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So much for a colorblind meritocracy

With the arrival of tougher economic times, CNET's Mike Yamamoto finds a troubling harbinger in the news that racial tensions are bubbling to the surface in Silicon Valley.

It has been said so much that it's practically a cliche: Unlike other businesses, the forward-thinking high-tech industry is built on a colorblind meritocracy.

As tempting as this is to believe, recent evidence points to what so many have denied for so long--that racial tensions are a problem among the college-educated, white-collar echelons of Silicon Valley.

No one is immune to ethnic prejudice, in the workplace or elsewhere, and I seriously doubt that the high-tech industry will ever be a hotbed of outright racism. But it is important to acknowledge these early-warning signs, lest we let them fester out of some Pollyanna-like denial.

Bigotry must be treated like a cancer even in its slightest form, exposed and treated with heavy doses of education and painful dialogue.

see special report: Chasing the dream History has shown that people turn on each other during economic duress, whether it be a political revolution over social inequity or a divorce over how to handle household debt. Until last year, Silicon Valley had largely eluded such tension while enjoying an unprecedented bull market that promised to make everyone a millionaire.

New evidence of divisions
The latest signs of division emerged in a survey by industry group that polled employee opinions over the H-1B visa program, which has lured thousands of engineers and other skilled workers from other countries, primarily in Asia, to work in the United States. The study touched a nerve with those on all sides of the issue and drew an extraordinary number of responses that went well beyond the check-box format.

Many anonymous observations took a distinctly nationalistic tone, though none of the disclosed remarks made overtly racial references:

"American workers are being forced out of their jobs. I am one of them. It is just a matter of time before the immigrants, H-1Bs and foreign outsourcing will take over the industry," said an unemployed application developer.

"If you're going to lay people off, non-U.S. citizens should be laid off first. Use them as additional resources, not to replace people," said another.

True to the second stage of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of dying, the second phase of the Net boom's demise has been anger or resentment. Publicly, this has come in the form of finger-pointing among various professions that took part in inflating the bubble, citing such factors as conflicts of interest or a lack of professional accountability.

When emotions run high, however, the arguments become less rational. And few subjects are more emotional than a combination of immigration and employment.

According to the survey, 25 percent of respondents cited "U.S. workers' prejudice against non-whites" as a reason for the controversy surrounding the H-1B issue. Twenty-seven percent cited "U.S. workers' fears/mistrust of cultural practices."

Most--if not all--people will acknowledge that they harbor some form of ethnic bias, however loath they may be to admit it even to themselves. I wondered how many people at technology companies viewed their Asian colleagues differently after the espionage case involving Taiwan-born engineer Wen Ho Lee (which was eventually withdrawn) and, more recently, after accusations that two native-Chinese scientists working for Lucent Technologies had passed trade secrets to a telecommunications company owned by the Beijing government.

Growing anti-Asian sentiment
Those incidents involved natives of other countries, as opposed to Americans of Chinese descent, but that distinction can quickly become blurred in an atmosphere of racial prejudice. My Japanese-American family saw that firsthand in their internment during World War II.

Moreover, for whatever reason, anti-Asian sentiments seem particularly high these days. A recent study sponsored in part by the Anti-Defamation League found that "25 percent of Americans indicated strong negative attitudes and stereotypes toward Chinese Americans." The animus behind those findings, released in April, presumably got worse after the standoff between Washington and Beijing over custody of a felled U.S. surveillance plane--an incident that fed anti-Asian rhetoric in such high-profile forums as talk-radio shows and political cartoons in metropolitan newspapers.

Not surprisingly, the controversy proliferated online. Although many have questioned the breadth and significance of a much-publicized "cyberwar" between U.S. and Chinese hackers that followed the spy plane incident, I was struck by the offensive language used in the defacement of some Web sites.

Graffiti on one Chinese site read: "Hey Mr. Gook, you see what that is?! No it's not a dog and you can't eat it you silly azn's (sic). 'ohhh no sirry americran are bruffing, dey no have nucrear powrer.' THINK AGAIN YOU SILLY ASIANS!"

So I cringed upon learning that the Code Red virus defaced Web pages with the phrase "Hacked by Chinese!" No one has determined where the worm originated, let alone the nationality of those responsible, but that didn't deter newsgroup postings from assuming that someone Chinese was to blame.

"People and countries dont(sic) attack their 'friends' with computer worms, viruses and other debilitating attacks. Until the Chinese can act civilized, I would wish that our government officials would not call them friends," one read. Another was more blunt: "The Chinese are notorious liars."

Still, the Code Red postings have been far less bilious than the remarks made over other issues. Which gives me hope that maybe those working with the Internet and high technology are in fact more reasonable than some recent polls might suggest.

If the root of racism is indeed ignorance, the collective intelligence quotient of Silicon Valley should be well able to resist and combat ethnic prejudice through sensitive but honest communication at every level of the workplace. Otherwise, the industry's economic recovery could be further hampered by unfounded suspicions and bitter infighting.

Either way, I'm sure I'll get angry e-mails from all sides of this issue. Some will accuse me of fanning the flames of racism, while others will call me a whiney liberal who plays the discrimination card at any given chance.

To many readers, those are standard definitions of a mainstream journalist anyway--regardless of color.