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Open Source, Closed Doors? FOSS and the Racial Divide

By Katherine Noyes
Dec 9, 2013 5:00 AM PT

FOSS fans are no strangers to difficult topics, and for proof one need look no further than the ongoing sexism controversy that has been debated so many times in every bar and watering hole of the Linux blogosphere.

Open Source, Closed Doors? FOSS and the Racial Divide

Linux Girl

Recently, however, one came up that's enjoyed far less prominence -- at least since Linux Girl began keeping track lo these many years ago.

"Why Isn't Open Source a Gateway for Coders of Color?" was the title of the provocative post that brought the issue to light last week in an NPR blog, and it's generated more than a little discussion among Linux fans.

The weather may be icy outside, but the debates have been nothing but heated down at the blogosphere's Broken Windows Lounge.

'I Wish I Had a Good Answer'

"This is tricky," began Slashdot blogger yagu, for example. "Without overgeneralizing, many people of color are fighting issues bigger than open source, at least for their personal reasons. As a demographic economically depressed, working for 'free' probably doesn't light a fire for those trying to earn a baseline living."

Add to that the cost of equipment, software and easy Internet access -- things that are not as expensive as they used to be but are still factors to be considered when resources are modest, yagu pointed out.

"Ironically, in Open Source we're talking about 'free' software, but it's not free to have a starter kit," he concluded. "Open Source couldn't be more color-blind; socioeconomics, not as forgiving. I wish I had a good answer to this. I don't."

'It's Not Going to Happen Tomorrow'

Similarly, "if your school doesn't have good computers and you have to take some crap job just to eat, then the odds are stacked against you when it comes to having the spare time to work for free long enough to get noticed," agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack. "I have to wonder how many truly great minds we've missed out on because some people who could have been great were born with the wrong economic status."

Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone had a different take.

"I think that Open Source is a gateway for anybody to get involved in software development, just an underutilized one," he began. "There are no requirements other than desire and time. Well, and you have to know how to code, of course."

The trouble is that "programmers in general are a pretty monochromatic bunch, and then adding to that other societal factors makes open source devs even more so," Stone explained. "If we want more diversity in software development (which we do), it's not going to be an easy fix.

"We need to diversify the pool that open source coders come from before we'll ever have a significant effect on open source itself," he added. "I think we're working on that one, but it's going to take time. It's not going to happen tomorrow."

"I Think It's an Exaggeration'

Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol wasn't so sure.

"Lol, programmers are only white, yeah," Ebersol chuckled. "And Miguel de Icaza is Norwegian. Well, If the author is referring to the closed source proprietary world, perhaps he's right.

"In the Free Software world, the situation is very different," Ebersol said. 'We had Miguel (Mexican), Alfredo Kojima (Brazilian), Helio Castro (KDE Brazil). In PCLinuxOS, we have programmers all over the world, there's Archie, from Philippines, me from Brazil, Agust Verdegal, from Spain... "

Bottom line: "I think it's an exaggeration," he concluded. "There are lots of developers, in many countries. And, thanks to the nature of Free Software, any contributor and helper are welcome."

'Some People Are Hung Up on Race'

Similarly, "I think this subject is what we say in our language, 'to look for the cat's 5th leg' -- ie., something that does not exist," offered Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. "How do you know the color of any programmer's skin!? Is Torvalds whiter than me or you? Who cares!!??

"I am used to seeing a lot of people from India in the computer business; nowadays I guess there are a lot of Chinese guys programing too," he explained. "The beauty (or the lack of it) is in the eye of the beholder."

Some people are "really hung up on race," suggested blogger Robert Pogson. "It seems to be a popular pass-time to anguish about race in USA, for instance. The government even keeps track of race on forms."

Yet "it is very hard to know the race of a person doing an FTP/HTTP/Git transfer," Pogson pointed out. "Race wasn't in any User-Agent string I have ever seen. So, claiming FLOSS is more racist than non-Free software is rather silly. I would bet Linus has no clue of the race of his ~10K contributors, and perhaps only a guess about location. A system that cares so little about race is unlikely to put up barriers that aren't already present in wider contexts."

'No Part of the World Is Excluded'

In fact, "the low entry barrier of FLOSS is a huge plus for even the most disadvantaged students of computer technology," Pogson asserted. "Dig a PC out of a bin somewhere that is less than a decade old and find Internet connectivity and you are good to go with FLOSS."

By contrast, "with that other software, you first need an employer producing non-Free software, a rather select group if ever there was one," he added. "Check out M$'s Board of Directors. One black. In the Senior Leaders group, none."

For a counter example, Pogson points to Debian, "a FLOSS organization which keeps a voluntary database of locations of developers," he noted. "According to Debian's map, most of their developers are from USA/Europe, but no part of the world is excluded. There are people in Africa and Asia, even though under-representing their regions.

"Debian's Social Contract requires software licenses that don't discriminate against persons, groups or fields of endeavor," he added.

In short, "there isn't much more FLOSS can do to lower barriers to entry except to improve the local economies in every region of Earth," Pogson concluded. "That's happening today with smartphones and tablets being affordable for many in every region thanks to FLOSS and Moore's Law. On the other hand, really disadvantaged people in their billions cannot afford software from M$ and 'partners.'"

'Have You READ How Linus Talks to People?'

One of the reasons that people of color are underrepresented in open source is that "no one has the mission of changing it," suggested Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien. "I work in the IT department of a state government in the U.S., and in my department women and minorities are very much in evidence, so I feel free to reject any idea that the talent is not there."

Government has been "pushing this in many ways, and that pressure has also extended to large companies," O'Brien noted, "but open source projects are pretty much 'voluntary associations' which are not required to be more inclusive.

"I don't see this changing until some of the major players make a point of pushing," he concluded. "And it looks like right now a lot of the 'white men' are more interested in keeping things just the way they are now, which would apparently include making the kernel developers mailing list a haven for juveniles."

Indeed, "have you READ how Linus talks to people? How his pals talk to people?" agreed Slashdot blogger hairyfeet. "They can't get young folks to jump into that pit of snakes, and guess what? The majority of coders of color are younger folks!

"So as long as Torvalds is sitting in his bathrobe treating everyone who comes in contact like a 14-year-old Halo player treats noobs, you can give it up -- the vast majority won't take abuse just to be in the inner circle."

'Intrinsically Tied to Self-Employment'

Last but not least, Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, took a historical perspective.

"This problem is far broader than open source software," Travers told Linux Girl.

"The United States is a nation with a deeply troubled history, where race and class are closely intertwined," he explained. "Of course, we are told (as we have been for 150 years) that more and better jobs will solve things, and this means the U.S. increasingly reserves small business ownership as a privilege for the upper middle class, and we do this through all kinds of ways."

Open source software, meanwhile, "is deeply and intrinsically tied to self-employment," Travers added. "The harder you make self-employment, the less incentive there is to get involved, the larger the risks, and the less the rewards."

The real challenges are different from those discussed in the NPR article, Travers concluded.

"Namely, we need to ensure that it is easier to be self-employed, and we need to make sure that it is easier for those who are less well off to own productive property (land and tools of business)," he said. "While time is a factor, I think the risk/rewards balance is a much larger one.

"It is one thing to try to give away computers or ensure Internet access for low income families," he added, "but if you can't make working for yourself an attractive option, nothing will change."

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered ECT News Editor by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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How does the tech industry compare to other industries when it comes to diversity?
Tech firms have been working much harder than others to achieve diversity.
Tech is rife with sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.
The tech industry would be more inclusive if there were more qualified applicants.
Tech firms have made superficial efforts but they're mainly for show.
The push for diversity is a cultural fad, and there is no real problem.