While the United States is experiencing its second week of large-scale protests against police brutality, it is painfully clear that the country's racial segregation requires short-term and long-term measures. However, most of these calls for change gloss over the role Silicon Valley can and should play in eliminating segregation.
At the moment, activists are right to call on the public to take two decisive steps: to vote out leaders and local leaders and to support black-owned companies. Both steps are necessary, but the importance of the latter has been largely overshadowed. Executives can make policy changes, but much of the structural racial distinction in the United States is economic. Black workers are heavily overrepresented in poorly paid agricultural, domestic and service jobs.
They are also far more likely to be unemployed (under normal economic circumstances and especially during the pandemic). A study by Stanford University found that only 1% of black companies get loans in the first year. That is seven times less than the percentage for white businesses.
Simply put, new laws and the repeal of old laws will not suddenly reverse decades of biased investment decisions. For this reason, there are basic efforts everywhere on social media to shop for black. Apps like WeBuyBlack and eatOkra summarize companies and restaurants in a central database, while organizations like Bank Black encourage investments in funds in black or black ownership.
But what happens when the hashtags are out of fashion, the protests no longer attract people, and Twitter Feeds return to celebrity gossip and reality show reactions? Many organizers fear that after the media cycle of George Floyd's protests, the widespread interest in addressing systemic racism will also disappear. Apps can help support black businesses, but they rely on customers to change their buying and consumption habits fundamentally. Perhaps the perfect storm of COVID-19 and Mr. Floyd's death will lead to a major change in consumer behavior. But that is not a matter of course, and even if it were, it would not be enough.
To systematically fix underinvestments in black companies, we need large technology to increase investments. Now.
In particular, there has been a lot of talk about "algorithmic bias" lately (to prevent algorithms on websites like Facebook or Google from being implicitly discriminated against based on race), but not enough talk about proactively demanding "algorithmic equality". What if, for example, technology companies not only focused on removing the deeply rooted prejudices in their systems, but actually reprogramming algae to promote black companies, black investors and black voices?
This shift could result in a deliberate increase in the percentage of black products or restaurants that make it to the landing pages of websites like Amazon and pit lift. It could optimize the SEO language less dramatically in order to better take racial and regional differences between users into account. The algorithmic structures behind updates such as Panda could be reused to systematically promote the consumption of content created by black, so that black voices and black companies can achieve a proportional purchase in the American consumer diet.
There is also no compelling reason to believe that these changes will affect the user experience. A recent Brookings study found that minority companies on Yelp are rated as high as white companies. However, these minority-owned companies are growing more slowly and less significantly than their white companies – resulting in an annual loss of $ 3.9 billion in all black companies. To eliminate this blatant (and unnecessary) inequality, Yelp could modify its algorithms to reinforce powerful black-owned companies. This could significantly increase the annual income of qualified black entrepreneurs while increasing the likelihood of total investment in small black businesses.
At the very least, a short-term algorithmic advantage of black business in take-out and delivery services could help curb the massive economic harm caused by the corona virus and save the 40% of minority-owned companies that closed because of the pandemic.
Nothing can reverse the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, or the myriad of other black Americans who have wrongly died as a result of this country's broken system. What we can do is ask for accountability and action from both our political leaders and the Silicon Valley CEOs who structure e-commerce.
With thoughtful, data-based modifications, online platforms can give black entrepreneurs, developers, and voices the opportunity to assert themselves – an equality that has been denied for far too long.