Last week I announced that I was leaving Google and said in passing that I found the Bay Area “congested, racist, incestuous, and overpriced”. Those four adjectives were apparently more newsworthy than my career moves; fair enough. The reaction (and there was a lot of it) ranged from giggly agreement to sincere anger. So I should follow up.

I think “congested” and “overpriced” hardly seem worth elaborating on. Yes, my own hometown is overpriced too so I grant a certain unfairness in my bandying that word.

I’d bypass “incestuous” too, but I have to pass on (from a private discussion) someone’s suggestion that I meant the “startup/VC/tech-press Human Centipede”. Well yeah, and I wish I’d thought of those words.

Racist?!? · What particularly stung was that I got pushback from people whom I respect immensely and are distinctly non-white. So I owe more.

It’s like this: Whenever I’m around San Fran and the Valley, I can’t help noticing that 100% of the people I see who are building the future and making the big bucks are ethnically Chinese, Indian, or white. And 100% of the people I see who are washing floors or guarding doors or serving fast food are black and Mexican and Central-American. It’s not subtle, it’s totally in-your-face. And saddening.

So, is this “racism”? People have argued that it’s not; rather, an ongoing self-reinforcing hangover from many intertwined bad histories. Well OK, maybe. But the effect is unsubtle: To my eyes, the Bay area looks racist.

Is there another choice of words that would better describe what seems plain to the eye? I’m really asking, non-rhetorically.

(I’m not saying that the Bay Area’s problems are different from or worse than the rest of America’s, because I don’t know.)

(And of course my profession, centered in the Bay Area, is also strongly sexist, empirically; but that’s a problem of the profession not the area.)

My hometown is too? · Am I claiming it isn’t? Not really; I’m actually pretty convinced that tribal behavior is coded in our genes. I acknowledge gut-level ethnic prejudices but try really hard not to act on them.

On the upside, Vancouver’s main ethnic groups are all well-represented among our vicious gangsters, billionaire philanthropists, real-estate sleazebags, and songwriters. When you meet someone here (and this is a very good thing) their accent and skin color give you essentially no useful information about their likely professional or socioeconomic status.

Our own racist stench is that Canada’s original inhabitants no longer number among what I called our “main ethnic groups” because my ancestors killed ’em and squeezed ’em out and took their kids away and shut ’em up on reservations; they’ve been playing catch-up for generations, with very little constructive help from the mainstream. So yeah, it sucks, but it’s not a systemic thing you see in every bloody burger joint and cleaning crew.

I’m sorry · I upset people whose opinions I respect and I apologize to them. I hope that in some important way, what I think I see every time I visit is wrong.

And for what it’s worth, I’m perfectly aware that as a privileged white guy flitting in and out by jet, I’m hardly part of the solution.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Samantha (Feb 25 2014, at 23:58)

What particularly stung was that I got pushback from people whom I respect immensely and are distinctly non-white.

Is racist.

You care more about what people think because of the color of their skin.


From: Tony (Feb 26 2014, at 01:18)

Perhaps people assumed you were referring to overt racism, whereas I think you are describing structural racism, whereby unconscious prejudices shape society in a way that discriminates against certain ethnic groups.

Not being overtly racist and not recognising structural racism are not mutually exclusive, but once you see it, you see it.


From: nick evans (Feb 26 2014, at 03:33)

It seems to me that "an ongoing self-reinforcing hangover from many intertwined bad histories" is indicative of systemic racial, ethnic, and especially class bias. We ('murica in general, not just SF, although maybe SF has a slightly distilled version of this?) have a strong mythos about meritocracy that most of us want to believe describes our economic system, which leads to the myth of the "deserving poor". So we are unable to grok the "invisible knapsack of privilege" or address the real flaws in our social-economic safety net (e.g. unemployment among black men had usually been at Great Depression levels even when the majority are experiencing boom times). And those who point out that financier-driven-capitalism != meritocracy are easily marginalized with the label of "socialist". If Vancouver has less of this problem than SF, I'll venture it's because your social safety net is functioning.


From: Web Comment (Feb 26 2014, at 06:47)

How about the rampant ageism? Because much like you see the "structural racism" you can also see "structural ageism". Take a walk around the valley see how many people, say, over 35yo get hired as developers? How many people over 30 yo, with families get hired? Unless you have some renown in the industry or some claim to fame, if you are a developer/engineer over 30 years of age, you are SOL in the valley.


From: Christian (Feb 26 2014, at 06:47)

Perhaps you meant the inequality of the area as opposed to racism?


From: Seth Weintraub (Feb 26 2014, at 06:47)

I think unfortunately this observation is true in most big N. American Cities as a result of past histories and culture. Sometimes it is taboo to talk about the obvious and maybe it is safer to use statistics but everyone knows the truth.

What we should be focusing on is making sure the opportunity is available for every citizen to get into these lucrative and interesting fields if they so desire.


From: Michael (Feb 26 2014, at 07:26)

During my short stint with a Bay Area startup I found that the South Park guys nailed it:!

I also left that job so I could live in Vancouver again!


From: dr2chase (Feb 26 2014, at 08:00)

What you see in the Bay Area is outsourcing of racism to the Invisible Hand of the Market; various minorities are generally much less well off in this country, and that makes it pretty well impossible for them to survive in Silicon Valley. And golly, who would ever argue with the invisible hand?

The net effect is more extreme than in other parts of the country. Decades ago, a friend from Texas (Houston area) was visiting us in Menlo Park, and somewhere mid-visit she stopped and said "there's no black people here, are there?" And for all the bad rap that Texas gets, much of it well-deserved, Houston was the first place I ever saw a black man driving a Mercedes (he was a doctor, I think the father of a woman I want to college with). You grow up in The South in the 60s and 70s, you notice that sort of thing.

There was a concert at Stanford, I think it was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and there were many black faces in the audience, but they were not African-Americans (descendants of slaves, that is) -- they were recent immigrants, from Africa, sometimes from England.


From: ben (Feb 26 2014, at 10:02)

I was struck enough by the statement at issue enough that I brought it up on Facebook, in parallel with a favorite quip of mine.

My immediate thought: at least it's not SoCal. (Ugh.)

Long story short: the young hotshot engineer willing and able to put in obscene-to-the-point-of-being-counterproductive hours for the benefit of some too-full-of-himself founder (who, at least, is known to have put in the same schedule before he got through his first round) is rather a Bay Area staple.

People whose values include closeness to family are a hell of a lot less likely to be one of those hotshots. Immigrants and their children are also unlikely to be in that cadre, barring massive parental sacrifice for children; they passed on obtaining the engineering knowledge because they had more important things to worry about most of their lives, like, you know, SURVIVAL.

As for the way that comes across to an outside observer, well, belief in the meritocracy also means that you're inclined to be an equal-opportunity asshole, to the extent that you're inclined to be an asshole at all.

(I, personally, am more interested in the other factors the proprietor raised; i see the racism as the product of THOSE.)


From: Matěj Cepl (Feb 26 2014, at 13:29)

I live in Prague, Czechia, far away from the Silicon Valley, so my information about the life there is only from the news. So, I have been just surprised when after reading the original blogpost (and related comments) I turned to my downloaded issue of the Marketplace and heard this segment ... how far is “Indian helping each other to survive in the Valley” to “Indian national networks unfairly advantage their members over others”? Just asking, as I’ve said, I have no good information on the life there.


From: Larry Reid (Feb 26 2014, at 14:09)

Perhaps some people reacted the way they did because they heard "racist" as meaning something like, "individuals in the Bay Area, possibly including me, are racist, a la Archie Bunker."

This article makes it clear that you mean "racist" as, "a set of social forces that reduce the options available for some people due to their racial/country of origin background". Thanks for the clarification.


From: Bird in hand (Feb 26 2014, at 15:43)

The Bay Area is like a computer running a microkernel, with different servers (social and work groups) maintaining the services and communicating. The property-owning bourgeoisie and the speculators are sort of like a worm that has infected the system and is draining it of resources. As a result, the applications (like arts and activists) are getting evicted or never getting no CPU cycles. A computer needs balance, but the Bay Area lacks it. It is becoming pointless. It needs a reinstall of the OS, but the hard drive is read-only.


From: g (Feb 26 2014, at 18:06)

Samantha: It doesn't read that way to me at all. It looks to me like Tim is saying: Racism tends to affect the "distinctly non-white" worse, and more directly, than it does the white or white-ish[1]; so if someone "distinctly non-white" disagrees with me about where there's more racism, I'd better take that seriously.

That's a matter of caring more about someone's opinion because they have better information. The fact that in this instance they have better information because of the colour of their skin doesn't make it racist.

[1] Or, according to some definitions of racism, affects *only* them.


From: PeterL (Feb 26 2014, at 23:29)

When my wife and moved to the Bay Area (from Vancouver) and were looking for a place to rent, we chatted with someone in a park in Menlo Park who proudly told is how they had kept "those people" in East Palo Alto out of the Menlo Park elementary school district, although they couldn't keep them out of the high school. [Menlo Park and Palo Alto have some of the highest scoring schools in California; East Palo has some of the lowest, and it is just to the east (mostly on the other side of Hwy 101) from Menlo Park and Palo Alto.]

Yup, racist.

Incidentally, I was chatting today with a coworker from Sydney, and we both agreed that San Francisco is ugly, dirty, run-down, and full of itself, with a 3rd world infrastructure (hence the infamous Google/Facebook/etc company buses).


From: John Cowan (Feb 27 2014, at 05:45)

"ugly, dirty, run-down, and full of itself"

All cities are hated by their hinterlands. Toronto is hated by all of anglophone Canada, and my own city of New York is hated by the entire planet, it seems.


From: Laurent F. (Feb 27 2014, at 07:53)

Your explanation for racism in the Silicon Valley sounds more like implicit or denied segregationism.

I felt the same way when I traveled there 14 years ago.


From: Luis (Feb 27 2014, at 08:55)

"Is there another choice of words that would better describe what seems plain to the eye? I’m really asking, non-rhetorically."

I don't exactly have an answer to your question, but I want to challenge the premise that what you're seeing with your eyes reflects what you think it does.

Data point: African + Caribbean + Latin American + Aboriginal/Native American population:

Vancouver: <5%

SF: >22%

Data point: Canada's official government position on Mexicans is that they are such "security concerns" that Canada has the strictest visa requirements in the world for Mexicans and accepts virtually no Mexican immigrants, and has improved the efficiency of the refugee process - explicitly to get Mexicans <i>out of the country faster</i>; one in ten Mexicans live (voluntarily!) in the US; remittances from Mexicans in the US are around 3% of Mexican GDP.

Data point: non-white-male mayors:

Vancouver: 0 (as best as I can tell)

SF: 3 (including the mayors during 1/2 of my lifetime)

This isn't to deny there isn't rampant racism in SF, but simply to point out that relying on the eye test, rather than data and research, doesn't tell you very much about the lived experience of race in either city. What you're seeing says as much about demographics, immigration policy (Vancouver's racial situation is in part a result of systemic anti-Mexican racism in Ottawa), and our industry (e.g., SF government is a lot more diverse than SF tech) as it does about "racism" broadly construed.


From: dr2chase (Feb 27 2014, at 11:37)

@PeterL - that would be the Tinsley desegregation case. You remarks jogged my memory.


From: Brad (Feb 27 2014, at 14:47)

It's not racist that certain people work in certain jobs. It's racist to lump all people who look a certain way into one "group."

The software engineering profession doesn't have a sexist problem. Far fewer women choose to enter the profession. That's not a problem. I remember attending an event at a local higher ed inst. A female student scoffed at our large group aghast that there were no women. Was she hurt by this? I suppose she was just dying to be a software dork. If so, she's free to do so.


From: Jacek (Feb 27 2014, at 16:30)

Luis, if Vancouver has so little African+etc. population, by necessity it cannot have 100% of the washing/guarding/fast-food-serving done by that population. Thus less segregation. So in Vancouver Tim would see much more diversity in that sector than he sees in Silicon Valley.

No contention on what you're implying with your other points.


From: Ian (Feb 28 2014, at 07:17)

A hundred years ago it would have been the Irish and the Swedes doing the lowest-paying jobs. This is not racism, but the flow of immigrant groups starting off in a new country.

Inequality without mobility is the real racism.


From: jseliger (Feb 28 2014, at 13:28)

<i>said in passing that I found the Bay Area “congested, racist, incestuous, and overpriced”.</i>

I think that there's also a question of "solutions" here. "Congested" and "overpriced" have political solutions (subways, bus lanes, bike lanes, etc.; loosening building height limits) that most people regard in a relatively cool frame of mind. Indeed I've written about them in more detail here: and elsewhere.

But "incestuous" and "racist" are stickier, more cultural, and more contextual; it's harder to find better answers to those as problems.


From: reader (Feb 28 2014, at 13:30)

The 'racism' explanation just makes me think that maybe it's simply that families of these races /were/ originally pushed into these occupations, but now these strata exist simply from this historical event... meaning their parents were janitors and food servers and that's how their kids grew up and they were OK with it, and so on with little diffusion. It seems to me the barriers to such diffusion were struck down for blacks and Indians, for example, at roughly the same time (about 50 years ago). The difference is that white people gave up and pulled out of India, while whites here in the USA had to give up control, so I think there was less job vacancy here and also more of a lingering tapering down of old habits. Yes those lingering habits are racism, but most people that are racists don't care if they bash/belittle Indians vs blacks vs latinos... so I think the cards have been stacked pretty evenly in that sense. What /is/ different is that Indians can't as easily get into the U.S. if they are poor and unintelligent. So this means that for the population of U.S. Indians, a higher percentage will work in tech simply because of immigration policy and logistics. Sure illegal Indians still get here, but it's a LOT harder to cross over an ocean than it is a desert mountain range.


From: Alex Smith (Feb 28 2014, at 13:41)

I see the same "racism" in Vancouver "Most of Metro Vancouver’s Filipinos value being near transit hubs – since many need to travel inexpensively to low-tomiddle-wage jobs as nannies, cleaners, seniors care aids, security officials, service clerks, short-order cooks and practical nurses."


From: mttj (Feb 28 2014, at 13:54)

"A hundred years ago it would have been the Irish and the Swedes doing the lowest-paying jobs. This is not racism, but the flow of immigrant groups starting off in a new country."

Except the point is that the people doing these jobs are mostly African American and Mexican, neither of which are recent immigrants. Mexico even owned most of California prior to the Mexican-American war.

I so often hear peers in tech out in SF equate African-American with the homeless population downtown. When I say I'm going to meet friends in Oakland, I either get blank stares or "why would you want to go there?".

The casual racism is deafening out there, often coming from the mouths of wealthy white men in tech that seem to have never taken the time to question race and the ways they unknowingly perpetrate of racism.


From: Ned (Feb 28 2014, at 13:58)

You should read this.


From: marcus aurelius (Feb 28 2014, at 14:00)

Maybe reality is a little racist?


From: unholyguy (Feb 28 2014, at 14:28)

Racist as compared to where?

Unless you are making a general statement that the entire planet is racist?

I certainly cannot think of anywhere that would not qualify based on your definition, which makes it a null signal unless you are talking degrees...


From: R Noises (Feb 28 2014, at 14:37)

You think that's racism?! I've been in India, and the place is almost entirely populated by Indians! Almost 100%. Talk about racism!


From: Jim (Mar 22 2014, at 23:04)

unholyguy, visit Atlanta sometime, especially Gwinnett County. You will see what integration looks like, and the Bay Area isn't it. All the stumbling trying to explain the structural racism in the comments is probably from people who have never been in integrated areas like Houston and Atlanta where there is actually representation of all the ethnic groups in the middle-class, high-paying jobs, what a concept.


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