I was invited today to the Georgia Capitol to address a number of technologists and members of the Georgia Congressional Black Caucus – the largest state legislative Black Caucus in the country.  The subject of my talk was: STEM Education and the Future of Atlanta: Who’s in and Who’s Out.

The basic premise was that in the city’s effort to secure the Amazon HQ2 bid, it is clear that we’re planning the future of the city around a particular type of person – a person with high end technical skills. Georgia Tech, for example, features prominently in the city’s value proposition.

Dear Amazon, we have an engine for a super talented, world class technical workforce, therefore, please come to Atlanta.

It appears from the argument that the future of the city is being planned around the archetype of a Georgia Tech student – a technically talented young White or Asian person who can live and work around the beltline, benefit from and contribute to the new gentrified persona of Atlanta life. Nowhere in the proposition is it clear what the city’s plan is to ensure that Black and Hispanic students have equal access to high end STEM education.

I made the argument to these legislators and technologists that the plan for the future of Atlanta does not obviously include the masses of Black students suffering in schools ill-equipped to prepare them for Amazon-level post-secondary education.  While America is turning brown, Atlanta is turning white. At the same time, high end STEM education seems to be partial to White and Asian people.

I pointed out to them that between 2000 and 2010 the Black population of Atlanta has decreased from 61 – 54 percent.  At the same time the city has seen the fastest growth in the proportion of White people of any major metropolitan city in the United States, from 31 to 38 percent. At the same time, the schools are stunningly and increasingly segregated and that segregation correlates with nearly every indicator of educational outcomes.

STEM education is clearly a proxy for the value of people in this new era of Amazon-Atlanta. If we’re not careful and intentional, Black people will not be part of the plan for the future of the city.

My presentation was very well received and seemed to crystalize for the group, an anxiety that hadn’t yet been clearly articulated.

Feeling energized and part of a larger battle, I was in the gallery outside the legislative chamber contemplating and politicking with folks about the future of Atlanta and the absolute requirement of Black excellence to ensure our ability to win and be present going forward.

Then I saw an enormous mural of a man on the wall. It was one of those august images of important men that line the walls of important buildings. I didn’t recognize him at first, I just saw his uniform.  I said to the sister talking to me, “who is that man in the gray suit? That was the other team’s uniform.”  She said, “That is Robert E Lee, the Captain of the Confederacy.”  Then she said:

“You’re in here battling for the future of Atlanta, while this institution is memorializing its past.”

While I’ve had the thought before, it hadn’t occurred to me today. The DNA of the institutions we’re dealing with are laden with a history that is antithetical to our future. Had Lee’s Confederates had their way, Black people would have remained of lesser value and their significance in the planning of the future of Atlanta would be irrelevant.

Robert E Lee was not from Georgia, he was from Virginia.  The capital of the Confederacy was not Atlanta, it was Richmond. His continued presence in the capitol is an intentional display of the instincts of the institution.

Our battle is not merely for STEM education. Sadly, it remains a battle to assert our basic value as citizens.

kamau