The Rev. Jesse Jackson is back in the valley.
The renowned civil rights leader told the Mercury News editorial board Thursday that his Rainbow PUSH Coalition plans to revitalize its Silicon Valley project and make its case to the region’s top tech firms that “we need to democratize the economy.”
“This valley is driving the industrial growth of America – in fact, it’s driving global growth,” Jackson said. But while people of color constitute a huge part of the marketplace for tech products and services, he said, they’re woefully underrepresented in the sector’s executive offices and boardrooms.
“To make America America, all of us must play,” he said. “This is not about diversity as much as it is about justice.”
It’s not a new theme. The Rainbow PUSH Coalition in 1999 bought stock in 50 Silicon Valley companies so it could have a say at annual shareholder meetings. Later that year, it announced the opening of an East Palo Alto office to highlight the disparity between Silicon Valley’s richest and poorest residents and advocate for more training and hiring of minorities and women at high-tech companies.
Jackson at the time ended up in an op-ed war with Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers, who contended the tech industry was a meritocracy offering equal access to anyone with the talent, education and ambition to succeed.
The public exchange got incredibly nasty. “Once, the civil rights movement was led by a great American who stirred the conscience of the nation,” Rodgers wrote at the time. “Today, its most visible spokesman is a hustler who exploits white shame for his own financial and political ends.”
Jackson on Thursday contended minorities still are being shut out of many of Silicon Valley’s opportunities. He scoffed at the idea that there aren’t enough minorities entering the industry with appropriate training: “It’s almost insulting to suggest they can’t be found.”
“We can’t go on this way,” he said, adding the coalition will reach out to the region’s leading employers and arrange meetings either individually or en masse. “We must begin to take these numbers back across the country to make people aware of who are partners and who are not.”
Reminded about his war of words with Rodgers, Jackson smiled and asked: “Is he still around?” Assured that he was, Jackson quipped that he wouldn’t mind meeting up with Rodgers — perhaps for a round of golf “one night.”
We would like to caddy.