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Equality Denied: Tech and African Americans

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EEO-1 employment data document the vast over-representation of Asian Americans and vast under-representation of African Americans at tech companies in recent years. How did this happen?

Thus far in reporting the findings of our project “Fifty Years After: Black Employment in the United States Under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,” our analysis of what has happened to African American employment over the past half-century has documented the importance of manufacturing employment to the upward socioeconomic mobility of Blacks in the 1960s and 1970s and the devastating impact of rationalization—the permanent elimination of blue-collar employment—on their socioeconomic mobility in the 1980s and beyond. The upward mobility of Blacks in the earlier decades was based on the Old Economy business model (OEBM) with its characteristic “career-with-one-company” (CWOC) employment relations. At its launching in 1965, the policy approach of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission assumed the existence of CWOC, providing corporate employees, Blacks included, with a potential path for upward socioeconomic mobility over the course of their working lives by gaining access to productive opportunities and higher pay through stable employment within companies. It was through these internal employment structures that Blacks could potentially overcome barriers to the long legacy of job and pay discrimination.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the generally growing availability of unionized semiskilled jobs gave working people, including Blacks, the large measure of employment stability as well as rising wages and benefits characteristic of the lower levels of the middle class. The next stage in this process of upward socioeconomic mobility should have been—and in a nation as prosperous as the United States could have been—the entry of the offspring of the new Black blue-collar middle class into white-collar occupations requiring higher educations. Despite progress in the attainment of college degrees, however, Blacks have had very limited access to the best employment opportunities as professional, technical, and administrative personnel at U.S. technology companies. Since the 1980s, the barriers to African American upward socioeconomic mobility have occurred within the context of the marketization (the end of CWOC) and globalization (accessibility to transnational labor supplies) of high-tech employment relations in the United States. These new employment relations, which stress interfirm labor mobility instead of intrafirm employment structures in the building of careers, are characteristic of the rise of the New Economy business model (NEBM), as scrutinized in William Lazonick’s 2009 book, Sustainable Prosperity in the New Economy? Business Organization and High-Tech Employment in the United States (Upjohn Institute).

In this paper, we analyze the exclusion of Blacks from STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) occupations, using EEO-1 employment data made public, voluntarily and exceptionally, for various years between 2014 and 2020 by major tech companies, including Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Facebook (now Meta), Hewlett Packard Enterprise, HP Inc., Intel, Microsoft, PayPal, Salesforce, and Uber. These data document the vast over-representation of Asian Americans and vast under-representation of African Americans at these tech companies in recent years. The data also shine a light on the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of large masses of lower-paid labor in the United States at leading U.S. tech companies, including tens of thousands of sales workers at Apple and hundreds of thousands of laborers & helpers at Amazon. In the cases of Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Intel, we have access to EEO-1 data from earlier decades that permit in-depth accounts of the employment transitions that characterized the demise of OEBM and the rise of NEBM.

Given our findings from the EEO-1 data analysis, our paper then seeks to explain the enormous presence of Asian Americans and the glaring absence of African Americans in well-paid employment under NEBM. A cogent answer to this question requires an understanding of the institutional conditions that have determined the availability of qualified Asians and Blacks to fill these employment opportunities as well as the access of qualified people by race, ethnicity, and gender to the employment opportunities that are available. Our analysis of the racial/ethnic determinants of STEM employment focuses on a) stark differences among racial and ethnic groups in educational attainment and performance relevant to accessing STEM occupations, b) the decline in the implementation of affirmative-action legislation from the early 1980s, c) changes in U.S. immigration policy that favored the entry of well-educated Asians, especially with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, and d) consequent social barriers that qualified Blacks have faced relative to Asians and whites in accessing tech employment as a result of a combination of statistical discrimination against African Americans and their exclusion from effective social networks.

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