Saturday, November 15, 2014

Of Silicon Valley, the Talented Tenth, Bright Stars, Dark Stars, HBCUs, and Affirmative Action

Last update: Monday 11/17/14 @ 1:46 pm
"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
This essay is the first draft of a "Big Picture" -- a framework for understanding the relationships between the various notions mentioned in its title. I expect that most readers will find that most of my assumptions and derived assertions are consistent with what they already know about these topics.  

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 Maya A. Beasley in her unpublished undergraduate thesis about affirmative action (Harvard University) and in Opting Out, her published doctoral dissertation about Silicon Valley (Stanford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 ... :-)

A. Lack of diversity in Silicon Valley is not surprising 
Throughout 1990s the Clinton-Gore administration published numerous reports that documented the existence of a "Digital Divide." The Bush-Cheney administration then "deprecated" the Divide, e.g., by removing references to these reports from federal Websites; but the disparities between Black and Caucasian/Asian American access to the resources of America's emerging digital economy persisted. So when recruiters from Silicon Valley's emerging software powerhouses set forth to recruit the "best and the brightest" it was not surprising, all other things being equal, that the overwhelming majority of their employees came from the largely Caucasian/Asian Asian advantaged side of the Divide ... or was it????

B. Lack of diversity in Silicon Valley is not the same thing as lack of diversity throughout the nation's software sector
Unfortunately, all other things are not equal. It's one thing to say that the lack of diversity in the entire U.S. software sector reflects the lack of technical diversity in the K-12-college-university pipeline. But no matter how one totes up the numbers, Silicon Valley only employs a small fraction of the total number of U.S. programmers, software engineers, designers, etc., etc., etc. It would therefore only require a few thousand additional black software mavens to make the Valley’s software employment rosters more acceptably diverse. 

In previous decades, a disproportionate share of Black America's best and brightest, a/k/a its “Talented Tenth,” have pursued careers in entertainment, responding to the outsized financial rewards that outsized success in show business have provided, coupled with the lack of corresponding opportunities for blacks in other fields. Therefore the short list of black billionaires and near-billionaires includes, among others, Bill Cosby (TV), Oprah Winfrey (TV), Robert L Johnson (TV), Dr. Dre (music), and Sean Coombs (music). But in recent decades Caucasian and Asian Americans have earned far bigger billions in far less time as software entrepreneurs -- think Gates (Microsoft), Ellison (Oracle), Yang (Yahoo!), Brin and Page (Google), and Zuckerberg (Facebook) ... scores of their closest associates have become near-billionaires ... hundreds have  "merely" become very rich ... :-) 

So the question becomes ==> Why hasn't there been a massive shift in the focus of America's black elites from entertainment to software? More specifically, why hasn't there been a dramatic increase in the number of Black America's best and brightest young students majoring in computer science and/or other programming-intensive fields? And why haven't we seen dramatic increases in the number of the most talented black graduates (and dropouts) from the nation's most elite colleges and universities accepting employment offers from elite Silicon Valley software houses as preparation for launching their own start-up operations? In other words, why are there still so few members of the Talented Tenth flowing through the pipelines from academia to Silicon Valley and to the other emerging competitive centers of the digital economy, e.g., New York, Washington DC, Miami, and Atlanta???

C. Computational Thinking Skills vs. Professional Programming Skills
As regular readers of this blog must realize, I have become a firm supporter of the grass roots Coding Movement that has been sweeping through the nation’s black communities during the last three or four years – e.g., Black Girls Code, #YesWeCode, Blue1647. I don’t support this movement because I think that all black youngsters (or oldsters) should become computer programmers. To be sure, most people can learn how to program, but programming is like writing:
  • 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.
But we’re not talking about most people now. We’re talking about the Talented Tenth, the best of the best. My 40 year career at one of the nation’s leading HBCUs leaves no doubt in my mind that most of the Talented Tenth could become successful professional programmers -- if they chose to do so. More importantly, I believe that a sizeable subset of this group also have the superior business acumen that would enable them to become successful software entrepreneurs. 

D. It’s about power …
Way back in 1996, when Reverend Jesse Jackson first directed the nation’s attention to the lack of diversity on Wall Street, I was concerned that the Reverend may have missed the bus because Wall Street was in the process of ramping up its digitization, a process that would eventually cause thousands of highly paid stockbrokers and analysts to lose their jobs. 

But when the Reverend extended the focus of his Rainbow Push Coalition to address the lack of diversity in the power center on the Pacific side of the continent, I did mental backflips. Whereas Wall Street’s “Masters of the Universe” measured their dollars in hundreds of millions by the time they were 40, the Valley’s “Accidental Emperors” measured their billions by the time they were 30 because they were the masters of the economy’s digital engines, engines whose power is increasing rapidly.

Agreeing with the Reverend’s longer term agenda, I don’t think that the nation’s Black community will move substantially closer to parity with the prosperity enjoyed by the Caucasian and Asian American majority until we greatly increase our influence in the nation’s centers of power. If it’s about power, then it’s about mobilizing the Talented Tenth to achieve the greatest possible gains in financial power in the shortest possible time. Therefore it’s about Silicon Valley and all of the Valley’s emerging digital competitors, i.e., Boston, New York, Washington DC, Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc., etc., etc. (Note: From this point on, I will put “Silicon Valley” in quotes when referring to all of the elite U.S. digital centers)

Of course, no one should ever express such optimistic sentiments without immediately acknowledging that high achievers sometimes “forget” to help those who are less fortunate than themselves. Sometimes they have to be forcefully “reminded” to do the right thing … ☹

E. Bright Stars and Dark Stars
For the purposes of this discussion, it’s useful to divide the Talented Tenth into two groups: “Bright Stars” and “Dark Stars”. 
  • 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.

F. Low levels in the pipelines
Returning to the pipelines into “Silicon Valley” when I’m asked why are there so few blacks, three reasons come to mind:
  • 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.” 

G. Affirmative Action – Compensatory vs. Competitive
Leading firms in Silicon Valley finally responded to Reverend Jackson’s repeated calls for disclosure of data about the diversity of their staffs this year (2014). One by one they published employment data -- Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, etc., etc., etc. that confirmed what everyone already knew ==> Black America is grossly underrepresented on the technical staffs of America’s most elite software corporations. That’s the bad news; the good news is that the leading corporations pledged to make good faith efforts to recruit more black employees. In other words, they would implement some kind of affirmative action program … although I don’t recall the term “affirmative action” being used in any of their press releases.

At this point it’s useful to distinguish between two kinds of affirmative action strategies: “competitive” and “compensatory”. These distinctions were introduced by Dr. Beasley in her undergraduate honors thesis that included case studies of some nationally prominent universities in the Boston metropolitan area:
  • Compensatory
    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.

  • Competitive
    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. 
It could be argued that Dr. Beasley’s dichotomy is an unrealistic abstraction, that all affirmative action programs in the real world fall somewhere in between purely compensatory and purely competitive. What cannot be argued is that most real world programs have fallen much closer to the compensatory end of the spectrum than to the competitive end. Indeed, the prevalence of compensatory programs has fed widespread assumptions that all black students on all campuses failed to meet the regular requirements for admission. 

H. Recommendations for “Silicon Valley” recruiters
I conclude this note with two sets of recommendations for "Silicon Valley" recruiters:
  1. 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.)
  2. 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