Combine the insular clubbiness of white shoe Wall Street with the deluded sanctimony of nouveau riche California, and you've got Silicon Valley. And if you want a walking talking textbook case of Silicon Valley arrogance on matters of inequality and social justice, look no further than tech kingpin Mike Arrington's dumb recent statements about race.
"I don't know a single black entrepreneur," the TechCrunch founder turned venture capitalist told CNN's Soledad O'Brien recently. "I guess there just aren't any."
Except—oops—Arrington realized later that one of his best friends ("since the mid 90s") is a black entrepreneur, and he even gave that guy some money. His investment vehicle CrunchFund funded both (!) of the black founders who pitched it. So time to apologize for bad memory and a dumb statement that there are no black tech entrepreneurs anywhere, right?
Ha, no. Arrington then added that he was super eager to fund any black entrepreneur, and in fact one of those black guys he invested in didn't even need a good idea to get the money:
"There's a guy, actually, his last company just launched at our event, and he's African-American. When he asked to launch — actually, I think it was the other way around. I think I begged him... His startup's really cool. But he could've launched a clown show on stage, and I would've put him up there, absolutely."
Did Mike Arrington just patronizingly say he goes super easy on black founders? Sorry, sorry, that's not what he meant at all. What he meant to say is that all of Silicon Valley goes easy on black founders. "There's negative bias in Silicon Valley," he tweeted. "VCs are dying to invest in women & minorities just so they don't have conversations like this." That should put everything to rest. Also, "there's zero race or sex bias in silicon valley," Arrington tweeted around the same time.
So, to recap, there are no black entrepreneurs, except actually there must be some because Mike Arrington generously funded a couple without regard to merit, and there is no bigotry in Silicon Valley, except maybe in favor of women and minorities.
This position has, go figure, generated a huge amount of outrage that has carried over the weekend into this week. ZDNet blogger Violet Blue has an excellent roundup here, including tech consultant Anuan Simmons' comment that "Silicon Valley is not a meritocracy - it's a 'know-ocracy' meaning that access to power is awarded based on who a person knows rather than that person's individual talent." Software developer and black entrepreneur Hank Williams has a great essay on Arrington's comments here.
Arrington's racial crazytalk has people especially pissed because he was, for several years, thought to have the power to make or break new startups, particularly the more obscure ones, with coverage in TechCrunch. Though Arrington was ejected from the blog this summer, he now runs one of the highest profile venture funds in the industry.
Beside that, the delusion of a color blind tech sector goes beyond any one man. Angel investors and venture capitalists have spent decades funding almost entirely young white men with technical and business degrees freshly stamped by prestigious universities. They've built a selection process that unapologetically relies on referrals from other VCs—another group of almost entirely white men, if older ones—and perhaps the occasional tech executive. And yet these same plutocrats insist that out in sunny Northern California they've replaced old Eastern prejudice and class pretension with something closer to the sterile objectivity of a computer microprocessor.
But it only takes a glance to realize that the Valley is still remarkably homogenous. You could look at this White House picture of all the faces of the tip top Silicon Valley executives meeting with Barack Obama, or this gallery of Apple executives. Stats are little harder to come by, because tech companies tend not to count their minority representation and have actively fought to suppress that information.
After all, if you live in a utopia devoid of racism, why talk about race? That's Arrington's reaction to this whole brouhaha. "My brain database doesn't categorize people in terms of skin color," he wrote, adding that CNN should have told him they were going to ask about black people so he would have had time to prepare.
Maybe some day in Silicon Valley the topic of race will not be deemed a strange and taboo topic requiring forewarning before it's raised in conversation. Until then, it seems reasonable to expect more blustery defensiveness around the issue. Arrington is far from the only guy in tech who reacts this way when the subject is brought up, after all. And CNN has yet to air its special.