New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s latest oeuvre begins with a confession: “Let me say up front: I’m not a science guy.” Duly noted, though that hardly makes him an exception among liberals who seem to subscribe to the belief that scientific inquiry trades in “consensus” and majority rule.
But Blow’s column isn’t about science anyway: It is about the job market, and more specifically about who pursues careers that require a grounding in science. He writes:
According to the National Math and Science Initiative: “STEM job creation over the next 10 years will outpace non-STEM jobs significantly, growing 17 percent, as compared to 9.8 percent for non-STEM positions.”
And yet, the group says, we are not producing enough STEM graduates; other countries are moving ahead of us.
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When you look at women and minorities, the situation is even more bleak.
Let’s start with high school. Last year, a Georgia Tech researcher analyzed which students took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science in 2013. The researcher, Barbara Ericson, found that in three states no women took it, in eight states no Hispanics did and in 11 states no blacks did. (In Mississippi only one person — not female, black or Hispanic, by the way — took the test that year. Oh, Mississippi.)
One might argue that this is a matter of personal preference — that you can lead a horse to science class, so to speak — but Blow assigns a more sinister motive to these numbers. He cites a 2011 Associated Press “exposé,” which posits that “a complex equation of self-doubt, stereotypes, discouragement and economics” explains why “more African-Americans [aren’t] looking toward science, technology, engineering and math.” Sounds a lot like a vast right-wing conspiracy.
The writer of that article, Jesse Washington, provides nothing more than inference and innuendo to support the claim of a “self-defeating perception” among blacks “that STEM is too hard.”
But assuming that perception is widespread, where does it come from? Washington unwittingly provides an answer in his retelling of the story of one Christopher Smith, a then-PhD in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, who “thinks some African-Americans psych themselves out of STEM”:
“Today I talk to friends back home, and they say, `I wouldn’t be able to do good in college anyway.’ A lot of it is just confidence,” Smith says. “If people convince you that science and math is harder than everything else, and you already have low self-esteem, maybe that’s one reason there are so few black scientists.”
All that demonstrates is that the stereotype that Washington grumbles about is home-grown and self-perpetuating. It is of a piece with the view popular in black communities that school isn’t cool. In a candid radio interview last October with Anthony Gargano and Rob Ellis, NBA great Charles Barkley put it this way:
We as black people are never going to be successful, not because of you white people, but because of other black people. When you are black, you have to deal with so much crap in your life from other black people.
For some reason we are brainwashed to think, if you’re not a thug or an idiot, you’re not black enough. If you go to school, make good grades, speak intelligent, and don’t break the law, you’re not a good black person. It’s a dirty, dark secret in the black community.
One might be tempted to take umbrage at Barkley’s declaration. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates does, allowing as how “there isn’t much difference between Barkley’s claim … and the claims of a garden-variety racist.” But even he submits, with a palpable sigh:
The notion that black irresponsibility is at least part of the “race problem” is widely shared among black America’s most prominent figures, beginning — but not ending — with the president of the United States.
Ultimately, Blow’s lament that minorities are being excluded from these high-paying jobs might cut some ice if he were willing to fight as hard to desegregate the even more lucrative job market of professional sports. But that’s probably a conversation he’d rather not have.
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