Who Wants to be A Rocket Scientist? Race, Gender and the STEM Divide

By Sikivu Hutchinson

From The Humanist

Criminal.  Gangbanger.  “Baby daddy”.  Drug dealer.  Ball player.  Brainstorming recently about the psychological impact of media images with a group of African American ninth graders in my Young Male Scholars program, these caricatures were the primary images they associated with black men.  White men were identified with images of power, leadership, entrepreneurship, intellectualism and heroism, i.e., the stuff of scientific invention and discovery.  Bucking the stereotypes, a few students in the group have expressed interest in becoming civil engineers or game designers.  Yet, at every turn, the messages they receive from the dominant culture about who has the capacity to succeed in STEM are insidiously clear.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, esteemed physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson reminisced that he’d been advised to pursue sports instead of science by one of his high school teachers.  Far from being a throwback to a bygone “less enlightened” era, Tyson’s experience is the norm for many African American students in the U.S.’ re-segregated schools.  While Tyson is widely revered as an icon of science literacy in humanist and atheist circles, there has been little to no humanist or atheist critique of the legacy of segregation that informs STEM inequities.  For many humanists of color who live in communities where black and Latino youth are being relentlessly pipelined into prisons—redressing educational apartheid overall is more critical than the mainstream secular emphasis on creationism and school prayer.

Stanford University professor Linda Darling Hammond has dubbed the deep race and class divide in American public education the opportunity gapIn high poverty schools of color, this schism is exemplified by the narrowing of the curriculum through high stakes tests, as well as the pervasiveness of unqualified teachers, overcrowded classrooms, long term subs, high student-to-college counselor ratios and zero tolerance discipline policies that over-suspend, criminalize and push-out Black and Latino youth.  Nonetheless, since the election of President Obama the right has been unrelenting in its propaganda about post-racialism, colorblindness, and meritocracy.  According to this shopworn fantasy, institutional and systemic barriers to academic achievement no longer exist and affirmative action is an egregious form of reverse discrimination.  Further, mainstream cultural perceptions about equal access to education have been promoted by the success of Obama and other high profile people of color.

Yet, as the political rhetoric has become more hostile to affirmative action and targeted “diversity” initiatives, the national climate for diversity in science education and academia has stagnated if not worsened.  According to a report from the Washington D.C.-based Stem Connector group, overall interest in STEM has declined among African American high school students and female students of all ethnicities.  This decline is especially pronounced in engineering and technology majors and careers.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “The percentage of African-Americans earning STEM degrees has fallen during the last decade. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs.” Indeed, “in a typical year, 13 African-Americans and 20 Latinos of either sex receive Ph.D.’s in physics.”

Nationwide, African American and Latino students are least likely to have access to quality STEM instruction in K-12.  They are more likely to be saddled with negative cultural stereotypes and assumptions about their lack of intellectual ability in STEM.  At the high school level, they are often excluded from the gatekeeper Advanced Placement (AP) and college prep classes that are virtually required for admission to top colleges and universities.  African American students in particular are less likely than students of other ethnicities to be enrolled in AP classes, especially “elite” math and science courses.  At 14% of the U.S. student population black students comprise only 3% of those enrolled in AP courses or taking AP exams.  According to the College Board, “The vast majority of black high school graduates from the Class of 2011 who could have done well in an AP course never enrolled in one because they were either ‘left out’ or went to a school that didn’t offer the college prep courses.”  In Silicon Valley, fount of American technological innovation, fewer than 25% of black and Latino students successfully complete Algebra. Moreover, only 20% of Latinos and 22% of African-Americans “graduate with passing grades in the courses that are required” for admission to University of California and Cal State university campuses.

These factors contribute to the abysmal numbers of African American and Latino students who go on to major in STEM and graduate with STEM degrees.  A recent U.S. Department of Education report concluded that “more than one half of all African Americans who enter bachelor’s degree programs in STEM-related disciplines either drop out of college or change majors and graduate with a degree in a non-STEM field.”  The report also held that sixty five percent of African American students who started out majoring in STEM don’t graduate with a STEM degree, a higher rate than that of other groups.  In its “State of Black Education” report the Campaign for College Opportunity report maintained that, “Gaps between Blacks and other ethnic groups in college-going and attainment have remained virtually unchanged for more than a decade, and in some cases, have worsened.”  Despite claims of increased college opportunities for Millennials, “A smaller share of today’s California Black young adult population holds postsecondary degrees than that of Blacks between the ages of 35 and 64.”  Put bluntly, in an era in which affirmative action has been viciously discredited and all but gutted by both the Right and neo-liberal “left”, young African Americans are less educated than older African Americans.

Moreover, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “The gap between the percentage of Black women in STEM faculty posts and the percentage of Black women in the general working-age population is wider than for any other racial or ethnic group. In contrast, White men hold 58 percent of the faculty posts in STEM fields, but (are) only 35 percent of the working-age population.”

These gaps begin at the K-12 level, where even high achieving black female STEM students face barriers that their white counterparts don’t have to contend with.  For example, Karly Jeter, a former student of mine who is now a freshman at Hobart and William College, had a 4.0 GPA during her senior year and took rigorous courses but was routinely stereotyped by some of her science teachers as underachieving.  An aspiring oncologist, in high school she was generally only one of two or three black students in her AP classes. Reflecting back, she bitterly recounted how her AP English teacher excluded her from a list of students (all Asian and Latino) he predicted would pass the mock AP exam. When she was one of the few who passed he accused her of cheating.  In her chemistry class she and other African American students were criticized by their teacher as having no other ambition in life besides playing sports. Despite the fact that African Americans are the second largest ethnic group at the school, only 4% were enrolled in AP courses.  Conversely, black students comprise a majority of both the school and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s suspensions.

Hence, the rampant criminalization of black students is also a big factor in inequitable STEM access.  Nationwide, black children are suspended and expelled more than any other racial/ethnic group in American schools. And black girls are suspended and expelled more than any other group besides black males.  Even though studies have shown that black students don’t offend at higher rates than white students they receive harsher penalties for similar or lesser offenses.  In a widely publicized case, Kiera Wilmot, an African American eleventh grader from Florida, was arrested at school after an experiment she’d conducted accidentally exploded in a classroom. Although there were no damages or injuries caused by the incident, Wilmot, an exemplary student with no prior disciplinary record, was expelled.

In her book Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education, researcher Sandra Hanson contends that, despite significant institutional and societal barriers, there is actually greater interest in science among African American girls than in other student populations. She frames this seeming paradox in historical context, stressing that “Early ideologies about natural inequalities by race influenced the work of scientists and scholars as well as the treatment of minorities in the science domain.  Racism is a key feature of science in the United States and elsewhere.  This has a large impact on the potential for success among minority students.  Early work on science as fair has not been supported.”  Indeed, cultural representations of science as the domain of white and Asian males, promoted by the media, academia and public policy, reinforces STEM barriers for youth of color. Consequently, nurturing role models, culturally responsive teachers and other adult leaders are crucial.  As Hanson notes, “research on African American women’s experiences in the science education system shows the critical role of teachers.  Unfortunately, African American women are often marginalized because of their race and gender.  Science teachers tend to overlook these young women as a source of science talent…Textbooks and teachers focus mainly on science knowledge and inventions created by white scientists.  Hence (students) are seldom made aware of the contributions of African Americans (much less African American women) in science.”

Organizations like the California-based Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) are working to change these perceptions.  Over the past few years LPFI has coordinated a STEM summer immersion program for low-income high school students of color at colleges like UC Berkeley, USC and UCLA.  This fall, the LPFI is organizing a STEM advocacy conference for youth of color in South Los Angeles schools (which are predominantly African American and Latino) at USC.  The conference is designed to counter institutional racial/gender barriers to STEM achievement by promoting culturally responsive approaches to college preparation and mentoring.  A key feature of the conference involves connecting South L.A. youth with STEM faculty of color.  Yet, as one faculty member observed, a central quandary in planning such an event is the dearth of tenured African American and Latino STEM faculty at the university.  This has a negative impact on the recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of students of color.  Decades after one of the most well-known physicists in the world was advised to shoot hoops for a living systemic barriers to STEM still belie the myth of American meritocracy.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars. She is a community partner in the LPFI’s STEM initiative and the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project.

Who Wants to be A Rocket Scientist? Race, Gender and the STEM Divide
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7 thoughts on “Who Wants to be A Rocket Scientist? Race, Gender and the STEM Divide

  1. 2

    correction – Keira Wilmot was practicing her science experiment outside of class before school started on outside school grounds, not in the classroom.

  2. 3

    It’s quite depressing to see how all the subtleties of the educational and socioeconomic systems conspire against young black students. Obviously there’s no magic bullet, but I wonder if the internet could be better leveraged to provide a social and academic support network for them like it did for atheists over the past five or ten years. There seems to be a need for something/someone they can turn to when supportive teachers, family and peers aren’t available.

  3. 4

    […] This article at Black Skeptics reminded me of a time I discouraged a young black woman from continuing education in a white male dominated field.  Was I an avowed racist, a neo-nazi or Klan member, a talk radio fan?  No.  I considered myself progressive, caucused for Kucinich, and tromped around my school with an army jacket that said “FUCK BUSH” in sharpie on the back. […]

  4. 5

    The article is accurate, but incomplete. For example, a fairly recent study concluded that women (of all ethnicities) were dropping out of STEM because a) it was too hard, and b) it continued to be too hard and too time consuming when they reached the workplace. Quite simply, they wanted a life.

  5. 7

    I remember hearing about Keira Wilmot on PZ Myers’ blog. Even PZ, who did not support the idea of expelling her, took an excessively harsh view of how she should have been treated, IMO. As a fan of chemistry myself, I recognize that seeing things go bang, or catch fire, or make smoke and bad smells is one of the big attractors of kids to the science. Had I been the Chemistry teacher at that school, I would have made her promise to talk to me about any future experiments she wanted to do, and then I would have asked her to help form an after-school chemistry club. She has the makings of an excellent chemist, and I really hope this incident and her harsh treatment won’t prevent her from learning more STEM.
    I can’t say if her race or her gender caused her to suffer a worse fate than someone else would have. There is a real backlash against amateur chemists these days. In Texas, it is a crime for an individual to own a beaker or an Erlenmeyer flask.

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