Silicon Valley’s sparse Black population searches for a sense of belonging

February begins the annual celebration of Black history. It’s a month-long look at the people, culture, and events that impact Black America, and the larger American cultural fabric.

Among the Bay Area locations that struggles to have adequate African-American representation: Silicon Valley.

Nestled between two mountain ranges in the south, San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific Ocean in the north; Silicon Valley sits as a jewel in the crown of the Bay Area economy. The roughly 40-miles of coveted real estate fosters the convergence of high tech jobs, expensive homes, and open natural spaces.

All this -- and yet, something is missing: Substantive numbers of brown and Black faces.

"I don’t see very many close representations of who I am," said San Jose State University Assistant Professor Dr. Shaun Fletcher. Added tech worker Kiwoba Allaire, "I generally don’t see anybody that looks like myself on a daily basis in Silicon Valley."

Rev. Jethroe Moore II, president of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP expressed his frustration when he said, "When I drive around or I go out someplace, it’s like we’re left out of this community." Retired Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell said, "Being black in Silicon Valley means never having to say, ‘there’ll be too many of us.’"

KTVU interviewed more than a half-dozen people from various backgrounds and socio-economic strata as part of a special report highlighting the start of Black History Month. Each person related a common staple that’s become central for African-Americans living and working in Silicon Valley: Isolation.

"You really don’t feel like you’re participating, or you have skin in the game," said San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones. Added Cordell, "What I end up with is seeing African-Americans as an endangered species in Silicon Valley. Our numbers are dwindling."

The Black population in Silicon Valley was paltry to begin with, at about 3%. It has seen a decline in recent years, and dropped down to 1% in some places. Part of the problem is the explosion in housing costs. Another is the latest economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Racial "red lining" decades earlier has also left a lasting mark, making it more difficult, some have said, for people of color to feel welcome in the area.

"And you don’t see that here in Silicon Valley. We’re few and far between. No it’s not a good feeling," said Cordell.

Social scientist Dr. Nenaji Jackson said, "If there’s no existing community, in other words if there’s no space where people of African descent can find ways to engage in the normal things we do as African-Americans, then it’s difficult to say there’s a community."

Valley Transportation Authority manager Walter Hale drove a VTA bus for 24 years, from one end of the South Bay to the other. His search for belonging ultimately took him to another county to put down roots.

"One thing I do not see much of is our African-American communities in Santa Clara County. And I’m referring to clusters of communities of people who look like me," said Hale.

Silicon Valley’s saving grace has always been the tech industry. Cutting edge possibilities coupled with a lucrative career. For the few Blacks who brave these waters, it seemed like it would be heaven. And it is, as long as the tech job – not family and friends -- is the only interest.

"I realized that the numbers were very few within the places that I found myself navigating within the tech industry. So it was quite a bit of a culture shock," said Dr. Fletcher an assistant professor of public relations at SJSU, who moved from Washington, D.C. to Silicon Valley seven years ago.

The shock he suffered soured the "Apple Experience." Fletcher left the trillion dollar goliath for a job in academia.

Others tell similar tales.

"I definitely felt isolated. I definitely felt imposter syndrome. Like, do I really belong here? Because I don’t see anybody that looks like me," said Allaire.

She left Google due to disillusionment. But she stayed in tech, and started the non-profit Girl STEM Stars to help children grow into the industry leaders of tomorrow.

"Trying to find other Black women in Silicon Valley is like trying to find a unicorn," she said.

Family medicine specialist, Dr. Toni Moos had similar feelings, which led her to co-found Silicon Valley Black Girl Magic in 2013.

"It’s helpful to have that common base to start from when things aren’t going right. And so if issues arise it’s helpful to be able to know that someone in the group may have experienced something similar," said Dr. Moos.

Those involved said these groups, and the presence of social organizations, do help. But each of the people interviewed by KTVU also said for African-Americans, staying in Silicon Valley is now a difficult choice.

"I struggle with why I stay? Or why should anybody stay?" said Rev. Moore.