THE BLOG
09/30/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

The New Scourge

One of the problems with confronting and dealing with racism (and sexism) in this country is that we're locked into old stereotypes. This prevents us from recognizing new forms of prejudice, and blocks efforts to confront these practices and change them. If they don't exist, no one will ever do anything about them.

To the general public, it is clear where the problems are, what the bad guys look like. In issues of race, the culprits are the cops; police officers have long been at the flash point of racial tension. Back in the heyday of the civil rights movement, it was a Southern sheriff with a fat gut and aviator sunglasses, with his dogs and water cannon. In the 1990s it was LAPD officers beating Rodney King. Today it is cops in a small Missouri town shooting Michael Brown. The men who suppress women, on the other hand, wear suits and smoke cigars.

Back when I worked at the Chicago Urban League we used to talk about racism by habit, rather than by intent. Prejudice committed by the nicest people, who would disdain any use of the "n" word or any attempt to block equal access. All they do is what we all do, hang out with people like themselves. And hire them and give contracts to them as well. And by so doing, exclude others.

Thus, the new face of bias is not Mississippi but in tech industry places like California's Silicon Valley. Inequality prevails there at every level. A broad survey of overall hiring in the giants of the tech industry, by USA Today in August 2014, clearly shows this pattern. Apple has a gender ratio of 70-30, men to women, which roughly prevails at every firm looked at. The home of the iPhone also has a workforce 55% white, 11% Hispanic, and 7% black. And this is the best in the business, courtesy of increased diversity, relatively speaking, at its retail stores.

Look at the figures for other brand name firms. As noted, gender levels are all about the same; Yahoo is best at 62-37. But their workforce is only 4% Hispanic, 2% black, as is Facebook's. Google is a bit lower, at 3% Hispanic, 2% black.

It is not just the average worker either. It goes all the way up to what entrepreneurs face, trying to woo investors to high tech startups. Wired ran an article that opened with the story of Kathryn Tucker, founder of RedRover, an app for kids' events. At a tech event in NYC she pitched her idea, only to find a potential angel rejected it because "he didn't invest in women". Far from shy, he explained, "I don't like the way women think...They haven't mastered linear thinking." As evidence he described how his wife had problems organizing her to-do lists. He concluded with a big compliment for Ms. Tucker: "You're more male."

Randall Munroe, author of What If? blamed this, not on any overt desire to discriminate, but on a kind of "nerd pride or revenge of the nerds attitude". The folks previously excluded can now get to work solely with their own kind. "This can easily become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that can make a community steadily more homogeneous and exclusionary." And block the hiring of other peoples, not out of overt prejudice but through habit, with the results the same as they would be in a segregated society.

Some firms are trying to do better. Google's HR department (called People Operations in California softspeak), has been working to alert the whole company to the role of hidden biases. But we need to do more. Tech is too big, with millions of employees, and is the employer of the future. And they're not alone. This kind of invisible bias is going on across the board.

A lot can be done to tackle this problem. Start with data. The old term was patterns and practices; individual acts may or not be prejudicial, but long running patterns cannot be ignored. Education can help; alert people to what is happening, usually as the result of unintentional acts. There can also be efforts to build capacity, establishing programs to increase interest in STEM fields among non-traditional groups.

But first, we have to recognize what is going on. Bias today is not just a cop misusing his power. It's the tech guy down the block, and it's your local bank official. Noam Cohen titled a NY Times article on pop culture, which referred in passing to bias in the tech industry, "We're All Nerds Now". Change starts here.