Weighing Big Tech’s Promise to Black America

Mitchell came from a Black family with an entrepreneurial spirit. When he was a teenager growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, his mother and grandmother opened a bakery called the Smith Family Bake Shop. Mitchell himself specialized in making a red velvet cake that he still enjoys baking from time to time. But the shop closed after a few years, in part due to his family’s lack of experience running a business. He decided he would go to school to gain some of the knowledge his predecessors lacked, eventually graduating from Temple University with a degree in human resources and, later, from Harvard Business School.

Mitchell’s work in HR took him to Singapore, where he worked as a recruiter for Citigroup. It was there that he spent the nascent years of the Black Lives Matter movement, observing from afar how the conversation about race in America was changing. He also realized how drastically his experiences as a Black man in Asia differed from the ones he was seeing back home. “Most people in Singapore just treated me like an American,” he says. “There was none of the second-guessing or unconscious bias that was part of the everyday experience. It was almost like walking around with a 200-pound weighted vest lifted.” When he returned to the US, he knew combating racism would be a priority for him. “It was kind of like, I cannot not do this work as part of my job,” he says.

Not long after his return, Mitchell landed a job in HR at Netflix. The streaming giant has a somewhat infamous work culture that emphasizes autonomy and transparency at all costs. Some former employees have described it as dysfunctional, rife with unnervingly public firings and performance reviews (any employee can critique any other). But Mitchell, a lifelong musician, likens Netflix’s corporate structure to a jazz band, where creativity and adaptation are fundamental. The lack of hierarchy at the company allowed him to pursue what he calls his “jazz solo” as he began to research Black banks.

The first person Michell reached out to after his April dinner was Bill Bynum, who was able to provide some wide-angle perspective on the importance of both Black banks and CDFIs. Mitchell also picked up Mehrsa Baradaran’s book The Color of Money. Poring over its 384 pages, he was surprised to learn just how many laws and regulations had been put in place over centuries to forestall attempts to build Black wealth. These obstacles, he realized, dated all the way back to the original Freedman’s Bank, where Black people ultimately saw their deposits raided by white managers for risky investments. “Until I read that book, I thought that this was a much easier problem to solve,” Mitchell said. “You can’t really help until you understand the complexity of the problem.”

Baradaran’s book, along with other recent works like Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, emphasizes how discrimination was not merely an expression of the bigotry held by individual people or organizations; it is tightly woven into the laws and incentive structures created by government agencies. The problem was systemic; the solutions would have to be as well. “The thing that my book shows, hopefully, is that you don’t need to put racism in to get racism out,” Baradaran says. “The structure as we have it will produce racism unless you’re very, very deliberate about how to remedy these things.”

Mitchell decided to reach out to the author. Baradaran has fielded plenty of consulting requests from companies looking to whitewash their brands in the face of a shifting American mood on race. Still, she was willing to take Mitchell’s call because she felt Netflix was already making a good-faith effort to operate with diversity in mind. The company had a larger percentage of Black workers, at 8 percent, than Facebook, Google, or Microsoft. The streamer had also invested a significant amount of money in developing a wide slate of productions featuring Black actors and directors like Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee, who praised the company. “Netflix creates stories,” Baradaran says. “That’s Netflix’s market, and in that market they’re doing well at representation and diversity. That’s what I would say for other businesses—look at your market and see how you can make changes there.”

Baradaran also sensed an earnest desire in Mitchell to help small Black businesses like his family’s bakery. So she volunteered to help him shape his proposal. “She was the one who kind of inspired us to think bigger,” Mitchell says. With Baradaran’s input, Mitchell began drafting a two-and-a-half-page memo outlining his vision for how Netflix could sustainably support Black banks. From the beginning, he was wedded to the idea that some committed proportion of Netflix’s cash should go toward the effort. “Pegging to the 2 percent meant that, as we grow as a company, our commitment to these communities continues to grow,” Mitchell says.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/big-techs-promise-to-black-america