Atlanta just elected its 60th mayor. She’s Black and she won because there are more Black people in Atlanta than there are White people. According to 538, Atlanta is the second most segregated city in the United States. Segregation means that the residents of the city do not live together – they do not experience the process and phases of life together. They do not socialize together, they do not go to school together, they do not experience gentrification or poverty together. They do not experience joy and pain as a city together. That basic segregation that defines life in Atlanta was reflected in the voting pattern.
Black people voted black. White people voted white.
I am involved in an ambitious effort at Georgia Tech leading a center to democratize computing. The objective of the center is to develop means for all students to gain access to high level computing education. The goal isn’t to simply get more Black and Hispanic students into Georgia Tech, it is to get more students access to the kind of education that would make them interested and eligible for elite American higher education. It is not a trivial task. In a city where 53 percent of the residents are Black and 77 percent of the students in Atlanta Public Schools are Black, only 7 percent of the undergraduates in Computer Science at Georgia Tech are. You see the magnitude of the problem.
Black and Hispanic students have limited access to rigorous computing education. No surprise. They have limited access to rigorous schools. With the President of United States unleashing the venom of the country’s racist roots, they even have limited access to feeling valued and embraced in the country in which they live.
What does it mean to get rigorous computing education to Black and Hispanic students in this context? I can belabor the details of curricular development and human-technical hybrid instruction and teacher professional development and culturally responsive pedagogy and hour of code, ad naseam. While I recognize them and am committed to them as necessary tools, the question remains – are they up to the task at hand? The battle we’re fighting is education, but the rules are set by segregation. They are set by the reality that valuable public goods, whatever they are, value itself, is deployed to White people first and to Black and Hispanic people later. It is a reflection of the national value system.
In America, race is correlated with everything. Those that argue that class matters are right. But race came first.
The primary challenge to democratizing computing, to democratizing any subject, is segregation. Despite all the efforts, rhetoric and reformation, segregation is the constant variable. The question facing me and others in this effort is, how to deploy a subject equitably in a system that is inherently, explicitly and stubbornly segregated. Black and Hispanic students are simply not educated in the same way or in the same buildings that White and Asian students are. Even when they are in the same schools, they are not in the same classes – especially advanced STEM classes.
In the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education, the primary conclusion was that…
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The effect is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.” …
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
The utopic American dream where basic citizenry and human value are decoupled from race remains elusive. If we are honest and treat segregation as a constant for the moment, it clarifies the major barrier we’re facing. Contrary to what the segregated system implies, we have to believe that Black and Hispanic students are valuable. It is a conscious battle to embed a belief system that Black and Hispanic intellect and curiosity are robust and up to the task of computing, or mathematics, or literature, or any rigorous academic endeavors. That is the core challenge.
The tools are only as good as the belief system in which they sit. Keisha Lance-Bottoms is the Mayor. Black people voted for her and White people didn’t.