An Open Letter From The Founder Of The Chattanooga Technology Council - And Response

Sunday, May 2, 2021

The Chattanooga Technology Council, which was founded “to connect the Chattanooga technology community to help drive economic growth across the region,” has long celebrated notable IT achievements by local employers through its TechX Awards program. This year, the Council added a new category: IT Champion for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.


While this new category sounds good to the untrained ear, it is a signal that the Council is turning from rewarding excellence in performance, objectively measured, to subjectively rewarding wokeness, and, thereby, undermining its mission and undercutting technical-based local IT competitive advantages.

It also echoes the recent Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce move to ask members to sign the “CEO Pledge for Racial Equity.”


The problem is these actions seek to foster an illicit and bullying equality of outcomes rather than the legitimate equality of opportunity that honors individual free choices and has been engrained in our laws for decades. By focusing on equality of results versus equality of opportunity, the Council board is ironically rewarding coercive, top-down, checking-off-the-politically-correct-boxes thinking and practices more prone to result in mediocrity rather than merit-based, free-thinking innovators primarily seeking excellence regardless of race or gender or any other immutable-but-fashionable (for now) characteristic.


Frankly these appear to be the moves of corporatists on each board – Chamber and Council – to try to absolve them of past sins with the end-result penalizing smaller IT employers and innovators. Ironically, this award almost seems designed for companies like TVA and Unum that devastated their local IT employees by outsourcing their functions to foreign-owned and operated entities. This clumsy, coercive, corporatist thinking corrosively enables a culture of conformity that, if voted on by members in secret ballot, would likely be seen as inappropriate for an organization founded to promote technical excellence.


Rather than genuflecting at the altar of racial and cultural stereotyping which, by definition, promotes divisive, racist and exclusionary thinking that is meant to humiliate some while uplifting others in a phony, superficial way, the Council should confine itself to focusing on technical and IT leadership achievements that actually helps end-users in some measurable manner. The Council should remove this counterproductive award category pronto.

Chris Matthews
Chattanooga Technology Council, Inc
Chattanooga Java Users Group, inc
Chattanooga IT Architecture Group (cofounder)


* * * 


About 30 years ago, I got a new boss on the job here in Chattanooga.  He had just moved up here from Mississippi.  On the wall above his cubicle, he displayed a well-done, matted and framed pencil drawing of a Civil War soldier.  It was Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan.


We had a lot of racially charged incidents at work back then.  Yet, there we were, about 25 years after important civil rights legislation, still having openly racist symbols displayed by managers and leaders in Chattanooga's business community.  As employees, we soon learned that this behavior was not only tolerated by this person's colleagues in management, but also that we weren't mistaken about the depth and intensity of his race-based hatred. 

As tradesmen, we would travel to other cities for work.  While there, sometimes we'd have business lunches or dinner meals; we were on the road a lot.  I remember the first time we went with our racist boss to a Mexican restaurant.  Our waiter could barely speak English.  Instead of being understanding and kind as most people would, our boss mocked the waiter.  Because the waiter would often smile and say yes, our racist boss would trick him into agreeing with some of the most insulting and disgusting statements. 

When we challenged our racist boss about his behavior, time and again he would deflect.  He never changed.  If he's still around here, I wouldn't be surprised if he were continuing to interact with everyone in this same way.

Some years before those moments, I had worked in a factory here in Chattanooga.  As a laborer, I would work the ramps on a loading dock.  My partner was a black man who worked two jobs to support his family.  He was kind and intelligent.  He was hard working.  He is exactly the type of person you'd want on your side in a crisis at work.  We faced the small problems of daily life in a factory together. 

One day, he told a white man to pull his truck away from the ramps so that another truck could load.  The white man objected, and appealed to me.  Confused about why anyone would object, I told him my partner was right and that he should pull away from the dock.  When that work was done, the truck got pulled back in and loaded until it was finished. 

Hours later, when the run was done and no one else was around, the white man came back to me and started yelling at me on the dock.  The skin on his face shook with rage.  He looked like he had been possessed by a demon.  He cussed my friend, who was absent, with all sorts of racial insults.  This man was angry at me, too.  He told me directly that I was wrong because I had sided with a black man over him.  He insulted me, told me I was wrong, and advised me that he was disappointed in me because I had shown I was not a good person. 

Good people, apparently, didn't decide in favor of black people over white people at work.  That was the lesson managers in Chattanooga had for me, a white man, back then.  As you might imagine, I have probably disappointed these same people many, many times since.

Less than five years ago, I was on the job at a nice place here in Chattanooga.  My life had changed, and I was working in IT.  Sometimes there are small imperfections in business, and I had received a business phone that had been used by the person who had previously held my position.  He had subscribed to text messages from a white supremacist website.  I would often receive text message updates from them about new articles they were publishing about their political views.  I couldn't unsubscribe from the messages; and, the business didn't want to give me a new phone number.

At this business, I sat where the last person had sat.  I was directly across from a Jewish person.  He was lively, capable, well-trained and experienced.  He was a good, jovial person who took an honest interest in doing well at his job.  I wonder how many times he had to put up with abrasive incidents from the white supremacist who once had sat where I was. 

Anyone who has worked in Chattanooga for any length of time probably has stories like these.  I can say that some events have caused my life to become more removed from some of the harsh behaviors I saw on the job back when I started over 30 years ago.  Working in jobs which require college degrees, for example, can place you in a class that just doesn't have the same standards of behavior.  Or perhaps times have changed. 

When I read the letter from Chris Matthews and a similar one from Tom Decosimo ("Chamber Quit Virtue Signaling"), I thought about these incidents and others.  When I see terms like "wokeness" and "politically-correct" to describe acknowledging diversity efforts, I'm disappointed.  Either some of us never recognized the racial hate that's around us, or never had to stand beside someone at work who was subjected to this kind of treatment by management here in Chattanooga. 

So now the Chattanooga Technology Council is rewarding diversity efforts.  Some people see that as bullying or punishing.  No, Chris, bullying and punishing is what was done to black people in Chattanooga for many years.  It happens not only in labor jobs and the trades, but it happens in offices and small businesses.  Civil rights legislation was signed into law in 1965.  We're still waiting for our friends to be treated like the equals that they are. 

The Chattanooga Technology Council should not "confine itself to focusing on technical and IT leadership achievements."  It should make the basic statements that affirm that our people's lives have value no matter what race they are.  Unfortunately, we do have to say this because we've been wrong for a long time.  It doesn't take a mountain of courage to treat people fairly and to relate to our co-workers as the people they are.  Except, sometimes it has.  Over time, it has.  For too long, it has. 

Providing an award to businesses that promote diversity is not promoting "divisive, racist and exclusionary thinking," Chris.  Displaying KKK symbols at work is.  Having to tolerate bosses who act like that at work is.  Having to show up, day after day, to put up with openly racist conduct at work so that you can feed your family is.  And that's the way it's been for many people here in Chattanooga.  I'm sure it was that way for the black people who had to report to an openly racist boss every day. 

For these reasons and more, I categorially disagree with Chris' letter and others like it.  Decide in favor of treating people right.  Racism at work and in our lives is wrong.  We can and will do better.  Our friends who stand beside us and face the same trials at work deserve better than they've received so far.  We will be that change and leadership that we seek in our industry.

John O'Keefe-Odom

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