In a crowded hotel lobby in New Orleans the day after Thanksgiving, primary and secondary students and playful adults threw paper planes towards a target for a prize of $50. The game at the carnival-style booth was meant to teach attendees about the basic parts and functions of airplanes.
The throngs, of course, were not there for that science-lite lesson; they came for the annual Bayou Classic football game between two historically black universities: Grambling State University, and Southern University and A&M College. In the past five years, attendance at the event has been on the upswing, with an average of 65,000 fans attending each year.
Taking advantage of the event’s popularity, organizers of the Bayou Classic teamed up with Louisiana-based NexusLA, an economic development organization, to host a pitch competition between teams of tech-savvy college entrepreneurs. It’s a prime event to draw attention to black talent in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Teams of students representing Southern and Grambling, Xavier University of Louisiana and Southern University Law School pitched various STEM-inspired products in the fourth annual BizTech Challenge for a total of $15,000 in prize money.
While the winners can use the prize money toward the development of their own technologies, organizers hope the funding will launch a new tradition of investing in black tech entrepreneurs and the development of black talent.
Earlier this year, the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company released the report “The Future of Work in Black America,” on the potential impacts of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and automation on specific racial groups — and it spells gloom and doom for African Americans. The report found that robots and other forms of automation will disproportionately impact black workers, who are more likely to hold jobs that are vulnerable to automation and to reside in geographic areas that are predicted to see a greater number of automation-related job losses. Black Americans stand to lose 132,000 jobs — more, proportionately, than any other racial or ethnic group.
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If we don’t scout, recruit, invest in and cheer for black engineers, biologists and computer scientists as we do for quarterbacks, linebackers and wide receivers, our youth won’t be able to participate in the game of life when they grow up. If black men on the football field (and everyone else in the stands) don’t develop the tech skills that could protect them from the threat of automation, they may find themselves unemployable when they leave college.
“We live in a nation that makes sure they put a basketball and a football in the hands of every black boy before the age of four,” engineer Calvin Mackie told The Hechinger Report. Mackie emceed the BizTech Challenge and organized the plane-throwing booth. An entrepreneur in his own right, Mackie owns STEM NOLA, an organization that seeks to engage community members in STEM fields.
Mackie has no problem taking some of the spotlight away from the football game. He told The Hechinger Report, “We have to put STEM in the hands of all of our children … From the time they are born, we have to introduce [children] to science and technology so they can see themselves as a participant in the 21st century.” By participant, Mackie certainly means employable.
Putting paper planes, microscopes, biology kits, circuit boards and coding games in the hands of black children will help spark a familiarity with STEM that could be very valuable in our rapidly changing economy.
In a 2018 report, my colleagues at the Brookings Institution examined the rapid digitization of 545 occupations that have accounted for 90 percent of the U.S. workforce in all industries since 2001. The percentage of jobs that require low levels of digital skill dropped from 56 percent in 2002 to 30 percent in 2016. Likewise, the percentage of jobs requiring high levels of digital skill rose from 5 percent to 23 percent during the same period. Jobs categorized as requiring a medium amount of digital skill increased from 40 to 48 percent.
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The report’s researchers found that white workers (65 percent of the workforce) were overrepresented in jobs requiring high and medium levels of digital skill in the sciences, arts and legal professions, as well as management. Asian workers, who make up only 6 percent of the workforce, held 21.3 percent of highly digital computer and math jobs and 11.6 percent of the jobs in engineering. At 12 percent of the workforce, black Americans were overrepresented in medium-digital occupations “such as office and administrative support, community and social service, as well as low-digital level jobs such as transportation, personal care, and building and grounds maintenance.” Hispanic workers represent 17 percent of the workforce, but are clustered in low-digital level jobs.
There is a lot of crystal-balling with future of work research, which primarily looks at how AI and automation will impact the nature of work. No one really knows exactly what the future holds; fears about the coming of the robots are being downplayed by researchers and industry executives. As business consultant Jon Williams wrote in the tech magazine Smart Company, “[P]redictions for the near-term impact of automation on white-collar roles have dropped from 40 percent to as low as 10 percent. Who knows where they will be in another 12 months?” Nevertheless, if black people aren’t creators of future technologies, we obviously will have less say in how we consume — or are consumed by — AI and automation. As the saying goes, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.
Nothing grows without investment; growth, whether academic or athletic, is a sign of investment. The footballers at Grambling and Southern weren’t born to play at the Bayou Classic, they were groomed to play by societal investment and indoctrination, starting when they were born. People revere football players because the game is seen as deserving of respect, of having value. So too must STEM be present in our perceptions of black talent. Investment in black STEM workers and entrepreneurs is not only an investment in the black workforce, it’s an investment in the growth of the economy. And investment in STEM must go beyond the schoolhouse. Who knows how many hours LeBron James held a basketball outside of school before he became pro? But we know our scholarships, corporate sponsorships, cheers and dedication still contribute to him holding that ball.
The tech team from Grambling State University, MiEye, won the top prize at the BizTech Challenge for their design of an app to help homeowners deal with natural disasters. Louisiana is seeing more natural disasters and more intense weather events because of climate change. The team will use their prize money to develop their app and a hardware solution that employs AI. Their product will scan users’ homes to detect their vulnerabilities to different potential disasters. “We’re working to save people’s lives,” Cameron Jackson the student front man of MiEye told The Hechinger Report.
We should take a line of code from the tech entrepreneurs and invest in black-owned companies to protect communities from the looming storm of AI.
This story about being Black in STEM was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.