouldn’t see that same impact from 5 warehouse workers leaving Amazon over work conditions: such a cause requires collective action from a supermajority of warehouse workers.
      • After the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 300 Twitter employees signed a petition that was instrumental in pushing the 4,600-employee company to finally ban Trump from the platform. That’s just 6% of their workforce!
  • Collective action, once repudiated in tech because tech workers thought of themselves as members of an elite subculture, is gaining favor

Steps for Us as Technologists:

  1. Identify our perspective and which perspectives are missing from our environment
    1. Who is represented in your last 25 text conversations, or Twitter follows, or Instagram follows? What demographic/backgrounds are there?
    2. Which ones are missing? Seek out and follow folks of those backgrounds to get a more well-rounded range of perspectives
    3. Reading multiple established/popular publications does not get you a diverse perspective because the publishing industry, like the tech industry, is dominated by white middle class dominant culture, and white voices make up most writing and editorial teams for these publications
  2. Make an action plan ahead of time
    1. It’s easy to go along with what your employer is doing once you’re already there if you didn’t set boundaries ahead of time
    2. Write down your ethical boundaries before you go somewhere so you have a goalpost that is not moving to compare your work against
    3. Know what questions you will ask of potential employers, and know what your boundaries are at which point you would leave a company.
  3. Understand individual action (4 levers)
    1. You can pay a company money, encourage your friends to pay the company money, offer your talent there (work there), and encourage your friends to offer their talent there (work there). Those go in increasing order of benefit to the company. So, they also go in increasing order of how careful I am with who gets each of these things from me.
  4. Understand collective action
    1. Understand the U.S.’s history with labor rights (for example, we got the weekend and the “40 hour work week” from labor rights movements. We take these things for granted, but they literally were not granted. They were fought for by labor rights activists.)
    2. Understand Dr. King’s history speaking about, and acting on behalf of, labor rights movements
    3. Go to a collective action training to understand how it works
  5. Develop the skill of changing private opinions
    1. Your colleagues aren’t all misanthropic nincompoops, and to believe that discredits the sophistication of propaganda and misinformation outlets—at our peril. It’s important to understand how to identify sources of misinformation and help your colleagues understand them, too.
    2. It’s not BIPOC’s job to confront your white coworker’s racism. That’s your job. If you decide to cut them off because they’re racist, you abdicate responsibility for creating a safer society for BIPOC. 
    3. Sometimes, confrontation isn’t about changing the mind of the person you’re confronting. It’s about demonstrating to onlookers that this person’s perspective is not universally accepted. (Example: confronting homophobic uncle at thanksgiving in the presence of children)
  6. Develop the skill of changing public opinion
    1. This is a whole other complicated topic totally separate from this class
    2. I don’t know how to do this other than by writing blog posts, and people don’t listen to me in person that great, so I do most of my influencing in a one on one setting
    3. But I sort of think this would be a good thing to know how to do, if you can do it

My students specifically asked a few questions that led me to recommend these pieces also, which happen to be by me:

Why your efforts to fix your pipeline aren’t fixing your pipeline

How to actually make people at a company care at all about how inclusive it is

What to ask an employer in an interview (Ctrl+F “Seven Questions for Companies” on that page)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.