The Other Microsoft Lawsuit

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Unusually, it’s also Dr. King’s birthday. If he were walking among us, he’d be 72 today.

Most Americans still don’t take King Day as a holiday, and it’s really not a holiday, any more than Memorial Day is the opening day of suntan season. King Day is a day of remembrance, a day to think (if only for a short time) what Dr. King’s life and work meant, and what is still unfinished.

So as painful as it may be, let’s talk about race. As if to concentrate the mind on this question, attorney Willie Gary filed a $5 billion lawsuit this month against Microsoft for employment discrimination. I’m not going into the merits of that suit, except to ask Bill Gates and everyone else in this business a question. Look around your office some time, and recognize that about 1 in 10 of us is African-American. Now, how many dark faces do you see, and what are they doing?

I know there are some Internet entrepreneurs, analysts, and programmers who are African-American. There just aren’t many. Today is the day I ask why.

I can only speak from personal experience, so here is my testimony.

The neighborhood where I live is about 80 percent black, and I’ve been living here nearly 20 years. I have two kinds of neighbors, middle-class neighbors and poor neighbors. My middle-class black neighbors enjoy and appreciate their status more than I do. This may be because many of them grew up poor. Many exhibit behaviors I first saw on Long Island in the 1950s, when most families were first-generation middle class. They enjoy the small perks of success — the car, the home, the lawn, and the freedom to go shopping or take the kids to a nice restaurant.

Most also have a clear divide between their work and their home life. They work to live rather than living for their work. Most are also conservative, risk averse in their careers, and religiously faithful at home. They’re outstanding people, but the idea of living on canned soup for a year and working 20 hours each day in the hope of building something that might make them rich (if the business plan is executed properly and they get really lucky) would strike most as crazy.

Many of my poorer neighbors have big ambitions but lack the education to act on them. Some turn to burglary and seem to work very hard at it. Burglars here will case a home for days or weeks and make sure no one is around when they rob it. Others will stand on cold street corners for hours on end to sell a few grams of drugs. I sometimes think that if you could match their hustle and ambition with some honesty and education, you’d have a pretty strong bunch of entrepreneurs, but it doesn’t work out that way.

What I take from this is a half-full but half-empty glass. There are values and hustle, education and ambition in abundance among my neighbors. But very, very few have put them together to build a business in the Internet economy.

Now I ask for your testimony. Do you know any blacks outside work? Does your company mentor any poor kids, providing role models and listening to real problems? What does your experience tell you about what it might take so that your office looks like America?

Race has been America’s dirty secret since before its founding. Immigrants come here from all over. Without the baggage of racism that splits families and classes apart for generations most do fine, but African-American achievement, on average, still lags.

So forget your anger over the lawsuit for a moment, Bill. How do we solve the problem?

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