Karly’s experiences illustrate how the nexus of low expectations, as well as college preparation and course programming hurdles can combine to derail the most motivated science students. She describes battling with her school counselor to be programmed into the elite AP Biology and Physics courses that have become virtual gatekeepers for future college science majors. She remarks that “some counselors believe that you might not succeed. They say maybe it might be a little too hard for you.” In many instances parental intervention is mandatory for black science students at every step of the way. Although conventional wisdom holds that class status and income dictate interest and academic success in science, Hanson concluded that social capital by way of family support and investment in the community were the most compelling factors. Girls whose parents (regardless of income levels, education and family composition) were supportive and engaged in their educations were more likely to pursue science. In addition, girls who had higher levels of community involvement, volunteerism and participation in religious activities were also more likely to pursue a science major and have high achievement in science.
Some area schools are not receptive and fail to see the potential in their students [the program’s founder said]. ‘I get responses like, ‘You know, the type of students you’re looking for, we just don’t have…That is just not right.’ Chuck Uzoegwu, 19, participated in the program in 2010 and is now studying business and is pre-med at USC. He first noticed a slow attrition of fellow African American classmates when attending King Drew Medical Magnet High School. In the summer program, he was one of only a few African American students. He returned to the hospital this summer to volunteer in the lab and said he has yet to meet a role model there who looks like him. ‘It disturbs me. It’s nice to come into a place and see other people that are like you,’ he said. ‘It definitely feels like the higher up you go in education, the higher up you go in any organization, the less African American males you see.
Uzoegwu’s experiences reflect the hard reality of many high schools where the number of African American students who are encouraged to pursue science is criminally low. At the elite level of enrollment in Physics and Advanced Placement (AP) science courses the numbers thin out even more. Nationwide, African American students are underrepresented in AP course enrollment and exam taking. At 14% of the U.S. student population they comprise only 3% of those enrolled in AP courses or taking AP exams. Native American students are also underrepresented. With the exception of a few states like Hawaii and South Dakota, there has been greater success in closing the AP gap for Latino students than Black or Native American students. In addition, some schools don’t even have AP courses, placing students who want to go to college at a significant disadvantage. According to the Harvard Education Press, “students who took AP math or science exams were more likely than non-AP students to earn degrees in particular physical science, engineering and life science disciplines.” Jacqueline Hernandez, a Watts resident enrolled in the Children’s Hospital internship program, decries the lack of AP classes at her school. Hernandez once feared her college dreams would be derailed by teenage pregnancy like those of her three sisters. In 1999 students from the Inglewood Unified School District in Los Angeles successfully sued to get more AP courses at their schools. The suit charged that Black and Latino students were systematically denied access to college preparation courses that were standard fare at white schools in Los Angeles County.
Conservatives who disdain “liberal multiculturalism” in higher education dismiss such concerns about diversity in hiring as handwringing. According to this view there is only one standard academia should use; objective and unbiased, untainted by affirmative action. Yet white students are beneficiaries of cradle to grave affirmative action. White students grow up seeing the dominant image of rational, trailblazing scientific discovery (from films like Dr. Strangelove to 2001: A Space Odyssey to Close Encounters to The Right Stuff, etc.) as spearheaded by courageous rugged individualist white males. They are socialized to believe in a template of “purely” meritocratic success and individual achievement. Meritocracy becomes gospel and lucre. They can take it to the bank and use it to repel the less qualified savages. Racial or gender others who make it into science’s inner sanctum are either interlopers scrounging for handouts or shining exceptions bootstrapping up from the inner city wilds. At the insular level of college Physics and Engineering white male dominance is perpetuated by “boy’s club” peer groups, networks, faculty and administrative support systems that facilitate access for the racial majority. While she was at UCLA Devin Waller was the only African American woman in the Astrophysics department. On the first day of her upper division classes she recalls being asked by male students befuddled by her presence whether or not they “were in the right class.” Since peer networking and study groups in some science departments are largely white and male, white academic success and scholarly legitimacy in science become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For black women in white male dominated professions, showing vulnerability and having any kind of public failure are simply not options. Like many women of color Devin’s approach was that “You kind of go in there and set a precedent. Everything you do is watched. You have to establish yourself as intelligent. There were no black women in my classes. No one who looked like me.”
Sikivu Hutchinson, “Beyond Starship Enterprise: Racism, Sexism, And The Sceince Pipeline,” Feminist Wire 8/15/12