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Just before Mark Luckie quit his job as a manager at Facebook, he sent out a departing internal memo November 8 calling out his former employer for having a “black people problem”—and then, last week, shared that note with the public on his Facebook page.
On top of shouldering the extra burden of offering input on Facebook projects involving race, Luckie wrote of consistent microaggressions from his colleagues that the company routinely failed to help him with. “Black employees will sometimes to turn to HR in search of a resolution, as employees from all backgrounds do. We often find, however, that our experiences are rationalized away or we’re made to believe these disheartening patterns are a figment of our imagination,” Luckie wrote. “It becomes clear that the conversations with HR are more often than not meant to protect the manager and the status quo of Facebook, not support the employee.”
Luckie initially kept his note on Facebook’s internal message boards, but said he decided to make it public because of the company’s track record of inaction on resolving issues until it receives public pressure. Facebook spokesman Anthony Harris said last week in response to Luckie’s note that “we’ve been working diligently to increase the range of perspectives among those who build our products and serve the people who use them throughout the world.”
The company hasn’t taken clear actions since the note, but on Tuesday, Facebook did temporarily remove Luckie’s post, saying it violated its community standards. Facebook then reversed its decision.
The biggest thing that I didn’t include in the post was the racism that I was experiencing in my neighborhood…coming home and having to deal with neighbors making racist comments and having the police called on me.Luckie told Mother Jones in a phone interview that he has received overwhelmingly positive feedback in response to the note. To Luckie, the feedback is evidence of the breadth of both Facebook and the tech industry’s continued insensitivity on matters of race and identity.
His memo comes after a difficult several years for the company on matters of race and diversity. The Congressional Black Caucus had a testy meeting with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg last year over the company’s ailing diversity numbers. After a ProPublica report revealed how the platform could be used to discriminate against people of color seeking housing, the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched an investigation into the website.
Mother Jones spoke with Luckie about the fallout of his note and his thoughts on how the company and tech industry can improve.
Mother Jones: What types of responses have you received since you posted your note about Facebook’s “black people problem” and it went viral?
Mark Luckie: A lot of people have reached out and said they’ve had similar experiences. There are certain things that black people don’t really talk about for fear of career retribution, loss of professional contacts, or things like that.
It’s been inspiring and also really sad that this is very common—or more common than I think people realize.
The messages to me have been overwhelmingly positive. I was expecting detractors to reach out. I’ve been on the other side and seen people receive death threats around content like this. I didn’t get any of that. Only some misguided responses around, “Why is it always about race?” “We should move beyond race.” Those kind of things.
MJ: How do you parse out what is tech’s fault regarding racism and matters of race, and what is the general fault of society? I know black people who have experienced similar issues in the workplace, but who don’t work in tech.
ML: It is a societal problem that is magnified by tech. Previously, it was our friends, family, people that were in our inner circle. Tech allows us to connect with people around the world. And so there are a lot of good things that come out of tech. It also amplifies negative aspects of society, racism being one of them. When you have tech companies tout themselves as connected communities and building a better world and being the global town square, it becomes a mismatch of what’s happening on the platform. There is also lots of confrontation, violence, bullying—some of it around race.
From the Facebook perspective, when you look around, [you] see that most of your coworkers are white and Asian. They bring up topics in discussions that would seem universal, but are not. I’ve had so many conversations around Stranger Things. But Love and Hip Hop is one of the biggest shows across social platforms, and I only heard it once in the time that I was there.
It’s tough, because it makes you feel even more like an outsider. Some of it isn’t explicitly racist, but it is not inclusive. So what ends up happening at a company like Facebook is that all the black employees get together, we spend time together. We hang out. We create our tribe. You have to connect with people who are far outside your team, but doing that becomes necessary to keep your peace of mind.
MJ: Were there more overt examples of racism and exclusion that you dealt with beyond what you included in your post?
ML: The biggest thing I didn’t include in the post was the racism I was experiencing in my neighborhood. It was ultimately more of a factor of why I left. I was putting in the hard work, and certainly overcoming a lot of challenges at work, but coming home and having to deal with neighbors making racist comments and having the police called on me. I would lock myself in my apartment on the weekends or at night. I was afraid to take out the trash because a neighbor would be hovering over me. I’ve given up way too much. Silicon Valley neighborhoods are made up of the people who work in Silicon Valley. So it’s not like Silicon Valley companies are oases where you’re free from racism and discrimination. These people who work at these companies live in these neighborhoods. If I were to stay in the role I had at Facebook, I’d have to deal with it in every aspect of my life.
MJ: How many times were the police called on you?
ML: Twice. I lost track of the [racist] encounters with neighbors directly—everything from “Do you live here?” to racist comments likening me to a dog.
MJ: Was your neighborhood pretty atomized, where people didn’t really know each other?
When you have tech companies tout themselves as connected communities and building a better world and being the global town square, it becomes a mismatch of what’s happening on the platform.ML: Oh no, they knew each other. My neighborhood was very “neighborhood watch.” There were signs everywhere. Nextdoor was a big thing. My neighbors were trying to get me to sign up for it and I was like, “Absolutely not, because I’ve heard too many stories about neighbors discriminating against people for their race,” and I wanted no part of that.
There were a lot of [homeowner association meetings], town halls, and things like that. It was very much a curiosity whenever I was walking down the street for sure.
MJ: Did you ever go to these homeowner association meetings or town halls to voice your concerns?
ML: I would never go to these meetings. I was just trying to live my life. I don’t want be surrounded by people looking around saying, “Who’s that black guy?” Certainly, people tried to invite me to these things. It was always with questions like, “Who are you?”, “What do you do?”, “Where do you work?” beyond what’s socially acceptable.
I hate that I do this, but I subconsciously counted the number of black people I saw in my neighborhood in the year that I was there, and I counted 20, total. And about half of those were in a single café that was by my home.
MJ: One thing I’ve heard from black employees at technology companies is that it would make their own lives easier, and it would make it easier to recruit people of color into tech companies, if they put offices in cities like Houston or Atlanta where there are more diverse populations.
ML: I had requested to move to Atlanta—Facebook has an office in Atlanta—because I had faced those challenges in my neighborhood. I had moved from Atlanta to the Bay Area. My fiancé was supposed to follow me to the Bay, but when I started to deal with all these microaggressions, I told them to stay.
I asked if moving to Atlanta would be an option. I was given a very firm no.
The problem on a broader level that Facebook has is that employees of color don’t want to move to Menlo Park. Facebook has vibrant offices in African American communities like Austin and Chicago. [But] Facebook makes it quite difficult for any employee to not be based out of one of its major offices.
MJ: Even if you do address issues of racial representation, that doesn’t rectify structural and embedded issues of racism. It’s hard to imagine these issues going away, even if Facebook’s Menlo Park office was 12 percent black, in step with the American population. How do you get past that?
It’s tough, because it makes you feel even more like an outsider. Some of it isn’t explicitly racist, but it is not inclusive.ML: One of the things people use to counter racial diversity is diversity of thought, which is an excuse to say, you know, “We may not have race or gender diversity, but we have people who think differently.” Which is not usually true, especially when people come from the same schools and they come from the same companies. They may have slight differences, but they have a lot of commonalities.
And recognizing that these socioeconomic structures lend itself to that, you have to make room for people of color, different sexual identities and gender identities, and different religious and political backgrounds to have a seat at the table.
MJ: There’s already a discrepancy in representation between Facebook and other tech companies’ workforces and the American population. There’s an even larger discrepancy between their workforces and the demographics of people using their platforms. Black people and other minority groups use Facebook and Twitter an outsized amount. What do you think the impact of that is?
ML: There is a disconnect in the partners and organizations that Facebook spotlights. Facebook ends up giving up resources to groups that employees are familiar with. I’ve been in situations where we’re asked for organizations Facebook should work with and everyone would list white people.
I would come in and say, “Hey, here are some people of color. Here are some people from underrepresented backgrounds.” Everything from the representation of people of color in AI and VR to being featured on Instagram’s explore page, which is something millions of people look at every day.
There’s just so many places where race and background does become a factor that I don’t think people realize unless they’re actually from an underrepresented background.
MJ: Do you think Facebook would have handled the situation with [racial justice group] Color of Change differently if they were paying better mind to diversity issues, instead of trying to pin them as a front for George Soros?
ML: So far, tech has gotten away with saying, “We’re working on diversity,” and one of the things I appreciate about Color of Change is they’re not being dismissed so easily. They push that this is a problem and you messed up. What are you going to do about it?
I think the way they tried to paint Color of Change was more of an administration issue. For me when I heard about it, it was hard to believe that a company didn’t know what a firm they hired was doing. So that either points to lack of oversight or being plain shady. Or they thought they wouldn’t be held accountable for it.
There are a lot of secrets tech companies have that most people never hear about. Unfortunately for Facebook, those issues surface and become part of public conversation.
MJ: In what you’ve heard and seen, is Facebook the worst on race, or are there other companies that you think are more insensitive and ignorant on matters of race?
ML: There are a lot of companies out there that have issues around race. Before leaving Facebook, I heard from so many employees at black tech firms that this is happening. I was just reading the New York Times story about Tesla and issues of discrimination there.
The thing with Facebook is its scale is so much larger in comparison to most companies besides like Yahoo and Apple, who have their own issues. Other platforms have a better public image. The combination of this issue with a poor public image—you are making both sides of that spectrum worse.
MJ: What are you up to in Atlanta now, post-Facebook?
ML: I launched a podcast right after I left called Sumeria. It’s a scripted sci-fi podcast that has a mostly black cast. I needed something positive to focus on with everything happening. My way of doing that is to focus on creative endeavors, and also I wanted to put my money where my mouth is, because there is a lack of scripted podcasts featuring characters of color and I wanted to create that.