New York City’s public school system is made 85% made up of students of color. 60% of teachers in public schools are white. These stats speak for themselves and were systematically skewed this way. Up to until 2012, when a court ruling by Judge Kimba M. Wood of the Federal District Court in Manhattan abolished an older State certification test. That was meant to measure teachers’ understanding of math and science but was systematically flawed into racially discriminating against teachers from the minority background. At the time, STEM education and careers were particularly not that popular among the Black and Hispanic communities, meaning they had fewer qualified teachers to take part in those tests.
The trickle-down effect is that, three years down the line, students from the minority communities are still least likely to find a teacher that looks like them inside a classroom. Black and Hispanic K-12 teacher are not yet that many and students from these communities rarely come across a teacher who truly understands their background. With regards to having been where they are, living in their neighborhood and undergone the socio-economic challenges that are unique to them.
Black and Hispanic students already get enough of the false narrative that their community is just “not that smart enough”. When they go to classes, and the see not many of people like them teaching them, it goes to reinforce those false narratives into their head. It even leads to some member of the Black and Hispanic communities setting low expectations in terms of educational goals for their own kids. In addition, some white folks use this flawed system manufactured statistics to “prove” that white people are smarter than Black and Hispanic people.
This system failure was examined in 2014 by the Center of American Progress, which tabled a report showing that teachers thought that Black and Hispanic students were 47% and 42% respectively less likely to go to college. Although the report did not take into account the race of the teachers that took part in the survey, such expectations can be held by any teacher from any race.
The false narrative that Black and Hispanic “are not smart enough” may have significantly contributed to the fact that in 2014 no Black students took part in the AP Computer Science exams done in 11 State. Neither was there any Hispanic Students that took part in the exams across eight States. Even though, Black and Hispanic communities did over index on computer use.
Dr. Claude Steel has studied this disconnect between the idea that Black and Hispanic are “are not smart” and the behavior, in a theory he terms Stereotype Threat. In his study, Dr. Steele hypothesizes that when a group of people are placed in an environment where they are constantly told they are underachievers, the way Blacks and Hispanics have been. They tend to do exactly that, and bring to life the false narrative being said in their social environment. This environment gives them a negative psychological impact that negatively affects their performance. Dr. Steele further reveals that members of the stereotyped group tend to feel uncomfortable and will focus more on those negative stereotypes assigned to them and focus little on the task at hand.
For aspiring Black engineers, fighting this false narrative is particularly important is particularly important given they already have a genuinely difficult math and science course to deal with. To add more to that, they are also least likely to be taught by a Black or Hispanic teacher, who might understand where they are coming from. The typical class that they may enter will be filled by male white students and (and perhaps teachers), who based on the stereotype, believe that the minority “are not smart enough” and/or got into college through affirmative action.
Given the above preconditions, the minority students are bound to encounter a hostile environment. This may perhaps explain why 4.5% and 6.5% of students graduating from prestigious computer science or computer engineering college courses are Black and Hispanic respectively.
For these reasons, it has become crucially important that an individual like Tonie Leatherberry to mentor and nurture young generation from Black and Hispanic community. Leatherberry earned her degree from Boston University before proceeding to business school and working her way to becoming an Equity Partner and the most senior woman at Deloitte Consulting LLC in North America.
On April 14, 2015, Tonie joined the Year of the Black Woman talk at Harvard business School and delved into how a Black woman can cultivate her own success.
Tonie is one of the most highly respected individuals in the innovation economy, backed by her strong scientific skills coupled with some good business acumen. She has worked her way over 24 years to become one of the most senior women in the finance industry. Tonie took about 90 minutes talking to Black students and how they can overcome the systemic racism using what researcher Carol Dweck refer to as a growth mindset. A mindset that embraces adversity, and letting the brain develop new and stronger neurological pathways that would allow you to work through complex problems.
A lot of Black and Hispanic families that are navigating through the educational landscape have adopt a growth mindset and teach their kids to rise above the institutional racism they are bound to face throughout their lives. Tonie also urged Black women to use their softness and perceived hardness to navigate through challenges they will find on their personal and career path.
Much like Kathryn Finney at a previous Year of the Black Woman event, Ms. Tonie spoke about the importance of having a cultivating healthy home life. She urged parents of K-12 Public School Students to start sharing with their kids and prepare them to overcome some of the pitfalls that will attempt to hold them back.
The Black female students at the Harvard Business School African American Student Union took her advice to heart. They are an elite group from the Black and Hispanic communities who have successfully jolted past the barriers their communities face.
On May 14, Brooklyn will play host to Five Boro Pitch Slap, giving women in tech a platform to showcase their creations. The prizes will include, getting to meet Jeanne Sulivan, a veteran venture capitalist and Peter Shankman, a renowned PR guru, who can give the winners a major limelight making them a big hit.
So it falls upon you, are you ready for this? Are you ready to thwart the false narrative of Black and Hispanic being inferior, a myth that was perpetuated through racially discriminatory practices that were ruled against by Judge Wood? Are you positioning yourself to take advantage of vehicles such as the Year of the Black Woman, which is designed to prove that Black and Hispanic communities are just as active and innovative as people from any other race.
The STEM industry can still be said to be in its infancy stage in New York City, but as it matures, the barriers are going to be high. Thus more Black and Hispanic communities may find themselves locked out of this very lucrative innovation economy. If you want to book your place in this STEM uprising, you better position yourself in advance. It starts by visiting the Year of the Black Woman next event slated for May 20, where they will be hosting Kelechi Anyadiegwu, the Founder of Zuvaa African Fashion.