Column

Clusters of black science majors offer a map for future investment

Businesses should pay attention to black communities’ growth in cities

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

When demographers and pundits talk about the United States transitioning in the future to a majority-minority country, you get a sense they are almost threatening businesses to hire people of color with an “or else the entire house of cards will fall” argument. But threats are hardly needed when what’s right from a moral standpoint — diversity and inclusion — is also what’s best from a business perspective. Todd L. Pittinsky, a professor of technology and society at Stony Brook University, summarized the argument in the Harvard Business Review in 2016: “Different kinds of people will come up with different kinds of ideas, and the more variety, the better.” By not investing in diversity, companies are stifling innovation and growth. But, as Bernard Coleman III wrote in a Forbes magazine op-ed in January, people, especially in Silicon Valley, still ask advocates for diversity to “make a business case” for it. “What is basically being said is, ‘Convince me why the organization should want to hire women, people of color, etc,’” he writes, something that defies logic.

But the people in power don’t really believe they need to hire black people or women to be successful. After all, look how far they’ve come by hiring and promoting mostly white men! Plus, the argument for diversity and inclusion is essentially a call to change tech companies’ business models, the same business models that have bestowed on them wealth and privilege. White people aren’t just going to hand that, and the potential to earn wealth and political power, over once they become the minority.

That future is already the present in many cities that are minority-white. There are more than 1200 majority-black cities in the U.S., and if I were the mayor of one, I wouldn’t hold business leaders hostage with demographic spreadsheets. Urban leaders of all cities, whether minority-white or not, must show the benefits of diversity to their constituents as well as business leaders looking for a new home to set up shop. In fact, cities that can show how they are free of barriers such as discrimination, which stunts economic growth, and encourage diversity, will be at an advantage as compared to other cities.

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Employers, particularly tech companies, are demanding workers with skills in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at unprecedented levels. Even though the tech industry has been thoroughly criticized for its lack of diversity — it is overwhelmingly white and male — most black people don’t expect companies to miraculously feel obligated to hire them to counter these criticisms. Black workers, especially in majority-black cities, want to leverage their assets like anyone else. Places with higher proportions of black STEM graduates have assets that companies and other black employees can build upon for future economic growth.

The map above shows a cluster of cities with very high proportions of black residents with STEM degrees in the Atlanta metropolitan area, as well as in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region, southeastern Virginia, and the areas surrounding New York City. There were no cities in the western United States with high enough black populations of African Americans with STEM degrees to make it onto the map.

Once again, mid-Atlantic and southern cities make up most of the list, with three Maryland and two Virginia cities included. Flint, MI, is the only city in the top 15 falling outside those regions.

 

There is a cluster of cities with very high proportions of African Americans with STEM degrees in the Bay area of California, San Diego in southern California, Seattle and Portland in the Pacific Northwest, Minneapolis and the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region.

More than anyone else, black people need others to focus on their strengths. Majority-black cities and neighborhoods need investments, thanks in no small part to the legacy of racism, but no one will put money into fixing problems or deficits. So the way forward is to highlight assets, like the high proportion of highly educated black people in the cities featured in the graphics above.

There are more assets to highlight, but that requires us to end the bad habit of charting how bad black people are doing relative to whites. Conveying racial disparities, which are often false equivalencies, does have a place in research. But when the research takes the focus off the systemic racism that caused the difference, the responsibility to close the gap falls squarely upon black people’s shoulders. That’s blaming the result on the effect rather than the cause.

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Cities in which a more diverse group of people realize their potential have a competitive advantage in the market and can offer a roadmap to an authentically thriving market. If you were a black person with a degree that’s in high demand, would you choose to live in a place where you stand out and struggle to find a job, or a place where you can easily find a community and employers are hungry for your skills? The answer is clear: The inclusive cities and companies with diverse staff attract high-quality talent and produce better products, because they allow for a plurality of perspectives. And these are places and companies that have a greater ability to meet the demands of a consumer market that’s becoming more diverse.

It’s time to stop begging companies to let black people in the door. It hasn’t worked very well so far, and why start on the backfoot? Let’s focus instead on opportunities to build up black organizations and social networks that thrive in spite of racist policies. Let’s look to invest in places where black and brown people are given more opportunities and can have better outcomes. When these employers come out ahead, the rest of the world will have to sit up and take notice.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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