Essay

Juneteenth: are we really woke this time?

My dad was the sole white member of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Senior Men’s Club in South Bend, my hometown. Dad was interested in economic development in the city’s depressed west side, where he had lived as a teenager. He worked with a few west-side groups trying to move initiatives forward, and the Men’s Club was one of them.

Through this, I think, he became aware of the challenges black families faced in South Bend. Whenever I’d see him he’d eventually steer our conversations toward those challenges. He could talk for hours about them. As a dyed-in-the-wool Republican he always advanced conservative solutions. The men of the Men’s Club were Democrats to the core and vigorously disagreed with Dad, but they came to like him anyway.

This is how I first heard of Juneteenth. There were celebrations every year on South Bend’s west side, and my parents always went to them.

I work in technology, specifically in software development. This industry is overwhelmingly the domain of young white men from the middle and upper classes. Where I work now, we have the most diverse team of anyplace I’ve ever worked. That doesn’t mean it’s highly diverse — we just have some women and a few black people on the team. We also have several immigrants from India and China and a few old white guys like me. That’s enough to set us well apart.

The murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis was the one-time-too-many that finally captured this nation’s attention. People of all backgrounds are saying enough. It’s time to treat black people with the same dignity and respect that is afforded white people.

At work, leaders have been talking a lot about how to improve the diversity of our team. Because I follow a lot of the local tech companies on LinkedIn, I see through their updates that they are having the same kinds of conversations.

I see it as systemic that our industry is made mostly of young white men. Most jobs either require or favor a four-year engineering-related degree. In my experience, that’s overwhelmingly the domain of young white men of some means.

Technology companies should eliminate the degree requirement. Then they should invest in training and apprenticeships. Yes, let’s apply the old trade model to technology. At least in software development, there are coding academies that teach the basics. Companies can band together to create scholarships to those academies, and heavily recruit people to those scholarships who are not young white men. They can then bring graduates on board and show them the ropes on the job.

Personally, when I have an opening on my team I scour LinkedIn for people who aren’t young white men and I recruit them. Plenty of young white men find my opening on their own. I’m still selecting from the same pool of people who are already in the industry, blocking people who want to get in but don’t yet have the bona fides. But it has led to my last two offers going to a black software engineer and a woman engineering manager.

Out of the blue, my company this week announced that they are giving us this afternoon off to celebrate Juneteenth. My brother works for another local tech company that has one-upped us: they’ve made Juneteenth a paid company holiday, starting this year.

I’m cynical. Are we just signaling virtue? Will we actually carry our discussions about diversity through to action?

None of the social welfare and justice initiatives Dad was involved in drove lasting change. It was an uphill climb, and it required persistence and cooperation beyond what my father could arrange. The same persistence and cooperation is required to drive diverse hiring in the tech industry. It’s also needed across the United States for the good of our whole nation.

Last updated on 27 October 2020 by Jim Grey

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44 thoughts on “Juneteenth: are we really woke this time?

  1. DougD says:

    So what does an old white guy do with his Juneteenth afternoon off? I must confess I’d never heard of it before this year.

    I’ve been fortunate to work for an international company, and although executives are likely to be Finnish our local office is pretty much the united nations. If you need someone to ask for something from our Chinese customer or chew out a supplier in Brazil there is always help to be found.

    • I have no idea what I’m going to do with my Juneteenth afternoon off.

      I’ve never worked for an international company. In my world there are lots of startups, almost all of them created by young white guys.

  2. Wow, Jim, this is powerful stuff! I’m an old white man that feels exactly the same about the relative “non-need” for “degrees” in order to get a job. In-house training and apprenticeships would do a world of good for young people, companies, and the world. Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s good! (Your dad seems like someone I wish I had met!)

    • When I started in tech the degree was necessary, I think. But 30 years on, things have changed and this is totally an apprentice-able job now.

  3. Hi Jim – I just shared this on my Facebook page. My 28 year old son is a software engineer, so this spoke to me. He got a 4 year Computer Engineering degree, which had no application to the real coding world. He attended a 3 month boot camp, and got a great job, which led to others. You have a good heart, and excellent ideas here.

  4. Garry says:

    Stick with road articles. I don’t appreciate being preached to by some virtue signaler. My question is. Why now?

      • Black Lives Matter!! says:

        This is not just mere virtue signaling but actual virtue, bigots!

        Personally, when I have an opening on my team I scour LinkedIn for people who aren’t young white men and I recruit them. Plenty of young white men find my opening on their own. … it has led to my last two offers going to a black software engineer and a woman engineering manager.

    • My employer is having discussions on diversity too. It feels a little driven by both guilt and the Zeitgeist. I am cynical about whether it will lead to anything serious and lasting.

  5. tbm3fan says:

    Are we just signaling virtue? Well in the past it has been virtue. There are still those who are completely and totally tone deaf to the whole thing. You know the old saying, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Time will tell as there are many who don’t want to acknowledge the now deeply ingrained institutional nature of racism in this country going on 130 years.

    • It’s amazing to me how many are still tone deaf. The trouble is, the tone deaf seldom know they’re tone deaf. I’m sure I’m somewhat tone deaf and don’t know it.

  6. -N- says:

    The current administration has made racism and self-centered chauvinistic old white guys center stage for 4 years. As a result, women are denigrated, minorities of all colors are denigrated, communities of varying sexuality are debased, and young people who are productive citizens without legal status are considered to be disposable trash. White males are seen as the top of the heap, young and old. The result has been devastating to all other groups. And finally, the coronavirus swept the country, the economy has taken a downturn, and the highly publicized murders by police were the tipping point.

    Juneteenth has long been overdue as a significant national holiday, whereas Columbus Day has been abolished in many places. I don’t understand why the south and midwest and rust belt areas continue to vote for people who don’t have their interests in mind, who prey upon their religious conservatism and poor education to shill their lies. Toxic masculinity, opioid addiction, boredom, economic depression fuel this. This may be the last bout of the old white guy, a dying gasp from a dying generation. Power is so frequently abused by those in power – witness our current politics and policing in many, but not all, instances.

    The times are changing once again, and I hope for the better. Many people have claimed that God wanted what was voted in as president, and the need for change is the only reason I can think of . . . .

    I don’t think you are cynical, but realistic. Lip service vs. action – and action and change do not happen quickly or comfortably.

    • I have thought as well that this might be the last bout of the old white guy. I’m happy to know someone else has thought it too.

      I’m Generation X, always having lived in the shadow of the baby boomers, and about to live in the shadow of the Millennials and Gen Zers. My generation will probably never get its time in the sun. We will probably never have a Gen X President.

      But I’ve come to terms with that. I’m ready for the torch to be passed down, past my generation to the ones behind me. Let them rebuild us. I trust that by the time they’re in there will be plenty of rubble to rebuild on.

  7. Excellent commentary and strategies to encourage diverse hiring. If you don’t mind, Jim, I’d like to copy and paste this on Facebook where your ideas might get some traction, or at the very least, open up conversation within (and outside of) Indy’s tech community.

  8. Take it from an old white guy who thought the world was making progress – right up to the seemingly sudden reappearance of the same old troubles – the solution is not soon forthcoming. Why? Because we never do the right thing, which takes time. We always go for the quick and easy solution, and that solution is quick and easy to undo with the next administrative change.
    You know where the solution starts: equalization of education regardless of socio-economic background. Then we have to stay with it for at least three generations while all the old hate mongers die off (and in the meantime must be muzzled as “free speech” is not the right to insight hatred). This is about as likely to happen as Trump apologizing for anything.
    Yes I have grown horribly cynical – in just the past three years.

  9. Thank you for this, Jim. The only way to effect change is to acknowledge our problems and begin looking for solutions. Dialogue is the first step. My worldview from my very rural, quietly racist place is much different than yours in your town and industry. Very good to hear about your experiences.

    Neat story about your dad too!

    • Dad really did try, in his way, to make things better for the west side of South Bend. I think it was a great regret of his life that he failed.

      We all have a different perspective from where we sit in the world. I love reading about other peoples’ perspectives so I share mine sometimes in that spirit.

      • The conversation is important and, like you, I enjoy insights into other’s worlds.

        While your dad may not have effected visible changes, the fact he tried must have meant something to those men he was working with.

  10. As an African American who works in the tech field myself, this morning I was holding a one on one with one of my colleagues and he stated that he just recently learned of Juneteenth and that, to me at least, is where for a lot of people the conversation should probably begin. Whilst Juneteenth has been recognized for years it’s never been officially observed in a broad capacity and oftentimes dismissed along the same lines of Kwanza regarding its significance to those not familiar with it.
    I firmly believe that the more people, states, and organizations put observance over recognition this will help broaden the significance of this day and the important role it plays in this nation’s history.
    It’s ironic that this is intersected with the current climate where there are those who still feel that the removal of the participation trophy relics of the confederacy will somehow undermine history while ironically being unable to recognize their ignorance to the parts of history (Juneteenth/Black Wallstreet massacre) that have been overlooked for decades and all but forgotten because they weren’t deemed important enough to discuss on a “we should all remember this” level.
    As a retired Navy Vet I can say that I have met people from all walks of life and that we have more in common as a society than what separates us but knowledge and understanding is the main thing that brings us closer and whilst some of the current reactions and proclamations can be justifiably seen as knee jerk by some, to others like myself I think its an amazing opportunity to really discover and discuss those commonalities while filling in the gaps.
    So what can one do with this sudden time they have in their hands, research, learn more and share about what brought us here would be my answer.

    • I remember when Dad told me about Juneteenth. I was about 40! And celebrations had been going on in South Bend for some time. How had I never heard about it?

      Because I work almost entirely with white people. And because I’m a keep-to-myself kind of guy, I hardly spoke to my neighbors, many of whom were African-American.

      I hope that Juneteenth becomes a national holiday and that we follow your suggestion that the nation observe it. I don’t think this nation can come together until it unites in a common understanding of its complete history and we share in celebrating everything about it that is worthy of celebration.

  11. Andy Umbo says:

    Milwaukee started celebrating Juneteenth in 1971, so it’s been pretty much in the upper mind. I was born in Chicago, tho, and the big deal there for years was Bud Billiken! Started in 1929, and purported to be a fictional newsboy for the Chicago Defender African-American newspaper, who had his own column in the paper. Worth a read (wiki below). When I used to work in the Jewel Foods advertising department in the 1980’s we were big advertisers in the Defender and put on a big spread for the Parade!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bud_Billiken_Parade_and_Picnic

      • Andy Umbo says:

        BTW, anyone that wants to read a fascinating book, there are a few on the history of The Chicago Defender African-American newspaper. I learned so much, like when the political party of choice for African-Americans changed from the Republican to the Democratic party; and how in Jim Crow South, the paper was smuggled into the community by Pullman Porters on the trains!

        To keep on a photo theme, check out the history of Charles “Teenie” Harris (also known as “One Shot”). He was a community photographer for the African Americans in Pittsburgh, and also a photographer for the Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh’s African-American newspaper of record! I own the book published about him, and it’s quite fascinating as well!

        Plenty of ways to celebrate Juneteenth!

  12. Roger Meade says:

    Thanks for addressing this subject Jim. The more it sees print, the more people will stop to think about it and form or reform an opinion. You seem to be pretty conservative, I am a liberal, but we do seem to have similar opinions on this topic. The fact that the protest crowds seem quite diverse give me hope that this time things will actually move toward more equality. The Supreme Court seems to have gotten the message!

    As to the apprenticeship idea- yes, yes, yes, at least until higher education becomes available to anyone who qualifies, not just those who can afford it.

    • The older I get, the more liberal I become. But to a liberal I’m sure I still look pretty conservative! I’m with you, I hope the diverse protest crowds are sending a strong message that gets heard by the powers that be.

  13. Pingback: Five for Friday – Juneteenth, 2020 – Tooth of the Weasel

  14. tbm3fan says:

    Read this story that pertains to Tech, Silicon Valley, and ingrained racism to this day. An example of behavior being carried over down the years to the point where no one pays attention or much less questions why they do what they do. One must desire to open their mind. My mind started that in 1965, when 10, I saw something in Baltimore that made me ask questions. In 1980 my sister married an African-American. In 1985 I had an African-American girlfriend for over a year. I learned some and got tutored.

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-06-16/black-lives-matter-highlights-adversity-facing-black-tech-ceos?srnd=premium

    • Sadly that article’s behind the paywall for me.

      I went to an inner city high school and had some black acquaintances. Then in the 90s I lived in a mixed neighborhood and had some black neighbors. If I weren’t such a keep-to-myself fellow I might have learned more from those experiences.

  15. I think Juneteenth is a good thing – something I had never heard of before this year. I think it ought to become the kind of celebration event that St Patrick’s day and Cinco de Mayo have become, though perhaps with less alcohol.

    But do you know how those days (as examples) did not become widely popular? By organized pressure and employers trying to buy peace with a paid holiday.

    Call me cynical, but Juneteenth (at least among businesses and governments) is window dressing. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we all need some window dressing. Just don’t expect it to really accomplish anything. MLK day has been a holiday for, what, 30 years? It didn’t fix the problems.

    The problems won’t be solved any way except the hard way – one person, one heart, one mind at a time. And maybe I’m wrong and that Juneteenth will build a few bridges and create a little goodwill. I hope so. Thanks for starting the discussion.

    • You are right to say that just making a holiday out of something doesn’t change current behavior. It really is one heart, one mind, at a time.

      But in this case Juneteenth really is a part of American history and does mean something deep to many black people. It is therefore different from St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo as those are related to events that happened in other countries and are not part of US history.

      • A good point about Juneteenth being a home-grown occasion for celebration. I was just thinking in terms of a day that means a lot to a particular group but is accepted and celebrated by the public at large who joins in.

  16. Dani says:

    I’m hoping we’re not going through the motions because it’s the thing to do now. I saw that with 9/11. American flags were flying off the shelves and orders were backlogged. People were coming together to back the Red, the White, the Blue. Sure didn’t take long for us to become complacent again. Yes, we’ve come along way in regards to equality amongst all people but it’s also been 2 steps forward, 3 steps back. I hope we are committed to change. I hope we are committed to making things better. I hope we think through the way to change rather than the knee-jerk reaction change process we’ve come to adopt.

  17. Being from CA, a Gen X-er, after L.A.’s Rodney King’s beating in the 90s- we should know better. I have tried confronting other white people re their racism, incl family members- in factual non hostile ways. I “inter racially” dated several times, (it pisses me off this is even a term I have to use) in the late 80’s and every time, both of us faced so much pressure from “each side” it was impossible to maintain the relationship. So called “liberal” Oregon has deep historically racist roots, where I live now. I’m disheartened and weary over the American cultural norm of racism. Some things grow a little hope, like the fact your dad was active back in the day. That is remarkable.

  18. Only time will tell if this is virtue signalling on the whole but I appreciate the fact that people are trying to be on the right side of history. I get that “right” is completely subjective to some people but I cannot back down on this. Right is right. Equality is right. Justice is right.

    Great story about your dad, Jim. Actually all it takes is for people to at least try, like he did. We’re not perfect but we should always try.

    • Dad did try. I remember being pretty judgmental about the way he tried, because it was so obviously ineffective. But I wasn’t trying at all, so he had that on me.

      Yes, people are trying to be on the right side of history. Goodness, I hope it sticks this time.

  19. Here’s a story from an even older white guy. It’s really not all that pertinent to the main thrust of your post but the post did remind me of it.

    I’m not even sure that computer science degrees existed when I got into programming in the late 1960s. If they did, the company I started with realized that their real needs could be better handled by something more sharply targeted. The bulk of their programming needs were for COBOL programmers capable of dealing with a large variety of data with very little variety in process. They interviewed a bunch of people, administered a battery of aptitude tests, picked half a dozen, and had an existing employee teach a class. One was a transfer from the operations department (Yes, in ancient times, computer operators really were a thing.) and the others were new hires. The transferee and I were white males. A black male and three white women rounded out the class. Everyone made it through the class and began almost immediately doing useful work for the company. For some that was enough while others used it as a real “foot in the door” opportunity to learn from the gurus that surrounded us and advance into more complicated stuff. But everybody, including the company, was happy.

    • It was sometime between your time and mine that they decided people needed computer science degrees to write computer programs. I have a computer science degree, more or less, and it didn’t teach me to be a good programmer. That degree gave me a deep understanding of how computers work, even at scale, and that’s interesting but not hugely useful.

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