Chinese, South Asians, Hispanics but no African-Americans. The Silicon Valley’s melting pot is missing one vital ingredient, says the author.
While sharing a wall with Apple in Cupertino for a month, I didn’t see a single Black on its campus during my occasional strolls through it. For that matter, there wasn’t a Black to be seen in Los Gatos, Mountain View, Saratoga and other towns in Silicon Valley. There were Chinese, South Asians, Hispanics if you could recognise them, but not a Black in a country that has one African-American in every 12 persons.
I thought San José, one of the biggest cities in the country, would be different. Taking a break from the Nagarathar Retreat, and long being interested in race and sport, I decided to explore San José State University where both overlapped and Black Power gained an impetus. And there on the campus, I paid solitary homage to the towering statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, standing on the podium with their arms raised and black-gloved fists clenched in what became the Black Power salute after their 1-3 finish in the 200m at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. It was magnificent symbolism, that statue, what Smith called “a human rights salute”; but no one stopped to stare at it, nor were there many African-Americans to be seen on the campus, and not many more in the town.
As I stood before the statue, I thought of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. During the commemoration, President Obama pointed out that in the 50 years since, African-Americans had made considerable progress in education and politics, but the economic gap between the races still remained substantial. Silicon Valley appeared to me a reflection of this.
Once, Silicon Valley was the valley of fruits. Blacks found work in the orchards and canneries and stores. Then the Hispanics and the Chinese ousted them. When IT moved into the Valley, educated Blacks found opportunities aplenty. Then the White and Asian-led organisations began to prefer South Asians and subtle discrimination had the African Americans moving out. Now, space in the Valley is shared in almost equal numbers by Whites, Hispanics and Asians, everyone in one of the country’s most diversely populated areas in his own little niche — “ghetto” if you wish to be unkind — but not a Black among them, unless you count less than two per cent of the population a statistic of visibility.
The White and Asian entrepreneurs — even the biggest ones — have their take on this. They prefer to “hire those with similar backgrounds to ours”. A White sociology professor says that though there is a huge demand in the Valley for science and technology people, the hirers prefer to make their choices “internationally for the highly skilled workforce needed”.
On the other hand, Black academics and activists point to “institutionalised racism”. In a city where the now little-noticed tribute to Black Power stands tall, the growth of a Black population to serve industry has been “hindered” by the lack of commuter facilities, making it a chore for those of the East Bay area to reach workplaces. When a commuter rail service was established in the Valley, it was not extended to its biggest city, San José, where its largest Black population lived at the time! A Black activist says that soaring house prices make it impossible for the Blacks to move into or stay in the Valley for low-income people. So they’ve kept moving South or East. Going “where jobs and your community are.”
The result is “Blacklessness” in a Valley that was once in the forefront of the advancement of the Blacks in America!
Footnote: Perhaps I should take back all I’ve said before. There are Blacks in the Valley, only they are not African-Americans in anywhere near the one in 12 they should be. The New Blacks are refugees from Somalia and Sudan and a host of other African countries, most of them poverty-stricken, non-English speakers, trying to carve out new lives for themselves on wages even lower than what the Hispanics are now working for. Will this begin a new Black culture in the Valley that is not an African-American one, many wonder.