Apple Announces Investments in Racial Equity

Apple last year pledged a hundred million dollars in a new Racial Equity and Justice Initiative, promising big investments in underrepresented individuals and communities in the United States, initially, and around the world.

Today — as alluded to by Gayle King yesterday — Apple announced the first projects from that fund:

Apple today announced a set of major new projects as part of its $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI) to help dismantle systemic barriers to opportunity and combat injustices faced by communities of colour. These forward-looking and comprehensive efforts include the Propel Center, a first-of-its-kind global innovation and learning hub for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); an Apple Developer Academy to support coding and tech education for students in Detroit; and venture capital funding for Black and Brown entrepreneurs. Together, Apple’s REJI commitments aim to expand opportunities for communities of colour across the country and to help build the next generation of diverse leaders.

King interviewed Tim Cook and Lisa Jackson about this initiative. It sounds promising; these are investments in the future. But there are questions about Apple’s own commitments that ought to be addressed. Earlier this month, Venkata S. Govindarajan pointed me to a passage in the introduction of Ruha Benjamin’s “Race After Technology”:

A former Apple employee who noted that he was “not Black or Hispanic” described his experience on a team that was developing speech recognition for Siri, the virtual assistant program. As they worked on different English dialects — Australian, Singaporean, and Indian English — he asked his boss: “What about African American English?” To this his boss responded: “Well, Apple products are for the premium market.”

Benjamin notes that this interaction took place a year after Apple acquired Dr. Dre’s Beats brand:

The irony, the former employee seemed to imply, was that the company could somehow devalue and value Blackness at the same time.

For what it is worth, in the video introducing Apple’s racial equity initiative in June, Cook acknowledged the need for thorough correction:

In our supply chain and professional service partners, we’re committed to increasing our total spending with Black-owned partners, and increasing representation across companies we do business with. […]

We’re taking significant new steps on diversity and inclusion within Apple, because there is more that we can and must do to hire, develop, and support those from underrepresented groups — especially our Black and Brown colleagues.

Change begins at the top. But the “top” is somewhat relative: it is true not only at the executive level, but at each layer of management. African American English is still not a language option in Siri five years later, apparently at least in part because it doesn’t fit the “premium market” — and that is just one example. These changes take time and the projects announced today are surely a terrific investment in the future, but it must be acknowledged that Apple continues to have internal deficiencies today that it has the power to correct.