Earl A. Pace Jr.

The BDPA founder talks about the reality of racism in the IT workplace, the delusion of 'colorblindness' and the meaning of the Obama presidency.

Early in his career, when he was working as a programming manager at a financial services firm, Earl A. Pace Jr. went to a computer conference in Arizona where there were 200 attendees -- 199 white people and him. Well aware of the opportunities in the exploding industry, he decided that ratio needed to change. That decision led to the founding, in 1975, of Black Data Processing Associates (BDPA), a national organization that now has more than 50 chapters and aims to provide what it calls "a pathway from the classroom to the boardroom."

Is racism in the IT workplace becoming less of a problem? It is not less of a problem. It is, perhaps, more subtle or sophisticated.

There are some promotions that have occurred. There are probably more African-Americans and other minorities that have been promoted to senior-level positions than existed when BDPA was formed. But the impact of those people at higher levels is marginal with respect to bringing other African-Americans up the pipeline to replace or to supplement them.

To some degree, that's the result of insecurity in the position. In my early years, I was vice president of a financial services firm, responsible for hiring technical people, and I hired based upon ability. As it turned out, I probably hired an equal number of African-Americans and whites. I was at a meeting, and one of the board members of that company actually said to me, "Are you attempting to make the technical staff at our company the United Nations?" I could have been intimidated by that. My response was, "I hire based upon need and capability, not on what I see." And that director walked away.

That wasn't subtle at all. But there are more subtle ways in which people who have moved to a higher position can [be made to] feel less secure. Not everyone in that position has a desire to push back. If they're going to be criticized for it, they're less likely to do so.

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