Black America’s wrong approach to STEM

Black America needs more engineers but not for the reasons we typically hear on the panel discussion stump. On the panel discussion stump, you typically find well dressed and articulate black men and women speaking on the importance of going to college and picking up degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math in order to get a job with a corporation and make six-figures. Going into six-figure debt to get a six-figure job. Where did this school of thought come from?

Black America’s approach to learning about technology favors consumption of the applications that run over broadband networks. That is what I see particularly among poor blacks here in the West End and the Old Fourth Ward. We are using broadband voice applications to share the latest gossip or evangelizing on life. We are keeping occupied reading news items, watching sports highlights, or playing video games as we pass time on MARTA heading to work. Just about everyone has a cellphone and if you don’t, worry not. If you meet income eligibility requirements, you can buy one from a vendor at the corner of York Avenue and Lee Highway.

This propensity to consume technology is not relegated to the Black American poor. According to a 2016 report released by Nielsen,  Black Millennials are expected to help drive the leveraging of $1.2 billion in Black American buying power. With a cellphone ownership penetration rate of 91%, Nielsen sees Black Americans continuing to use the technology to extend black cultural identity and, with Millennials leading the way, continue efforts at civic or institutional change in America. Black America is also expected to buy more beauty and hair care products versus their white counterparts.

Millennials are expected to take their higher incomes into supermarkets as well. Black Americans demonstrate a propensity for cooking from scratch, planning meals ahead, and using fresh ingredients.

In short, the Nielsen report paints a picture of a Black America that furthers consumer centrism. Since release from their status as chattel slaves, blacks in America have slowly become a population over-indexed on consumption. And to further fuel its $1.2 billion in buying power, Black America has embarked on a campaign to get more of its young people into STEM jobs.

STEM employment pays well, according to a report written by the U.S. Department of Education. The average STEM employee pulls in approximately $65,000 a year. Those specializing in engineering or engineering technology average $73,700 a year. Great incomes for hair and makeup and cultural expression. But what is more important, in my view, is STEM driven creation of resources placed in black communities for blacks.

We don’t hear enough about the entrepreneurial side of STEM although we have examples out there. Firms such as Logistics Systems Incorporated and ATS-Chester Engineers have been providing engineering services for decades. They are demonstrating that blacks can do more than consume technology but design technology solutions as well. Production and ownership of technology assets lie at the heart of wealth creation for blacks and if properly deployed can be the basis for the creation of real black communities in the United States.

Unfortunately for current black communities, their leadership is tainted. Legacy black civil rights organizations that have a leadership class still living in 1968 are still focusing on how best to break into corporate America, or in the case of establishing minority-owned firms, maintaining affirmative action programs that provide set asides from government contracts. To paraphrase Yuval Noah Harari, they do not even have realistic ideas of what the job market looks like in two decades because they cannot see. Black leadership is still nostalgic about the civil rights battles of the 1960s when the focus should be on the resource and capital battles of the 21st century.

One example of a leadership not understanding STEM’s practical use is the lack of solar in the West End. I have yet to see a community solar farm. I see more historic district designations on houses than I see solar panels or wind turbines. Finding low cost energy solutions by pooling more STEM talent into black owned firms is a start. Current legacy black-owned engineering firms should consider investing in new black-owned start-ups that are committed to serving distressed communities. No community should be without its own locally owned energy source and this is one approach toward developing one.

Black America’s one-prong approach to STEM needs an upgrade and new leadership.

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