Q&A: Tech pioneer Earl Pace on racism in the IT workplace

December 15, 2008 (Computerworld) Early in his career, when he was working as a programming manager for a financial services firm, Earl A. Pace Jr. went to a computer conference in Arizona where there were 200 attendees – 199 whites and him. Well aware of the opportunities in the exploding industry, he decided that ratio needed to change.

So Pace and colleague David Wimberly each ponied up $34 to rent a room at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Philadelphia for a gathering of friends and acquaintances to discuss the idea of forming an association to advance the participation of African-Americans and other minorities in the computer field. That meeting in 1975 gave birth to Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA), a national organization that now has more than 50 chapters and aims to provide what it calls “a pathway from the classroom to the boardroom.”

Last week, Pace spoke with Computerworld about the obstacles in the IT workplace that African-Americans have worked for decades – and are still working on — to overcome

In your experience, in what ways does racism typically manifest itself in the IT workplace? Computerworld demonstrated one with its [2008 Salary Survey] statistics about the disparity in remuneration. It manifests itself in promotions. It even manifests itself in the way in which companies interact with BDPA. We have companies who are very anxious to come to BDPA’s conferences because they want to hire our technical people. But they are loathe to come to a BDPA conference to demonstrate their software or hardware, to deal with us as a high-technology organization where the people who are moving through our expo are people who can and do influence purchasing decisions. Those kinds of presentations and exhibits are very difficult, almost impossible, for us to get. We have booth after booth of companies that want to hire people.

How is the problem of racism in the IT workplace changing? Is it becoming less of a problem, or is it just manifesting itself in different ways? It is not less of a problem. It is, perhaps, more subtle or sophisticated. There are some promotions that have occurred. There are probably more African-Americans and other minorities that have been promoted to senior-level positions than existed in 1975 when BDPA was formed. But the impact of those people at higher levels is marginal with respect to bringing other African-Americans up the pipeline to replace or to supplement them.

To some degree, that’s the result of insecurity in the position. In my early years, I was vice president of a financial services firm, responsible for hiring technical people, and I hired based upon ability. As it turned out, I probably hired an equal number of African-Americans and whites. I was at a meeting, and one of the board members of that company actually said to me, “Are you attempting to make the technical staff at our company the United Nations?” He said it right to my face, and I could have been intimidated by that. My response was, “I hire based upon need and capability, not on what I see.” And that director walked away.

That wasn’t subtle at all. But there are more subtle ways in which people who have moved to a higher position can feel less secure if they [allow] that. Not everyone in that position has a desire to push back. I’m sure now that the preponderance of them would, but if they’re going to be criticized for it, they’re less likely to do so.

Are the challenges faced by African-Americans in the IT workplace different from those faced by other minorities? If so, how are they different? This is a complicated issue to describe or to put your finger on. There are myriad opportunities that people have to discriminate, and color is a significant one. Sometimes it’s exacerbated by the exposure opportunity that you have had. For instance, people from India often have a color issue. But the emphasis is reduced by a skill set or by a perception that these people have been trained and are technically sophisticated. Regardless of that, they do experience a degree of discrimination simply because of skin color.

Hispanics run the gamut of skin color. I’ve owned my business, Pace Data Systems, since 1976, and I used to belong to a council for minority-company suppliers, and we’d go to their conferences. They would announce the winners of their awards for, say, the most business in a certain area. The ones with the biggest awards would be, for instance, a Hispanic company where the owner or president may be Hispanic, but when he stood up to get his award, you couldn’t tell the difference between him and [a white person].

With African-Americans, because of our historical legacy in the United States, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. Some you experience as a business owner, and some you experience in your job. Now, with the mortgage debacle that’s facing the country and the layoffs — that is disproportionately affecting minorities, and particularly African-Americans. It’s just a hurdle that has to continue to be overcome.

What is your response to a white person who says he doesn’t want to think of you as a black IT leader, he just wants to think of you as an IT leader — that he wants to be colorblind? My response to him would be that is a very altruistic look at the racial situation here, but it is not a practical look – we are not there. It is a goal that we all want to achieve, but if he just looks at me as an IT leader, then his expectation of what I am able to do is unrealized.

So that’s good to say, but the reality is that as I function in the same industry that the majority [white] IT leaders function in, my access, my exposure, my opportunities are greatly limited simply because I am an African-American.

I have had business opportunities where I have spoken with a prospect by telephone, and we have in essence agreed that this is the solution that would be best for that person’s company, and all we had to do was sign the agreement. And when I showed up to get the agreement signed, the person has changed his mind about wanting to do the project. What other reason could there be? And it’s happened to me several times.

Does it still happen? Oh, yeah. It still happens. So there are still some

things that need to be done.

What is your response to black IT professionals who say they just want to be thought of as IT professionals, not as black IT professionals? That they are operating under a delusion.

In an editorial titled “Acceptance and Denial”, I wrote the following: “Skin color does matter. Most of us dearly wish it didn’t, but it does. If skin color didn’t matter, then the bonds of trust between the races would be equivalent to the bonds of trust within each race. They are not. Until they are, colorblindness will have much more to do with denial than with acceptance.” Do you agree or disagree? I think it’s an accurate representation. My son, who is 26, differs with me on that. It is my hope that we will be like the Israelites freed from Egypt, who had to wander until that generation died out, when they could move into the promised land

I’m hopeful about what will happen when people of my generation – I’m 66 — with the scars that we have, become less involved in the workforce, and [more] younger people who appear to be less racist than their parents [enter the workforce] – I’m hopeful. But I’m fearful that as they move into the power positions, where they are affecting things as opposed to reacting to them, a continuation of the racism will occur. I’m hoping that that doesn’t happen.

So I think it’s a very accurate statement. Our experiences cause us to be distrustful.

I would conclude from what you’re saying that your son has fewer scars. To what do you attribute that? The environment that he grew up in – he interacted in more of a multicultural environment. Mine, growing up, was much less. For my mother and father, it was much less than mine. And some of the things that we ascribe to each other because of history don’t appear to him.

On the one hand, you’re saying that racism is as much of a problem as it ever was, and on the other, you’re saying that your son has fewer scars because of the more multicultural environment. How do you explain that apparent inconsistency? My son grew up and lives in an environment that is different from that of quite a few, and maybe even the majority, of African-American youth his age. My son grew up in Howard County, Md., a stone’s throw from [the affluent community of] Columbia. He went to a high school that was a mixture of everybody. So his interaction with other students was not based upon separation and segregation. His friends are white, Hawaiian, African, African-American, everything – everything has come through my house. Perhaps if he went to school in the District of Columbia, his experience might be very different.

What does the election of Barack Obama say about the state of race relations in the U.S., and what’s your response to someone who maintains that the election demonstrates that we can finally move past the race discussion? The election of Barack Obama tells me that we have overcome a significant impediment in the United States, that there was enough openness or need on behalf of the voters that they could look past skin color to what the potential was of the candidate. I hope that he is not being looked at as a Moses who is going to save everybody, so that people become complacent and figure that we’ve overcome these problems and now the racial divide has been crossed.

He is an agent of change who can inspire people. But unless we now double or triple our efforts to effect those changes, we will be deluding ourselves. There’s much, if not more, work that needs to be done to benefit from this perceived change in attitude in the United States. It could be that things are just so bad that [his race] didn’t matter.

What has to happen in order for there to no longer be a need for an association of black IT professionals? Parity. During the ’60s and ’70s, in the civil rights era, [it was said that] along with your civil rights, you have to achieve your “silver” rights. Economic benefit gives you the power and ability to effect change. My contention, and maybe it’s why I’m in business, is that if there is a foundation of business people and business entities that African-Americans and other minorities can use as the basis for building their economic power, then these other impediments will drop by the wayside

What I would like to emphasize, though, probably more than anything else, is that professional organizations are very, very necessary, particularly for African-Americans and other minorities. The necessity doubles when you get into economic circumstances like what we’re in now. A professional organization gives you an opportunity to develop skills that you’ll need in your workplace but does it in an environment that is supportive, as opposed to combative.

Now, with things economically going south, the network you develop within an organization like BDPA will help you survive these downturns better than if you were out there doing it by yourself.


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