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Monday, January 19, 2009

The Dream

Less than two week after I was born, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Watch the speech if you haven't seen it yet. I consider it the greatest American speech captured on film.

Today in America we celebrate King's legacy. But King himself gets overshadowed by the realization of part of his dream as Barack Obama becomes the new leader of our nation. No post tomorrow in our recognition of the historic importance of tomorrow's events.

But King's vision has not been fulfilled in academia. We see very few African-Americans particularly in computer science. Why? Blacks certainly still face many more obstacles to succeed in academia. Those that succeed perhaps feel they can do more good as political or business leaders.

I appreciate the efforts of those, like my co-blogger Bill Gasarch, who make the effort to visit historically black colleges to talk to and recruit students or take part in the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing. But we have a long way to go.

King's dreams don't truly get fulfilled until we no longer have these discussions, when African-Americans can and do follow their paths in all aspects of society. Obama's inauguration is a big step, but full equality still, unfortunately, remains a dream.

10 comments:

  1. Blacks certainly still face many more obstacles to succeed in academia.

    What do you perceive those obstacles to be?

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  2. What do you perceive those obstacles to be?

    How about a recent Princeton study showing that for low wage workers, a black man with no criminal record has about the same chances of being hired as an otherwise equally qualified white man with a criminal record?

    http://paa2005.princeton.edu/download.aspx?submissionId=50874

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  3. see "the wire", esp. season 4.

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  4. Avoiding contact with people can reduce racism.

    One could imagine people working for a company from home with no face-to-face meetings at all.

    The employee's race would never be known to the employer.

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  5. The obstacles are too numerous to list and they range from "small" things (like other people's preconceived notions), to medium things (like low expectations you may have of yourself), to larger things (like poor school districts, job discrimination, health care disparities, housing discrimination, etc...).

    It is sometimes difficult to see and understand many of these things (and their effect) unless maybe you've known people that have experienced it. So I echo the previous commenter's recommendation of the 4th season of "The Wire". Actually, I would recommend all seasons.

    Of course, the experiences portrayed do not reflect the experiences of all African Americans. But sadly they do represent those of a very large number.

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  6. How about a recent Princeton study...

    In the post, it seemed as if there was a suggestion that academia is an especially hard place for Blacks to succeed, in comparison with business and politics. I meant, what are the academia-specific obstacles which make it harder? Or was academia not meant to be emphasized?

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  7. The preconceived prejudices that some people have toward blacks are similar to the ones some have toward women; are similar to the ones some have toward "ugly" people; are similar to the ones some have toward short men; etc.

    So what's new? We can eradicate institutional discrimination with laws and policies--as indeed has been done for the most part in this nation--but prejudice in the human heart? How do we deal with that? Education doesn't always help, as we all know that highly educated people can be just as biased; their prejudice only takes on a different, more subtle form, but it's isomorphic to the "uneducated" type nonetheless.

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  8. I meant, what are the academia-specific obstacles which make it harder?

    I don't think there are any academia-specific obstacles that make it harder for minorities to succeed; as opposed to the case of women where I believe there are such academia-specific obstacles.

    What makes it difficult for minorities to succeed in academia is the same thing that makes it hard for them to succeed in other disciplines: those small, medium and large obstacles described in a previous post.

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  9. I meant, what are the academia-specific obstacles which make it harder?

    Lack of role models as result of past obstacles. This is a huge issue in CS for women and many times worse for African Americans. How many of us could name even half a dozen African American academics in CS? How many African Americans attended the last CS conference you did?

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  10. In the post, it seemed as if there was a suggestion that academia is an especially hard place for Blacks to succeed, in comparison with business and politics. I meant, what are the academia-specific obstacles which make it harder?

    The US is generally a very welcoming country for outsiders, something an immigrant like me can strongly attest to. However, a key obstacle for, say, African-Americans to succeed in academia -- as opposed to business and politics -- is the difference in standards in K-12 education. (For those unfamiliar with the US system: schools up to 12th grade get a substantial proportion of their funding from very local factors such as property taxes, making the playing-field a function of your parents' wealth, and thus very uneven.) I suppose most of us would agree that a child should not receive a lower-standard education just because her/his parents are poor. Of course, your K-12 education impacts your chances in academia more than it does in business or politics.

    I hope we have more of a national debate on this issue, on par with health-care.

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