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The Tech Pioneer Who Dared to Speak Out Against Racism in IT

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This week, a technology pioneer is being honored as an inductee into the IT Hall of Fame, in recognition of his lifelong contribution to IT innovation. Yet chances are, you've never even heard of him.

 

The IT Hall of Fame, which is administered by the IT trade association CompTIA, has bestowed the honor on Earl Pace, co-founder of Black Data Processing Associates and chairman of the board of trustees of the BDPA Education and Technology Foundation. I had the pleasure of conducting an in-depth interview with Pace a couple of years ago, and I was heartened by the fact that he had no inclination to steer away from the issue of racism in IT.

 

Pace said it's probably more subtle than it used to be, but it's still very much a problem that confronts the IT community:

It manifests itself in promotions. It even manifests itself in the way in which companies interact with BDPA. We have companies who are very anxious to come to BDPA's conferences because they want to hire our technical people. But they are loathe to come to a BDPA conference to demonstrate their software or hardware, to deal with us as a high-technology organization where the people who are moving through our expo are people who can and do influence purchasing decisions. 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 in 1975 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.

Not surprisingly, that outspokenness raised the ire of some readers who steadfastly denied the existence of the problem. One reader branded Pace as just another "race peddler":

Once again you have the media trying to drum up controversy and ease a fictitious guilty conscience of "white America". Come on does anyone believe this? I put Earl right up there with Jessie Jackson and all the rest of the race peddlers of the world. It's like saying racism exists in the chicken business because I, as a white male, work at Popeye's but am the only white employee. Get out in the real world where people are hired, as long as affirmative action is not forced, for their talent not their color or nationality. If, as it's appears in my part of the country, that the majority of brain surgeons are of Indian decent, does that mean the brain surgeon community is racist??? No it simply means that a certain race excels in that field, their parents MADE them study long and hard or other races just haven't had the desire to go into that field. Do you hear the white mid-western farm boy complaining that he can't get a starting spot on a college basketball team or a NBA bencher moaning about how 90% of the people he is around are black? Think about it.

Another reader dismissed the matter as a simple fact of life that didn't warrant discussion:

Like it or not, people of all skin colors are biased, and tend to consciously or unconsciously favor people they consider to be like themselves, over people unlike themselves. It may be skin color, religion, intelligence, football teams, or the kind of car you drive, but no one is exempt from discriminating against those who are "different". So [Computerworld], and particularly Mr. Tennant, how about "we" get off our high horse about equality and [get] back to business.

Yet another said Pace was merely engaged in a self-justification exercise:

[People] like this guy look under every rock to find even the hint of racism to justify their existence. There are CERTAINLY racists in this world and there will always be to some degree. But, to suggest it's endemic in IT is sickening. The vast majority of us are just trying to keep our jobs-not "keeping the black man down".

That so much of our nation continues to be in denial about the pervasiveness of racism, however subtle it may be, is exactly why the topic cannot be allowed to be swept under the rug. And yet the sweepers persist-sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes not. Fortunately, Pace has maintained the strength to lift up that weighty carpet.

 

Congratulations, Earl. And thank you not only for your decades of service to the IT industry and profession, but for your courage in reminding us all that we still have a long way to go in our country's struggle against racism.

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