Are African Americans Afraid of Science?

Noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses lack of minority representation in his field

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(Image: Patrick Queen for Columbia Magazine)

Over the years, Neil deGrasse Tyson has become perhaps the most recognized scientist in the country. As the host of PBS’ NOVA scienceNOW, and a regular guest on such popular shows as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Colbert Report and Jeopardy! the astrophysicist continues to bring his own brand of scientific enlightenment to the masses.

BLACK ENTERPRISE recently spoke with the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City to discuss African Americans in the sciences.

Why is it important to have or pursue a career in the sciences and have that skill set and knowledge base?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: A couple of things: I don’t claim that I have a special solution to increasing minority representation among the sciences. I have a few ideas; but I’m not putting them forth as, “This is how it will solve the problem.”  Nor is it really a requirement of a society that everybody becomes a scientist. What should happen, which we should all embrace and value, is that as a minimum people are scientifically literate. So that as an electorate you can make informed decisions about issues that rise up, where your knowledge of science impacts how you might vote on one issue or another, or on important decisions related to the future of society, its economy, the environment.  All of these, at their core, involve scientific fluency. So, everyone should be scientifically literate.

Are we anywhere near being on track where we’ll see more African American representation in the sciences?

Tyson: No. So, let me offer you a perspective. When I graduated college, there were something like 130 black graduates in my graduating class. This is the Harvard class of 1980. Of those 130, there was an article about the graduating class in The New York Times, and it cited these 130. Two went on for advanced academic degrees. And I was one of those two. Here I was, graduating from one of the most storied institutions of the land, where if there’s any institution that you might expect to be feeding academia, it would be the population of graduates from there. And there were only two. The simplest way I can understand that is that the community at that time did not yet have the luxury of using that education for that purpose.

(Image: Dan Deitch for PBS/NOVA Origins)

And so, what that means is, if you’re the first to go to college or the first to go to a selective school where there’s a high expectation of opportunity, is the first thing you’re thinking of, “Oh, let me study science?” No, you’re going to sort of build capital. You’re going to choose a job where income is guaranteed and high. So, the legal, the finance, the business school, the law school, medical school.

As a parent or an educator, where’s the point where, if somebody has that interest, you can sort of nourish it and let it take hold and let it grow, so that when they go to college they have that perspective that you talked about?

Tyson: It’s all about access to opportunity. All I can do is be visible in my activities.  And there are a couple of other things that I do that are sort of semi-controversial within the community.  For example, I no longer do Black History Month talks. If that is a source of your thinking of me to invite me to give a talk, then clearly if the other 11 months I never even showed up in your thinking, then I’m not as visible as a scientist as perhaps I should be. So, it’s the pigeonholing of me as a black scientist versus an American scientist.  As an American scientist there’s access there that everyone has, that everyone sees, and that everyone can participate in. And I value that exposure greatly.

What would you say to a young person who has seen you on television looking to become the next Dr. Tyson?

Tyson: I have two answers: One is, there’s no one person that I wanted to become, growing up. In fact, I think the concept of role model is overrated. If I required a black person who became a scientist who grew up in the Bronx to have come before me, I would have never become what I am. Role models work if you want to work your way into well-represented professions, or professions in which the black community is highly represented. Astrophysics is not among them. If I wanted to be an astrophysicist I cobbled together, in parts, the role model that I then sought to be. So, I found someone who had total mastery of the physics, and I thought, “I want to be that.” I went to that person and said, “What did you do? What schools did you go to? How did you study?” I found a person who had a really great sense of humor folded into the work that they do.  I asked, “How do you stimulate that, and how do you promote that within your own mind?”

So, if you like what I do scientifically, then you call me up and I’ll tell you what I did scientifically. If there’s someone else who has other features that you prefer, you call them up, and you piece it together.  But in the end, maybe the thing you piece together doesn’t exist in anyone at all, and you have to create it out of whole cloth.  And in so doing, you become the first of a kind rather than the next of a kind that already exists.

  • Julie Andrews

    African Americans are obsessed with celebrity/image and sex hence if (career it is unlikely to lead to notoriety or sex then its relegated to the ‘lame’ category. Unfortunately sciences…

  • Patsy

    What is really going on is the fact that the majority of the mainstream teachers (since the first grade) under-rate the kids (by putting them in special classes, etc)or deprive them from the best books and computers (in the school libraries for instance)in inner cities. This is how most of us are out of science realms.

    • Orletta Caldwell

      My daughter is going into Civil Engineering. I did not allow the schools to place her in less than she was capable of doing even in an urban school. In addition, I placed her in Summer Science academies, etc. No school will fail your child if the parent won’t allow it.

  • Patsy

    I want also to add that the parents from the black community need to be more strict with their children in terms of education. The black community is the one who watch the most TV among all ethnic groups in the nation! This must stop. Parents need to build libraries for their kids with substantive books and read to their kids before they go to sleep for instance. The kids need to read one to two books per week based on their interest and the book has to be substantial. They should emulate the model of Dr. Ben Carson MD in his best-seller Think Big!

    • Daryle Lockhart

      You make good points. Respectfully, however, being strict is not working. Encouraging exploration is. Emulating a model from a book isn’t as effective as it used to be. When Science and Math are seen as priorities in adults’ lives, kids will follow. This is a lifestyle issue. Our lifestyle is too-consumer driven. Pre-packaged everything makes the mind lazy. Science is all about creativity. We need to encourage kids to take things apart. Learn how they work. Then change them. Hack. Re-purpose. We invented jazz and hip-hop by hacking. That’s science…and creative. Taking things apart and putting them back together in a new way. We have to encourage this more and stop training our kids to be consumers. Kids should be developing not just iPad APPS, but a better tablet computer altogether. Apple Computer and NASA should be scouting and recruiting our kids the way the NBA and NFL does. That only happens when the culture shifts.

  • Patsy

    To finish, it is important for parents to use positive reinforcement with their kids. When they have good grades, it is important to celebrate it by buying them their favorite CD for instance. This will encourage them to do even better with their grades in the future. For those who have money, paying private courses can be helpful for those who have special needs in math or in other realms for instance.

    • journeying Biologist

      My family was a strict and conservative Asian unit. Science wasn’t appreciated within my household and religion and traditions was favoured over education. Yet my passion and interest for science, the universe and the biological workings of life made me break free from that shackle.

      You can try educating the parents and/or children as much as you want, however it truly lies down into the hearts and minds of the children involved. If they want to open their eyes and truly pursue sciences then they should, you cannot force or change human nature to adapt and bend to a beneficial but hard and demanding subject.

      There is only so far education can go, it is only natural some people maybe inclinded to other ways of life, be it they are black or white. Without such diverse options in life other professions would cease to exist, such as artistic occupations to manual labour.

      We are only loooking at the American demographs of academics of black background where the black population is much smaller than that compared to the white population. I am positively sure there are many influential and intelligent black scientists out there in the world. Many scientists aren’t recognised for their work and rightly so, they do not seek to look for glory or fame. This is the beauty of science, the advancement of human prosperity no matter the endeavour.

  • Alex

    I agree with everthing. I have a 5yr old on her way to kindegarten. I called the school to find out what I needed to proivide to enroll her. The woman on the phone said I could bring in her medicaid card (gov. assistance) as well as child support papers to provide proof of address. My child has both parents in the home and has private insurance. This is the kind of school system I am dealing with. Immediatley after the call I made a point to begin home schooling my children because I can’t depend on my tax dollars to get the job done without automatically labeling my child just from a phone call. To get in a desent school I have to put her in a lottery and hope for the best. This is the kind of school system I am dealing with. The class sizes are 40 to 1. I can’t move and can’t afford private school so I have no choice but fill in the missing academic pieces. But why?!. There was just a time where the only thing missing from school was african american history or true history for that matter.

    • John

      You have to change the culture. Black people, as a whole, are not interested in the sciences. They simply aren’t. Tyson got into astrophysics because, as he’s stated before, he was enamored by the universe. Kids learn a lot from their parents. I’d venture to say less than one percent of black parents enrich themselves with scientific knowledge, or instill that in their children. You can blame the schools all you want or economic conditions all day. It’s not the schools. Many great scientists came from extremely frugal backgrounds. It’s the parents, and the values they portrait. Black people need to step up.

      • Michael

        Black people have stepped up more than caucasions ever have, (btw its portray not portrait moron, caucasions have never been forward thinking only Africans have been progressive All throughout history, green movement, human rights across the globe “we are the world” Black people hello before any bleeding heart caucasion, so don’t give us that boy go Black kids don’t shoot up schools, they invent, caucasions have tried to hold Black kids but they aren’t falling for it.

        • Galactus

          CAUCASIANS HAVE NEVER BEEN FORWARD THINKING!?!?!??! DO you LIVE ON THE SAME PLANET AS ME?!???????????? Caucasians are the ONLY REASON WHY we have ANYTHING BEYOND a level 0 CIVILIZATION! Jesus christ. If it wasn’t for Caucasians the most advanced race would be the Japanese living in Seclusion playing around with Katanas still. HOLY moly, LEARN something before you spout your ridiculously ignorant black worshiping NONSENSE all over the world. It is Embarrassing.

          • Journeying Biologist

            You both are wrong. Humans of all backgrounds have contributed towards the creation of civilisation. Be it black or white, technological and scientific advances have been made by all races of the Earth. Why can’t we just appreciate these advances under the name of human progression, not black or white progression.

  • Aggie EE

    While I understand the perspectives brought by Mr. Tyson, I must respectively disagree a few points. Discounting the importance of role models in the development of “successful” professionals is quite a disservice to parents of children who are scientifically inclined and are wondering what to do next. There are countless other black scientists, engineers, programmers, etc, who will speak otherwise. Ask NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who will tell you he stood on the shoulders of Ron McNair. Ask Mae Jamison, who took a photo of Bessie Coleman, when she flew into space. And I looked upon the works Lewis Latimer when choosing Electrical Engineering as my field of study, and Herbie Hancock (BSEE) as proof that engineers can make great music as well. I contend that role models are needed even more to encourage our youth in science and technology.
    I also don’t quite understand a refusal to speak at a Black History Month event. While I understand the point the other 11 months of the year are just as ripe for showcasing a black scientist of Mr Tyson’s stature, a refusal just on that grounds removes an opportunity for that one black kid that only pays attention during that month to say wow, “I can be a scientist too”. Why not accept the invitation on the grounds of being allowed to speak in January and February as well. I don’t know of too many schools or programs that are interesting in developing scientists that would not happily accept those conditions for having a esteemed scientist speak.

    Maybe Mr Tyson doesn’t understand that even today black children are told, “there are no black ——” and are inspired by someone who looks like them achieve at a high level. While he may not have needed role models, I can think of many scientists of all shades who did. Ask Isaac Newton, who considered Plato and Aristotle his friends and wrote “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” With a slight change in perspective, Mr Tyson could be giant for a young black child to see further.

  • Michael

    john go away your kind isn’t welcome here go back to stormfront child anyways ITS THE SCHOOL SYSTEM NOT THE PARENTS THE PARENTS PUT THE KIDS IN SCHOOL “THAT IS IT” THEY ARE IN CHARGE OF KIDS IN WHEN THEY ARE IN SCHOOL, caucasions are responsible for this to they are the ones that try to keep black kids down.

  • Journeying Biologist

    Why is there such a racial divide when talking about sciences and technological advancement? Shouldn’t we be striving forth into new and unknown corners of this beautiful universe we are lucky enough to inhabit as human beings and not as “white” or “black”. We are damn lucky to be even alive, crudely speaking another sperm cell out of the millions during conception could’ve fertilised the egg and made a whole other human being, just be happy who you are and make yourself your own person. Like Neil said role models are overrated, find your own purpose in life and follow it, be it scientific, artistic, humanistic, whatever it is do it. You are human after all, white or black we still feel the same emotions and we all still bleed red.

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