Q&A: Tech pioneer Earl Pace on racism in the IT workplace

The man behind Black Data Processing Associates says there are still hurdles to be overcome

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Hispanics run the gamut of skin color. I've owned my business, Pace Data Systems, since 1976, and I used to belong to a council for minority-company suppliers, and we'd go to their conferences. They would announce the winners of their awards for, say, the most business in a certain area. The ones with the biggest awards would be, for instance, a Hispanic company where the owner or president may be Hispanic, but when he stood up to get his award, you couldn't tell the difference between him and [a white person].

With African-Americans, because of our historical legacy in the United States, there are a lot of hurdles to overcome. Some you experience as a business owner, and some you experience in your job. Now, with the mortgage debacle that's facing the country and the layoffs -- that is disproportionately affecting minorities, and particularly African-Americans. It's just a hurdle that has to continue to be overcome.

What is your response to a white person who says he doesn't want to think of you as a black IT leader, he just wants to think of you as an IT leader -- that he wants to be colorblind? My response to him would be that is a very altruistic look at the racial situation here, but it is not a practical look - we are not there. It is a goal that we all want to achieve, but if he just looks at me as an IT leader, then his expectation of what I am able to do is unrealized.

So that's good to say, but the reality is that as I function in the same industry that the majority [white] IT leaders function in, my access, my exposure, my opportunities are greatly limited simply because I am an African-American.

I have had business opportunities where I have spoken with a prospect by telephone, and we have in essence agreed that this is the solution that would be best for that person's company, and all we had to do was sign the agreement. And when I showed up to get the agreement signed, the person has changed his mind about wanting to do the project. What other reason could there be? And it's happened to me several times.

Does it still happen? Oh, yeah. It still happens. So there are still some things that need to be done.

What is your response to black IT professionals who say they just want to be thought of as IT professionals, not as black IT professionals? That they are operating under a delusion.

In an editorial titled "Acceptance and Denial", I wrote the following: "Skin color does matter. Most of us dearly wish it didn't, but it does. If skin color didn't matter, then the bonds of trust between the races would be equivalent to the bonds of trust within each race. They are not. Until they are, colorblindness will have much more to do with denial than with acceptance." Do you agree or disagree? I think it's an accurate representation. My son, who is 26, differs with me on that. It is my hope that we will be like the Israelites freed from Egypt, who had to wander until that generation died out, when they could move into the promised land. I'm hopeful about what will happen when people of my generation - I'm 66 -- with the scars that we have, become less involved in the workforce, and [more] younger people who appear to be less racist than their parents [enter the workforce] - I'm hopeful. But I'm fearful that as they move into the power positions, where they are affecting things as opposed to reacting to them, a continuation of the racism will occur. I'm hoping that that doesn't happen.

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