"The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men."
… W.E.B. Du Bois, The Talented Tenth, September, 1903
My second draft will dot and cross all the statistical "eyes" and "tees" by assembling tables of supporting data and making extensive references to reliable studies that report comparable findings. For now I will merely acknowledge that much of my framework is derived from my understanding of the findings reported by Dr. Maya A. Beasley in her unpublished undergraduate thesis about affirmative action (Harvard University) and in Opting Out, her published doctoral dissertation about Silicon Valley (Stanford University). Of course, full disclosure requires that I acknowledge that I am the proud father of the "other" Dr. Beasley ... :-)
- Most people can learn how to write well enough to greatly enhance their employment opportunities in a wide variety of fields; but most don’t have sufficient talent to become successful professional writers, e.g., novelists or journalists. And by “successful” I merely mean good enough to provide a decent living for themselves and for their families.
- So too with programming. Most people can learn how to program, and the computational thinking skills they develop will provide them with attractive employment opportunities in a wide variety of other fields, perhaps even more so than writing given the direction of the evolving global economy. The global economy is currently driven by a massive Internet; but in a few years it will be driven by a far more massive “Internet of Things” –- the ultimate, all-inclusive end result of a process that someone once described as “the progressive digitization of e-v-e-r-y thing”
However, as with writing, most people don’t have sufficient talent to become successful professional programmers, i.e., good enough to provide a decent living for themselves and for their families.
- Bright Stars are the primary beneficiaries of desegregation. They have achieved shining academic records, beginning with pre-school, and have been snapped up by the nation’s leading universities. Nowadays, very few Bright Stars attend HBCUs.
- Dark Stars are the very smart black students whose families couldn't afford to send them to private schools or to provide their own transportation across town to the best public schools. Or their parents had limited education themselves, so they were unable to provide the home tutoring on difficult topics that can readily spell the difference between Cs and As, especially in introductory courses. Therefore the records of Dark Stars are uneven at best. I can recall many times sitting in my office with brilliant black students and marveling that the existence of such first rate minds had been shrouded by such lousy transcripts.
By now everyone knows that the “secret sauce” that accounts for the ability of HBCUs to produce far more than their per capita share of black students who pursue careers in STEM is the TLC, the highly personalized tender loving care that HBCUs provide, especially for their Dark Stars. TLC enables HBCUs to discover the fine minds behind the lousy transcripts, then to fill in the students’ knowledge and skills gaps. Unfortunately, Dark Stars are unlikely to receive such TLC at the vast majority of non-HBCUs. Given that nowadays HBCUs only enroll 10 percent of the nation’s black students, the vast majority of the nation’s Dark Stars go undiscovered.
- First, most bright black students haven’t seriously considered pursuing careers in software – until recently. Although I’m aware of studies that report that more or less the same percentage of black students as Caucasian and Asian Americans declare interest in STEM when they first enter college, software is lumped into with the vastly larger technology (“T”) or science (“S”) categories. Furthermore the studies were not focused on the Talented Tenth.
I find little reason to believe that a substantial percentage of Black America’s best and brightest have aspired to careers in software because (a) software is such a new field, and (b) there are no black software role models in the annals of Black History. By contrast every year Black History Month reminds students of the achievements of black scientists, e.g., George Washington Carver (chemistry, agronomy, botany) and Percy Julian (biochemistry). These men were impressive role models because they were indisputably brilliant leaders in their fields.
- The second reason is a vicious cycle. The current lack of preeminent blacks in “Silicon Valley” may lead some of the best black students to perceive racism where it doesn’t exist or is no longer a potent force. Rather than enter a profession wherein they perceive high levels of racism, some choose to pursue careers in “racialized” fields. This is Dr. Beasley’s term for fields that a previous generation of black pioneers had integrated so thoroughly that racism is either nonexistent or poses minimal challenges today. But by “opting out” of careers in non-racialized fields, i.e., by refusing to become pioneers themselves, the current generation's inaction makes it more likely that a subsequent generation will also infer racism because the field has remained unintegrated for that much longer.
- And the third reason, of course, is racism. Yes, sometimes when a thing walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it really is a duck. Mind you, I’m not referring to crude Ku Klux Klan racism, but to the more genteel kind, as in, “Software isn’t something that black people are good at. They’re great entertainers and some have become highly successful on the production side of show business. But software? No. That’s something that WE do.”
Black students were admitted who showed strong academic potential, but who did not meet all of the regular admissions requirements – e.g. SAT scores and GPAs. Their course loads were modified to include remedial courses, tutoring sessions, and other measures designed to close the knowledge and skills gaps between the black students and the students who met the regular requirements.
Black students were admitted if and only if they met the regular admissions requirements, but substantially greater effort and funds were expended in the search for qualified black students and in the inducements to persuade these Bright Stars to accept the offers of admission. Once admitted, they were assigned the same course loads and academic support that was provided to all of the other students who met the regular requirements. Few readers will be surprised to learn that Harvard University employed competitive recruitment. Being the wealthiest American university, Harvard could afford the extra costs involved in recruiting sizeable rosters of Bright Stars, year after year after year.
- Use competitive strategies to recruit more Bright Stars from the same elite universities from which you recruit your other technical staff. There is no reason to lower your standards. Indeed the perception of lower standards would make it more difficult for your current employees to welcome these new recruits as legitimate peers.
-- As per the DLL's August 2014 report (referenced below), in the Fall 2010 semester there were over 60,000 black students enrolled in the 99 U.S. colleges and universities wherein 75 percent of the students scored higher than 600 on the math SAT exams. Their graduation rates were more or less the same as the graduation rates of the other students in those institutions, so there is reason to believe that their Bright Stars were enrolled via competitive recruitment.
-- As per Dr. Beasley's exploratory study, some Bright Stars probably declined to pursue employment in "Silicon Valley" because they interpreted the existing low level of black employment as evidence of persistent racism. More intensive recruitment efforts might overcome their skepticism. But recruiters should bear in mind that Bright Stars have lots of other attractive options.
-- More intensive recruitment would not only induce skeptical students who were majoring in computer-related fields to pursue employment in "Silicon Valley." It could also entice other Bright Stars who never considered careers in software to change their majors if they were approached in the early years of their enrollment. Be sure to engage black members of your current technical staff as role models and mentors in these efforts. (Note: this strategy is elaborated in Part 2 of the DLL's August 2014 reported referenced below.)
- Use competitive strategies to recruit Dark Stars from HBCUs. Once again, there is no reason to lower your standards; but you may have to be more creative in perceiving the students' true capabilities
-- The DLL's May 2013 and June 2013 reports, referenced below, document the continuing success of HBCUs in producing black graduates in STEM at the undergraduate level and black graduates who subsequently earn doctoral degrees in STEM.
-- Some of these graduates are Bright Stars with impeccable academic transcripts who chose to attend HBCUs for various reasons, e.g., lower tuition and higher TLC. But the best of the rest are Dark Stars whose transcripts belie their exceptional aptitudes and skills. Once again, be sure to engage black members of your current technical staff as role models and mentors in these efforts. (See Part 2 of the DLL's August 2014 report.)
-- Finally, HBCUs have limited resources, so provide grants and technical support to assist their efforts to teach the skills their students will need in order to become productive members of your staffs as quickly as possible. Encourage HBCUs to collaborate with each other and to share their limited resources via the cloud, online courses, and other cost-effective technologies. And please work closely with the White House Initiative on HBCUs, UNCF, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and other experienced HBCU support organizations to facilitate these collaborations because the relationships between HBCUs are more complex than you are likely to perceive.
Related notes on this blog