just asking questions

Ex-Facebook Manager Mark Luckie on Silicon Valley’s ‘Black People Problem’

Photo: Trisha Leeper/Getty Images

On November 8, Mark S. Luckie shared a lengthy memo with his co-workers before leaving his job at Facebook. In his 2,500-word note, which he released publicly this past Tuesday, Luckie wrote that Facebook has “a black people problem,” and that it actively discriminates against both black Facebook users and its own black employees.

Luckie, who previously worked for the Washington Post, Reddit, and Twitter, identified a wide range of problems at Facebook and spelled out his own list of recommendations for how to solve them, based on his own perspective and on those of his black colleagues. His role at Facebook was to work with celebrities and social media personalities who were “Underrepresented Voices,” and he worked out of the company’s Menlo Park headquarters on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Luckie writes in his note that black employees are saddled with the extra responsibility of presenting the “minority” perspective, and that HR often provides little relief when complaints are raised about the wider work environment. On his team, he found that limited resources stood in the way of his attempts to build relationships with people from underrepresented communities, which he says reflects a lack of interest from the executive level.

In phone interview with New York, Luckie elaborated on his note. He described being singled out by a Facebook campus security guard for an ID check, and his frustration with Facebook’s insistence that as many employees work out of the Menlo Park office as possible.

“For a lot of black people, Facebook would present a great opportunity, but they just don’t want to move to the Bay Area,” Luckie said. “They don’t want to be the only black person in the room. They don’t want to be the only black person in their neighborhood.”

You can read a condensed and edited version of New York’s conversation with Luckie below.

The first thing I wanted to ask is what your working life has looked like, and how you ended up at Facebook.

Sure. I started off as a journalist, and my last journalism job was as an editor for the Washington Post. And then because I’ve always had something going on the side — writing about technology in journalism, writing a book about it — I transitioned into tech, where I was manager of journalism and news at Twitter. So I was essentially taking what had become like a side thing and making it into like a full-time job. That eventually brought me to Facebook, where I worked with all kinds of verticals, not just news, but music, movies, talent, civic influencers, and all in underrepresented communities. The idea being: How do we engage with these influencers who hadn’t previously been engaged with, or not on the same level as others had been? How do we get them access to new Facebook products? That was the gist of it.

How were you brought into Facebook?

I was actually referred by another black employee, who thought I’d be great for the job. So I put in a formal application, went through the process. Ultimately I was offered the job. I had a lot of hesitation around it, because I didn’t want to move to the Bay area. I had lived there previously, and met a lot of racists and racial confrontation there. And I just didn’t want to go through that again. And so I had talked it over with my fiancé at the time, and he said, “This role is going to be bigger than you. You’re going to be able to change a lot of lives.” So ultimately that was what turned it around, and I ended up moving to the Bay.

Where did you live in the Bay, out of curiosity?

I lived in the peninsula.

I lived in Oakland and Berkeley for a number of years. I have a lot of friends who’ve experienced what you’re describing and I know it’s worse the further down the peninsula you get.

Yeah, yeah. I was in San Francisco previously and, you know, that’s why I chose to live in the peninsula. I lived in Berkeley too — just more of the same, unfortunately.

In your note you very explicitly describe Facebook as having a “black people problem.” When did you first realize this? What was the moment in which that became real to you?

It was definitely within the first few months of my working there. A lot of my time there was spent speaking to as many departments as I could that were cross-functional and worked in diversity in some way. So that’s everything from the diversity team to Instagram, Oculus, business partnerships. All those good things. And these conversations really started to boil down to Facebook’s relationship with black users. How did they feel about the platform, what were the missed opportunities for engagement? And so that really set the foundation for my time there.

If you think about all of the experiences from your first few months at Facebook that led you, ultimately, to where you are now, what sticks out for you?

I think the first moment where I was caught off-guard was … Facebook has a bakery on campus. And I went and got some ice cream and was sitting on a bench next to three other Facebook employees, all three of them Asian. And I noticed a security guard eyeballing us. And he came over and hovered over me for a bit, and then asked to see my badge. The fact that he had passed all these other people to come directly to me was a little bit alarming. I grew up in South Central L.A., so this wasn’t unfamiliar when it came to the police. But, you know, to have that with Facebook security was like …

Did you talk to Facebook security about this incident?

No. I mean, black people are conditioned to just go with the flow and not make a big deal about it. But certainly I’m not the only one to have gone through something similar.It would come up in conversations and people would say, “Well, yeah, that happened to me, too.” Security stopping them for whatever reason. And not just in headquarters, but in Facebook offices around the country this was an issue. That was one of the first tip-offs that I was an outsider at Facebook.

You used that word “outsider.” One of the common criticisms of tech companies is that they have a habit of sorting employees into two categories: those who have technical or engineering responsibilities, and then everyone else. And technical and engineering teams tend to have far less racial diversity, especially when it comes to black people. I was wondering if you saw that division of labor and hierarchy internally, and if that intersects with the kind of discrimination and racial bias, or this “black people problem,” as you’ve seen it.

Yeah. I wouldn’t describe it as a hierarchical issue. Facebook is so huge — I mean, the campus of the headquarters is almost a mile wide and has more than 60 different buildings. And so, obviously, you have different teams housed in these different buildings. There are some buildings, like the building I worked in — we jokingly called it “Little Wakanda.” Because there were so many black people in there, mostly in partnerships and things like that. But I would have meetings all across campus, and I’d go into buildings and not see any black people. One particular building that I worked out of, I knew all four of the black people.

How many people worked in that building?

In my building?

The building you’re describing, where you knew all four black people.

It’s hard to estimate, because they’re pretty big buildings. But I’d say hundreds, in the low hundreds.

How would you characterize Facebook’s relationship with black users and how have they neglected them?

I think Facebook, in many departments, they just weren’t … it wasn’t on their radar. That relationship isn’t something that, overall, they saw as an issue, or an issue worth tackling. Now, for departments like Partnerships and Diversity, most definitely this is something they were keen on addressing. But you definitely saw that the people that Facebook worked with or engaged with on a higher level were mostly white. And then more broadly, it wasn’t a consideration of individual user groups. And so, you know, part of the criticism of my post was, “Why are you concentrating specifically on black people?” And it’s for the reasons that I said. Facebook Watch is a great example. The most popular shows on the platform are Red Table Talk with Jada Pinkett Smith and Ball in the Family with LaVar Ball. A lot of the time, when Facebook engages with content or initiatives that focus on the black community, there’s a lot of reward in that for the company, but it’s not baked into the DNA of how a lot of these teams approach the broader community.

You’ve laid out a pretty transparent and straightforward case about why these communities and these audiences deserve more attention, and in fact more resources. What do you think is behind Facebook leadership’s reluctance to address these things?

Well, I wouldn’t call it reluctance. I would say that for a lot of the higher leadership, it came down to, you know, if we speak about diversity and say it’s something that we’re working on, then people will not hold us accountable for it. People would say, yes, thank you for thinking about diversity. A lot of the problem is — as I had hoped to outline in my memo — actually on a managerial level. It’s the managers’ not being held accountable for diversity, both in terms of employment and in the cases where it’s necessary to thinking about their user groups, beyond their own cultural understanding.

Facebook and Instagram seem to police content violations quite arbitrarily. Although the way they do so may not discriminate against black people in a dramatically disproportionate way, the effect is one that is felt as discrimination. What are some of the examples or ideas that sort of lead people to think that Facebook just doesn’t care about black people, in terms of content policing, specifically?

It’s something that management and certainly policy people and all of the various teams that touch user content have thought about. Facebook’s reliance on algorithms and artificial intelligence to carry out responses to reports often led to people who weren’t in fact violating the platform’s terms of service finding their accounts negatively impacted. And so, you know, black people talk amongst themselves. And you know, if something is happening pretty frequently, like high-profile examples, like Black Lives Matter, Shaun King, or any number of people you can find in Google News, who have gone through this — it underscores that feeling that people have. And even in my inbox, people are like, you know, Can you fix my account because it got suspended when it shouldn’t have? It’s created this distrust in the community, and what I’ve found is that black people just start having a negative opinion of Facebook while continuing to use it. And obviously at a higher rate, because black people are very communicative. We take to social media more often than other groups. It often becomes your only way of communicating or staying in touch with the people around you. And so it becomes this unfortunate situation, where you have, on the one hand, a feeling that this platform doesn’t support you, but on the other hand, you have a reliance on it.

Are there any stories or examples that you can think of that illustrate the basis of this distrust?

Yeah, for sure. For privacy reasons I can’t give you specific examples. But it’s amazing when you start working at Facebook, how often you notice people having conversations about Facebook. You see people on TV referencing Facebook — I saw this on Facebook. You see Mark Zuckerberg on the covers of magazines, and you’re like, well, there’s my boss right there. It’s interesting, being in elevators and people are like, Yeah, I was having this problem on Facebook, or I saw this thing on Facebook. When you work at Facebook, you’re not necessarily going around proclaiming that, because it affects people’s lives so dramatically. From time to time people have issues with, you know, the content that they see about it — reading news and seeing all the bad press about Facebook. A lot of people deleting their accounts. I don’t know the best way to say this, but you keep it to yourself.

Keep it to yourself?

You don’t go around proclaiming that you work at Facebook. Or, you know, if people are discussing Facebook publicly, you’re not jumping in and saying, “Well, I work at Facebook, I can help you out” — that kind of thing.

Do you think that that was effective?

I mean, it’s for our own preservation, you know.

As somebody who’s seen how much of internet culture comes directly from black spaces online, like Black Twitter or Vine, I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about the ways in which Facebook values black users as users, but also as people who make up the kinds of content that they want. You alluded to this in addressing the Facebook Watch service. But I am wondering if you would address the issue of tech platforms’ adequately recognizing and supporting the creator communities that form so much of what makes people want to be on them in the first place.

In order to recognize the power of these communities, you have to have people internally who come from these communities. Because if I say a certain famous name, a black person may know it immediately, and a white co-worker may not. And so if you don’t have a black person on your team to sort of speak up and say, “Hey, you know, let’s engage with this person,” or, “This person has reached out, they’re important,” then you’re missing out on those cultural opportunities. And what happened for a lot of people who work in the spaces where they were trying to amplify voices of color is that they were sidelined in favor of names that were more broadly recognizable.

When it came to the recommendations that you listed in your memo, one that stuck with me was your point about continuing to recruit and hire for roles and offices outside of Menlo Park. I wanted to ask a little bit about the ways in which Facebook has organized itself geographically, and the effect that that’s had not only diversity within the company but also sort of on how Facebook views the world and how it treats particular communities of users, like black users on Facebook.

Facebook has offices in every major city around the world. I mean, they have an office here in Atlanta, where I currently live. But part of the ethos of the company is that they want as many people as possible to be working in Menlo Park, because that’s where the majority of the teams are. So for a lot of people of color, people from underrepresented backgrounds in particular, that requires a big life change, to move to the Bay area. For a lot of black people, Facebook would present a great opportunity, but they just don’t want to move to the Bay area. They don’t want to be the only black person in the room. They don’t want to be the only black person in their neighborhood. The diversity team and the recruiting team have made really great strides. But that opinion of the Bay Area, for some candidates — it becomes a hindrance to hiring. And black people, we know our worth. And sometimes a great opportunity like Facebook isn’t worth giving up your life for.

Do you mean to say that Facebook asks its people to effectively give up their lives or to change their lives—

I don’t want to characterize it like that.

I just want to make sure I’m understanding you correctly.

Facebook is asking people to move to Menlo Park. But for a lot of people of color, that means moving to a community that doesn’t include people who look like them. Or a lot of employees move to Oakland, because that’s the only neighborhood that still has like a large percentage of black people. And so, you know, it presents a great opportunity, but people just don’t want to make the sacrifice. I liken it to a man going to a bachelorette party. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you’re going to feel sort of out of place because you’re not surrounded by people who look or, in some cases, think like you. And so that becomes the issue with being situated in Menlo Park.

What are some of the other critical ways that Facebook could be thinking about better serving and accommodating underrepresented communities, beyond managerial-level accountability and hiring more black people?

Well, I’ve outlined all of the suggestions that from my perspective and the perspectives of other employees — like, here’s some ways that you can make this happen. Like I said, Facebook does a great job, or is doing a better job, in terms of hiring people from diverse backgrounds. But it is exactly as you said, a lot of these recommendations that I made have to happen on the managerial level. There has to be top-down accountability. And we need to make sure that there’s an assessment of that, and that there is information that Facebook can distribute to the company on how these changes have improved either the company’s culture or partner relationships.

You’ve working both in Silicon Valley and in the media. Are there problems specific to the tech industry that make it hostile to black people, both employees and users?

It’s definitely a Silicon Valley problem. Because the majority of people who work on the campuses there are white or Asian. They either are recruited from schools that are majority white and Asian, or they are recommended by friends who are white or Asian. They are brought from other companies. It’s all just like in the media world, where you hop from publication to publication, depending on your goals. People will leave one tech company and go to another tech company, come highly recommended, and they’re white or Asian. So it creates this exclusionary environment. To take it even further, if the only people you work with are white and Asian people, if the only people you see in your neighborhood are white and Asian people, so the only people you interact with or the people you see in your timeline are white and/or Asian, it’s going to skew your perspective of what it’s like to have a person of color in your space. And this isn’t on my conjecture, but there are a lot of people who are only exposed to negative images of black people in the media. You know, even when I scroll through my Netflix, most of the movies that feature people of color — and they’re few and far between comparatively — are either about sports, drugs, or crime. So if that’s your perception, if that’s your only exposure to people of color, then that is going to cloud your perspective on who these people are.

One of the things that comes to mind is Silicon Valley’s valorization of the founder mythos. Facebook has the greatest of these great men running the company. Do you think there’s a way in which Silicon Valley talks about itself that is fundamentally exclusionary? Like all these great men, they have one thing in common besides their gender.

Yeah. I always raise an eyebrow when people deify leaders at these tech companies, making them infallible. There’s a huge amount of blind loyalty to the executive leadership at Facebook, where Mark will say something and people will not challenge it or hold him accountable. It becomes gospel, people are incredibly loyal, fiercely loyal in some cases, when they should be more thoughtful about these leaders. You know? It’s sort of like, you know, when some of these scandals break out, it’s like, Oh, this is an attack on Facebook, this is an attack on Mark, we need to protect him at all costs. And you’ll see that at other tech companies, as well.

Do you see shades of this stuff with Sheryl Sandberg and Zuckerberg and the story that came out in the New York Times recently about their response to their PR crises of the last year? Are you able to draw any connection between that and how black employees or black users are treated?

You know, the thing that was particularly jarring about the Soros issue is that when the Times story came out, Facebook was very defensive. Both privately and publicly: No, this isn’t us, we would never do anything like this. And then, you know, they do the news-drop right before Thanksgiving, that — hey, we actually did do this. As an employee, I had to do a double-take. Well, if you did this, then why are you only now saying that you did, and why would you tell your employees that you didn’t? That’s what contributes to lower morale inside Facebook. It’s what I said in the memo. It’s hard to advocate on behalf of a company that you feel is not doing the good in the world that you imagined it would. That is akin to black users’ disillusionment with Facebook. That disillusionment is creeping among their employees, as well. They’re feeling a little bit of that.

Do you think Facebook can be saved?.

I think they have to be up-front with the public about their issues. And the thing I always thought about when I was working at Facebook is — you know, there’s the slogan, “Move fast, break things,” which is still very pervasive in the company. But in moving fast and shipping products and things like that, they don’t often think about the worst-case scenario. It’s always: this is a tool that will make people’s lives better. And this is a tool that will be able to help do this, or help people connect with each other. And it’s like, oh, wait, this tool can also be used negatively by bad actors, and now we have to scramble to fix it. And often those scrambles become very public. I think Facebook’s being more strategic about thinking about how these issues may arise, before they go to market, is going to be really important. But, you know, there’s so much going on at Facebook. And obviously some of these external scandals have touched all kinds of departments inside of Facebook. So, you know, while I’m optimistic about this company’s future, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the public scandals that the company will face.

What made you ultimately choose to leave Facebook?

Most of the reason I chose to leave Facebook is not detailed in my memo, incidentally. I personally felt like I had come to Facebook to do all these great things, and while I initially had support in doing them, increasingly, the work that I was doing was being blocked or sidelined. It felt like I was there in name only — to add a name of color to some projects, not to build. And like the partners I was working with were not valued in the way they should’ve been. And so, you know, I was one of those people who upended my life, I moved from Atlanta to the Bay area, to do this great job and made a lot of personal sacrifices. Living in a — to me — a racially hostile neighborhood, being separated from my fiancé, being separated from my friends. Shutting myself in my apartment by myself because I didn’t want to go outside and have to face some of these issues. And I was willing to do all that. When I look back, I’m like, wow, that was really terrible, when you add it all up. But when it no longer made to me to be making all of these sacrifices, and then to have to go up against management to make things happen, being stripped of resources, having fewer resources compared to those of my colleagues, it was just … it was being made clear to me that I was not valued and my work was not valued.

Q&A With Ex-Facebooker Mark Luckie on Racism in Tech