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raceAhead: Facebook’s Black People Problem

When it comes to black people and social media companies, it’s like deja vu all over again.

“I was the second highest-ranking African American when I left,” Mark Luckie told me in 2015, when I interviewed him for Leading While Black, a story which explored the barriers facing black men in corporate life. “We were falling like dominos. It was too bad.”

We were talking about Twitter back then, where Luckie had worked as the company’s manager of journalism and media.

Diversity and inclusion had become his side gig and his calling, and the source of deep frustration, as the company failed to make any meaningful strides in either advancing the careers of employees of color, or leveraging the tremendous cultural asset that is Black Twitter, a global force which continues to add vibrancy and original content to a platform that remains largely white-led. “[I]nstead of figuring out what we could learn from powerful groups like this, we were losing ground to Instagram,” he told Fortune.

Luckie quit without a job lined up.

Luckie is back in the news with a similar critique of Facebook, where he reluctantly accepted a gig as a strategic partner manager about a year ago, persuaded that he could have some influence. He decided to quit, again, without a job, earlier this month. He wrote an exit memo he shared with the company on his last day, which he then published as a public Facebook post yesterday.

“Facebook has a black people problem,” he begins.

He comes armed with numbers, including key metrics that show how African Americans are outpacing other demographics on the platform, particularly galling given what appears to be Facebook’s often draconian policing of black voices on the site. “Black people are finding that their attempts to create ‘safe spaces’ on Facebook for conversation among themselves are being derailed by the platform itself,” he says. “Non-black people are reporting what are meant to be positive efforts as hate speech, despite them often not violating Facebook’s terms of service. Their content is removed without notice. Accounts are suspended indefinitely.”

But Luckie reserves his most pointed critiques for the company’s leadership for failing to provide resources for underrepresented people and projects inside the company, and for using black and brown employees as an always-on resource to answer shallow questions about race, when the platform would be better served by empowering professionals of color to develop projects through an inclusive lens.

While he graciously notes that the number of black employees has increased from 2% in 2016 to 4% in 2018, “In some buildings, there are more ‘Black Lives Matter’ posters than there are actual black people. Facebook can’t claim that it is connecting communities if those communities aren’t represented proportionately in its staffing.”

The exit memo, which was covered by both USA Today and The Washington Post, comes at a tough time for Facebook.

The company was already under fire for a variety of key failures: to halt propaganda, hate speech and “fake news” on the site; to understand their role in fueling genocide in Myanmar; to stop Russian election interference, much of which used racial tension on the platform as a tactic; to prevent Cambridge Analytica—a data strategy firm hired by Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign—from gaining access to the personal data of some 87 million unwitting Facebook users.

The full memo is worth your time to read. While it may not make an immediate difference to leadership, it seemed to resonate with many black employees who felt vindicated by Luckie’s willingness to share not only his experience but concrete solutions.

Luckie ended with ten recommendations, all of which will sound familiar to you—and are surprising only because they don’t seem to be currently part of the company’s inclusion playbook. By way of examples, he mentions cultural competency training, strategic goal-setting, and regular focus groups with power Facebook and Instagram users from underrepresented communities.

But what the company really needs, he says, is a human commitment to do the work.

“It will take an effort at all levels for Facebook to improve its relationship with diverse communities,” he says. “The future of the platform depends on it.”

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Quote

I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.
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