DeRay McKesson joined Twitter in the spring of 2009 at the insistence of a friend who thought it would help him be more effective in his role as student government president at Bowdoin College. “She said that it was going to be the new wave of communicating with people,” says McKesson. His first tweet—like most of ours—was awkward, directed to a friend telling her she was “pretty great.”
Five years later, McKesson, with about 1,000 followers, was monitoring Twitter from his home in Minneapolis. He was rocked by the news of the killing of Mike Brown and outraged by the police force’s militarized response to protesters. He packed up his car and tweeted, “en route to Ferguson.”
Today, McKesson is a prominent activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, due in part to his adept use of Twitter to report live from the scene of protests and to communicate with media, his more than 272,000 followers, and even presidential candidates.
“I think Twitter is an incredible platform,” says McKesson. “I want to see it succeed.”
McKesson and other users of color have actually done quite a bit to help Twitter succeed. Over the past few years, the company has remained relevant thanks in part to Black Twitter, an informal network of black users whose interaction on the platform broke the news around Ferguson, has been credited with fueling the historic success of television shows like Scandal and Empire, and consistently injects jokes, grievances and issue campaigns from black America into mainstream media. Blacks and Latinos make up around 30 percent of Twitter’s active users, and a recent Pew poll found that both groups use the platform at higher rates than their white peers.
But while Twitter the platform is bustling with all types of racial diversity, Twitter the company is alarmingly white.
Twitter isn’t alone. Most of the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley are overwhelmingly white and male. While blacks and Latinos comprise 28 percent of the US workforce, they make up just 6 percent of Twitter’s total US workforce and six percent of Facebook employees. The number drops to five percent at Google. The statistics are startling considering the increasingly important role the technology sector plays in the American economy. Tech firms employed nearly six percent of private sector workers in 2014 and the industry is responsible for a little more than seven percent of the US GDP.