Silicon Valley can fight systemic racism by supporting Black-owned businesses

Will Walker

As the United States sees its second week of large-scale protests against police brutality, it’s painfully clear that the country’s racial divide requires significant short- and long-term action. But most of these calls for change gloss over the role Silicon Valley can and should play in mending the racial divide.

Right now, activists are rightfully urging the public to take two crucial steps: vote out state and local government leaders and support Black-owned businesses. Both steps are necessary, but the importance of the latter has been largely overshadowed. Leaders can enact policy change, but much of the structural racial disparity in the U.S. is economic. Black workers are vastly overrepresented in low-paying agricultural, domestic and service jobs.

They’re also far more likely to be unemployed (in normal economic circumstances, and especially during the pandemic). A Stanford University study found that only 1% of Black-owned businesses receive loans in their first year. That’s seven times lower than the percentage for white businesses.

Put simply, enacting new laws and overturning old ones won’t suddenly reverse decades of biased investment decisions. That’s why all over social media, there are grassroots pushes to shop Black. Apps like WeBuyBlack and eatOkra collate businesses and restaurants into one centralized database, while organizations like Bank Black encourage investment in Black-owned funds or Black-owned businesses.

But what happens when the hashtags stop trending, the protests stop attracting crowds, and the Twitter feeds return to celebrity gossip and reality show reactions? Many organizers worry that, after the media cycle of the George Floyd protests expire, widespread interest in fixing systemic racism will go away too. Apps may be helpful in propping up Black businesses, but they rely on customers fundamentally changing their purchasing and consumption habits. Perhaps the perfect storm of COVID-19 and Mr. Floyd’s death will result in a wide-scale transformation of consumer behavior. But that’s not a given, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be enough.

To systematically fix underinvestment in Black businesses, we need big tech to step up. Now.

In particular, while there’s been a lot of recent talk about “algorithmic bias” (preventing algorithms on sites like Facebook or Google from implicitly discriminating on the basis of race), there hasn’t been enough talk about proactively demanding “algorithmic equality.” What if, for instance, tech companies didn’t just focus on erasing the entrenched bias in their systems, but actually reprogrammed algos to elevate Black businesses, Black investors and Black voices?

This shift could involve deliberately increasing the proportion of Black-created products or restaurants that make it onto the landing pages of sites like Amazon and Grubhub. Less dramatically, it could tweak SEO language to better accommodate racial and regional differences among users. The algorithmic structures behind updates like Panda could be repurposed to systematically encourage the consumption of Black-created content, allowing Black voices and Black businesses to get proportional purchase in the American consumer diet.

There’s also no compelling reason to believe that these changes would harm user experience. A recent Brookings study found that minority-owned businesses are rated just as highly on Yelp as white-owned businesses. However, these minority-owned businesses grow more slowly and gain less traction than their white-owned counterparts — resulting in an annual loss of $3.9 billion across all Black businesses. To help resolve this glaring (and needless) inequality, Yelp could modify its algorithms to amplify high-performing Black-owned businesses. This could significantly increase the annual income of quality Black entrepreneurs, while also increasing the likelihood in overall investment in Black small businesses.

At the very least, giving Black business a short-term algorithmic advantage in take-out and delivery services could help stem the massive economic breach caused by the coronavirus and could help save the 40% of minority-owned businesses that have shut down because of the pandemic.

Nothing can undo the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery or the countless other Black Americans who unjustly died as a result of this country’s broken system. What we can do is demand accountability and action, both from our political leaders and from the Silicon Valley CEOs who structure e-commerce.

With thoughtful, data-based modifications, online platforms can give Black entrepreneurs, creators and voices the opportunity to compete — an equality that has been denied for far too long.

More From

  • Paytm, Vijay Shekhar Sharma to acquire insurance firm Raheja QBE for $76M

    Paytm, India’s most valuable startup, and its co-founder and chief executive, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, announced on Monday they have reached an agreement to acquire insurance firm Raheja QBE for a sum of $76 million as the financial services startup looks to tap the nation’s booming insurance market. Sharma is acquiring Raheja QBE through QorQl Pvt. Ltd, a firm in which he owns majority stake with Paytm owning the remainder.

  • Uber reportedly agrees to acquire Postmates for $2.65 billion

    Uber has reportedly agreed to buy Postmates in an all-stock deal worth $2.65 billion. According to Bloomberg, the deal may be announced on Monday morning. Like other travel- and transportation-related businesses, Uber's ride-hailing segment has been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, due to shelter-in-place orders throughout the United States.

  • Facebook makes education push in India

    Facebook, which reaches more users than any other international firm in India, has identified a new area of opportunity to further spread its tentacles in the world’s second largest internet market. On Sunday, the social juggernaut announced it had partnered with the Central Board of Secondary Education, a government body that oversees education in private and public schools in India, to launch a certified curriculum on digital safety and online well-being, and augmented reality for students and educators in the country. Through these subjects, Facebook and CBSE aim to prepare secondary school students for current and emerging jobs, and help them develop skills to safely browse the internet, make “well informed choices,” and think about their mental health, they said.

  • Rocket Lab launch fails during rocket's second stage burn, causing a loss of vehicle and payloads

    Rocket Lab's 'Pic or it didn't happen' launch on Saturday ended in failure, with a total loss of the Electron launch vehicle and all seven payloads on board. The launch vehicle experienced a failure during the second stage burn post-launch, after a lift-off from the Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand. The mission appeared to be progressing as intended, but the launch vehicle appeared to experience unexpected stress during the 'Max Q' phase of launch, or the period during which the Electron rocket experiences the most significant atmospheric pressure prior to entering space.