Racism in Charlottesville;
Diversity at Google

Did we need reminders that race and diversity are not well in hand in our culture? Cuz we still pay lip service to both.

Charlottesville over the weekend. The murderer who plowed his car into the young paralegal, Heather Heyer, and the other injured people, senseless. The loss of the two State Troopers who died in the helicopter crash flying overwatch to monitor the scene, tragic. The violent clashes between the Neo-Nazis and the counter-protestors, surreal. And then there were the “militia,” fatigues and battle gear, combat boots, or athletic shoes. Clean shaven or full beards, buzz cuts or long hair in top-knots or pony tails. Helmets and flak jackets. Assault rifles. The Commonwealth of Virginia is “open carry.” The “Unite the Right” rally, at least the images I’ve seen, had a Mad Max quality to it. Even the counter-protestors came dressed in shields and helmets: they knew what they were protesting. And the evening before, the young goons with Tiki torches, marching.

Google the week before. An engineer at Google internally posted a memo (his “Manifesto”) sharing his thoughts why Google’s diversity initiatives are misguided, including his conviction that women have biological differences that impede their promotion and success in Silicon Valley—nothing whatever to do with systemic discriminatory biases in the Tech sector. Also, the no longer anonymous James Damore lamented what he claims is Google’s tendency to shame politically incorrect viewpoints, because he believes it undermines psychological safety where unfettered sharing of contrary viewpoints is needed.

I see the common denominator undergirding the hate-inspired white nationalism on display this weekend and the gender ignorant Googler in search of his “safe space.” It’s the fear that an unrestrained Progressive agenda is dispossessing white men of our American birthright. It’s not more complicated than that. When former KKK leader David Duke looked into the camera on Saturday and said the event was a “turning point,” that the movement would thenceforth ensure the fulfillment of the campaign promise the President made to “take back our country” (i.e., for whites), the First Amendment was stretched to its limits: The Unite the Right Rally was conceived as a vehicle not just to exercise free speech, but also violence plus racism. Our Constitution doesn’t protect those evils aping as the rights of assembly and free speech.

Free speech has obvious limits in the workplace. A few who participated in Charlottesville are being outed through social media and are being fired from their jobs—their employers want no association with hate and racism. Damore, the “Googler,” was fired August 7, 2017. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that Damore’s memo called the pay gap a “myth” and relied on biological determinism to explain why women are biologically inferior to men and was therefore a violation of the company’s Code of Conduct. “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK,” Pichai said in a companywide memo.

Former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger, who had only recently departed the company, responded directly to Damore. Zunger points out where Damore is wrong about the stereotypical traits he ascribes to women being unsuited for engineering:

Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

Zunger goes on to fault Damore for expressing views that, because now public, have been mistaken as having wider acceptance at Google and have caused the company to expend untold time and energy tamping down the controversy. Even Zunger has had to answer for them, though he no longer works there. As for Damore’s concern that his unaccepted views isolate him, Zunger observes that they are fundamentally corrosive to any organization, drive people out, and would be unwelcome in any organization not specifically dedicated to such views. (Right now, I’m thinking of the KKK. The Alt-Right. White Nationalist groups.)

And Damore filed a Charge that his termination violates Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), in that his Manifesto amounted to a concerted activity for the mutual aid and protection of co-employees to address the working conditions of white males. In his memo, Damore was careful to say in several places that he supports diversity; he just disagrees with Google’s approach to achieving it. Damore sent his screed via company mailing list provided by Google. His claim might have a chance.

But balanced against his Section 7 rights is the possibility that Damore’s views themselves contain ideas that could create a hostile work environment. Credit for this theory belongs to Shauna Curphey, self-described Lawyer, traveler, and aspiring humanist. Curphey points out that because Damore’s Manifesto expresses gender stereotypes that can be unlawful discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer who tolerates and fails to correct them could be condoning a hostile work environment. Before it fired Damore, Google issued a memo that expressed its steadfast commitment to diversity while welcoming divergent viewpoints that were in alignment with its core values and commitment to diversity. In her blog post, Curphey expresses concerns about how tolerant Google could be:

Envision the racial hostility of a workplace where employees, as Google put it, “feel safe” to espouse their “alternative view” that their African-American colleagues are not well-represented in management positions because they are not genetically predisposed for leadership roles. In short, a workplace where people “feel safe sharing opinions” based on gender (or racial, ethnic or religious) stereotypes may become so offensive that it legally amounts to actionable discrimination.

Google’s Response to Employee’s Anti-Diversity Manifesto Ignores Workplace Discrimination Law.

And Curphey has a point. Google absolutely knew that Damore would file a claim under the NLRA but decided to remove what it perceived as the more significant source of liability, legal and public relations no doubt. In his Op-Ed piece in the WSJ, Damore characterizes Google as a cult, a place where real dissent cannot be practiced safely. And maybe that’s true. But he does not recognize that his apparentsupport of diversity in his memo was utterly undermined by his pseudo-authoritative pronouncements about gender biology/psychology.

Employees who have valid concerns that diversity initiatives are just PC schemes to commit unlawful discrimination and promote unqualified employees need to be heard and responded to. Better education. Increased feedback. But if the opportunities to express those concerns are taken as permission to vent intolerance, racial or gender stereotypes, or similarly outmoded thinking based on the misconception that the playing fields have been leveled, employers have to use caution. Because as Yonatan Zunger puts it, those are fundamentally corrosive to any organization.

Race and diversity are not well in hand in our culture. Not in our workplaces either. Charlottesville and Google were just reminders.

The author, Peter Rutledge, is an Employment Lawyer and Partner at Rutledge Law, Greenville, SC. You can contact him via these channels:
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“If someone told you
that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to.”

Yonatan Zunger, former Google engineer
2017-12-09T00:36:58+00:00