Marcus is doing time, eight years, for stealing a car from a supermarket parking lot. He’s 22. Except for swiping a can of soda from a store when he was 10, it’s the first time he’s been in trouble with the law.
Winston is doing time too, but it’s in the microbiology lab at a research university. He and four other post-docs are exploring the cell signaling of viruses. His contribution to the effort extends beyond his skill in microscopy – it was Winston’s idea to divide a crucial component of the research project into three phases.
Both are black men, and while hypothetical examples, their current stations in life mirror many others just like them. They also exemplify two bodies of research.
Marcus received a sentence that, statistically speaking, is harsher than what would have been assigned if he had been white. He personifies the imbalance in our nation’s criminal justice system, a system in which a black man is questioned, arrested, convicted and penalized more severely than a white man.
Winston shows how teams with racial diversity perform better than homogenous groups. Diversity contributes new ideas, and new ideas drive innovation. Having people of different race and ethnicity introduces a wider range of information, provokes more thought and promotes open-mindedness.
This dichotomy between incarceration and inclusion is detrimental to our nation.
Consider STEM education. America’s current and future competitiveness in the world will grow from our expanding capacity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Our country has a vested interest in preparing students for these fields. Yet underrepresented minorities, and black men in particular, continue to trail white students in STEM learning. A valuable component of our innovation equation is missing.
Why? Earnestine Easter, a program director with the National Science Foundation who has studied the issue, cites the reasons. Black men are more likely to come from poor backgrounds and attend inadequate schools. White teachers often misinterpret black students’ responses and behavior or overlook their abilities. Some peers label their academic diligence as “acting white.” Role models are scarce.
The result? In 2012, black men earned 334 doctorates in STEM fields – out of 16,545 awarded. That number equals about two days of newly imprisoned black men that same year.
Fixing this imbalance is not a mystery. Research shows how black boys can develop STEM acumen and how black men can progress to graduate education and beyond.
For the youngest students, teachers must understand differences in how students answer questions. Our teachers should challenge black students in math as a vote of confidence in their abilities. Schools must create programs of peer support and role model encouragement.
Take Cleon Davis. Placed in a class for kids with learning disabilities, Cleon was labeled early on. Although he never had a disability, his teachers did not want to be bothered with an active black boy. Thanks to his mother’s persistent efforts to mainstream him into regular classes, Cleon eventually graduated from high school with honors. He came to Georgia Tech for graduate school, and I was fortunate to be his thesis advisor as Cleon earned his Ph.D. Today Dr. Cleon Davis works on the technical staff at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
For students in college, a host of pilot programs and tested initiatives, such as those we have developed at Georgia Tech, engage and support black males in their pursuit of a STEM degree.
These proven solutions are at every stage of the pipeline. What this country lacks is a coordinated and comprehensive plan to implement them.
Here’s a start: What if we redirect some of our investment in imprisoning black men to preparing them better in STEM fields? Or rehabilitate those already incarcerated with STEM training?
We can begin with those convicted for non-violent drug offenses, which is the number one reason for incarceration of black men. If we identify cost-saving alternatives to help them pay their debts to society, we could apply those savings to programs tailored to support other underrepresented students pursuing STEM careers.
Alone, such an idea is by no means a solution. But it’s a first step toward addressing our inequitable imprisonment of black men and inadequate preparation of black students in STEM fields.