Weighing Big Tech’s Promise to Black America
Victor Luckerson Backchannel 10.05.2021
Last year, Netflix made a pledge that represents the tech industry’s best shot at redressing the nation’s racial inequality. How seriously should we take it?
In the spring of 2020, folks in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward started flocking to the Sankofa food pantry on Dauphine Street however they could—by car, on bicycles, rolling pushcarts on foot. The lines were brisk but constant as the cascading effects of the coronavirus pandemic swept through the neighborhood of pastel-colored houses. Some people had lost jobs. Others were caring for loved ones sick with the virus, or picking up food for people under quarantine. For Rashida Ferdinand, the director of the nonprofit that operates the pantry, the crush of demand posed a series of dilemmas—beginning with the fact that she could no longer allow people inside the building. But one thing was sure: Shutting down the pantry was out of the question. No matter what, Ferdinand says, “we knew we needed to stay open.”
After circulating undetected through the city during much of Mardi Gras, the coronavirus had overwhelmed New Orleans with unprecedented speed, and it was killing more people per capita there than nearly anywhere else in the United States. Under lockdown, almost 100,000 people in the Crescent City had been thrown out of work as businesses were forced to shutter and tourism ground to a halt. In the Lower Ninth Ward, where a third of residents work in either food service, lodging, or retail, and where household incomes are half the parish average, the need for aid was especially acute. In so-called good times, about 350 people relied on Sankofa’s services. Now Ferdinand’s organization was furnishing more than 800 people a month with milk, eggs, canned beans, and other staples.
To meet the need, Sankofa stretched itself. The pantry went from being open two days a week to four. It began delivering food to people who could not collect it in person. When some of Ferdinand’s employees started working from home for fear of contracting the virus, she started handing out food herself. With sheets of plexiglass purchased from Ace Hardware, she improvised a Covid-safe storefront on Sankofa’s patio deck. Inside, nearly a dozen red and black metal shelves took over most of the headquarters’ open floor plan. “Our whole front office became the pantry,” she says.