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Silicon Valley’s Uneasy Muslim Ban Dance

The industry has come out in opposition to Donald Trump’s executive order. Kind of.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The titans of Silicon Valley would have us believe that tech is different from other industries. It is socially progressive. It is diverse. It creates super-employee-friendly workplaces. It prides itself on not being evil. But the furor over President Donald Trump’s immigration and refugee ban reveals all the ways in which Silicon Valley is like its less holier-than-thou brethren in the corporate world.

Over the weekend, Trump’s order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and denying entry to refugees from around the world resulted in lightning-quick protests at airports across the country. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance—whose workforce is largely Muslim and immigrant—organized a strike, refusing to pick up passengers at New York’s JFK airport from 6pm to 7pm on Saturday.

At 7:30 pm, Uber tweeted that it was suspending its surge pricing at JFK, making it cheaper for people to hail a car, which many perceived as undermining the Taxi Alliance’s strike. In response, customers began to #DeleteUber from their phones.

Lyft, Uber’s rival, smelled blood in the water. It released a statement condemning Trump’s order and pledging to donate $1 million to ACLU over the next four years. Lyft’s Machiavellianism is paying off: Many on social media stated that they were switching from Uber to Lyft, and the company’s app rose in popularity on the Apple iOS store. But Lyft continued doing business during the strike—the company did not turn off its surge pricing, but it still gave rides to customers.

That Uber and Lyft acted like scabs, at a moment when labor was seeking solidarity, should come as no surprise. Both companies are regularly condemned by labor advocates for classifying their workers as independent contractors, rather than full-time employees, depriving drivers of basic benefits and suckering them collectively out of millions of dollars.

Lyft was not the only Silicon Valley company to take an optics-heavy stand against Trump’s ban. As Maya Kosoff writes for Vanity Fair, “For many in Silicon Valley, the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ was a red line.” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who is suspected of considering a political career, quickly published a post criticized the order. While the post has garnered over 700,000 likes, its contents are middling at best. Zuckerberg states that he is “concerned” about the order and that the country should “keep our doors open to refugees and those who need help.” But the last half of the post is dedicated to complimenting Trump: He said that he was “glad to hear President Trump say he’s going to ‘work something out’ for Dreamers” and that he was “also glad the President believes our country should continue to benefit from ‘people of great talent coming into the country.’” The resistance, it seems, is negotiable.

It’s worth remembering that during the election Zuckerberg pushed back against his own employees who argued that Trump’s posts about banning Muslims would normally be classified as hate speech according to Facebook’s policies, and that they should be removed. Zuckerberg ultimately decided it would be inappropriate to censor Trump. Furthermore, venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Trump’s most blood-thirsty adviser, remains on the board of Facebook. On Saturday, a spokesperson for Thiel put a benevolent spin on the ban, which has prioritized Christian refugees over Muslim ones: “Peter doesn’t support a religious test, and the administration has not imposed one.”

Elon Musk, the head of SpaceX and Tesla, among other forward-looking companies, also joined the fray, tweeting, “The blanket entry ban on citizens from certain primarily Muslim countries is not the best way to address the country’s challenges.” But early Monday morning, he also retweeted a post arguing that the order wasn’t as bad as the left was making it out to be:

Musk said that he will present Trump with suggestions on how to modify the order. He is not alone in trying to work with Trump: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said he would raise the issue of the ban with Trump on Friday, when the administration’s business advisory group will convene for the first time (Musk is also part of the group). But Musk’s tepid response, along with the fact that Kalanick only took a firm stand against the ban when it was clear that Uber’s bottom line was threatened, gives little hope that they will sway Trump in any meaningful way.

It won’t be the first time tech leaders have met with Trump to try to work things out. In December, Trump held a meeting that included Apple’s Tim Cook, Google co-founder Larry Page, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. According to The New York Times, immigration was one of the topics that the group discussed. Afterwards, Bezos hailed the meeting as “very productive.”

By now, most of Silicon Valley’s leadership has come out against the ban, some more strongly than others. (Notably, Sandberg, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, and Page have remained silent.) For most companies, these objections make sense, since many of their own employees are immigrants, some from the affected countries. And to be sure, this backlash is a far cry better than the conspicuous silence of non-tech corporations, which will benefit greatly from Trump’s deregulations and tax cuts. A number of tech executives have donated to organizations like the ACLU and joined in protests at airports. Google has created a $2 million crisis fund that can be matched by employees for a total of $4 million. Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, wrote, “On basically any level—moral, economic, or logical— this is the wrong thing to do and is antithetical to America’s principles.”

But, as Tom Gara notes at BuzzFeed, it’s hard to separate these actions from the fact that they also benefit the bottom line. Silicon Valley’s elite has worked hard to cast themselves as the “good CEOs” in part because it fits a good-faith narrative that has helped them to build enormous, profitable companies. As Gara writes, “It may feel good to speak out, but it’s also an important part of the recipe that has made it rain gold in parts of Northern California for the last decade.”

And some tech companies are taking an equivocal stance that is unsettling. A statement by the Internet Association, a trade group that includes most of the big tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, repudiated Trump’s order by arguing that “internet companies in particular thrive in the U.S. because the best and the brightest are able to create innovative products and services right here in America.” Similarly, a Google spokeswoman criticized the order for creating “barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S.” Amazon sent out an internal message applauding its own diversity, which the Verge termed “the weakest response to Trump’s immigration ban yet.” The message stated, “As we’ve grown the company, we’ve worked hard to attract talented people from all over the world, and we believe this is one of the things that makes Amazon great.”

This emphasis on the high-skilled tech workers sought after by Silicon Valley is disconcerting. Perhaps its clearest iteration was a post by Chris Beard, the CEO of Mozilla, who wrote, “By slamming the door on talented immigrants … the ban will create a barrier to innovation, economic development and global impact.” He mentions refugees in a fleeting half-sentence, then goes on to say that “talented immigrants have had outsized contributions to the growth and prosperity of the United States” and that the order is “overly broad.”

The question is: At what point would the order not be overly broad? Tech companies that elevate “talented” immigrants over the rest of the population implicitly suggest that there is an acceptable ban on Muslim immigrants—if only the administration could strike “an appropriate and necessary balance.”

Within the structure of American capitalism, the average tech CEO has more in common with a billionaire like Donald Trump than with the average immigrant worker or refugee. That many of them continue to find ways to work with Trump and to undercut protests to protect their profits should come as no surprise. Trump is ushering in a plutocratic era that requires us to demand the most from those in powerful positions; to do so, we must first shed the assumption that Silicon Valley is on the side of the people.