Black people in science and innovation

It’s been a few times already that I heard the argument that “black people made no contribution to computer science“.  I’ve also heard a few alternative versions, which were less or more specific, varying from “African blacks” and “no innovations“, to “black women” and “no contribution to science“.

Depending on the overall direction of the discussion, variation of the argument, and sensibility of the opponent, it can be very easy or rather impossible to reason. For example, an argument like “there is not one black programmer in the world” is pretty trivial to destroy.  There are at least a few respectable Perl Monks of the black race.  Over the last few years, I personally have been in contact (IM, email, phone) with a few black programmers and system administrators.  On the other hand, a request for a name or a biography of a black computer scientist might be much harder.  I am not very good with names and biographies, and I don’t know many scientist by name at all.  Picking representatives of a certain race using my own memory is close to impossible.

So, I asked The Mighty Google for a few names and biographies, and it replied.  Here are a few links that I picked from the results:

I have to admit that I was a little bit surprised by the low number of results.  Finding the above weren’t very easy.  Also, many links were very outdated.  Sometimes I’d come across a quote that slowed me down before I could “sink it in”.  Here are a couple of such examples:

one quarter of one percent (.25%) of computer scientists are black

from the “Computer Scientists of the African Diaspora” page, which seems to be from the 1990s.

Throughout the United States, there are only 32 African-American computer science (CS) professors.

from the “A Model for Department Diversity” article, which was posted in 2004.

I think that the above references are enough to convince any sane person that both science and innovation have benefited from black people.  Whether the benefits were to the same degree as those of the other races is a totally different question.  I am not going to debate it now, but perhaps I will come back to it later.

(NOTE TO MYSELF for when and if I do: consider that most computer science innovation is happening in the USA [obviuos, but citation needed], and that black people make only about 12% of the USA population [Wikipedia]. )

11 thoughts on “Black people in science and innovation”


  1. I just had to comment as the title grabbed me. Or rather, astounded me. And, note, I am only going to dignify this “article” with a response due to the fact that I am a champion procrastinator and cant be bothered to do any work today.
    First – the title. Black people in science and innovation. Somehow, it immediatelly reeks of racist insinuations in trying to find correlation between black and innovation somehow doubting their inherent capacity to grasp research and science. I mean, isn’t this sort of a mentality a bit outdated? And the topic itself a bit baseless??
    Then we’ve got some spurious stats from questionable web sources from … the 90s?
    And then, an astonishment at the low number of results on this (pointless and rasist) matter on the web???? ‘probably because they have been “outlawed’??? Uh, no kidding!
    If african americans compose only 12% of the US population, then .25% of black computer scientists doesn’t seem all that bad! Especially considering that about 11.5% of that 12% dont get access to any kind of white collar trade, living below poverty line with no social, educational and medical support structure.
    Im curious to know what you do for a job, Lenj. I mean a day job. Coz philosophizing on this subject suggests too much time on your hands and not much life.


  2. Zhenjka,

    to address your concerns:

    1. The subject is racial indeed.

    2. I do understand that black people were treated differently in the USA and many other countries. They still are. And I do understand that these differences held enough reason for lower numbers of black people education and sciences.

    3. Questionable stats and outdated sources – that was exactly my point. I was trying to find recent numbers, but somehow I failed. If you know of any sources that have them, please let me know.

    4. Important: I don’t suggest or support the idea of domination of one race over the other. And I am trying to find some stats and hard numbers for my side of the argument. Just to add to the mix, if you know what I mean.

    5. I do system administration and web development for my paycheck. I don’t have much free time, unless you count procrastination in. And if you do, you’ll soon realize that it’s not you, but me is the champion of procrastination. :)


  3. Lenia,

    With all due respect I think that this post’s title does not fit your overall profile.
    I don’t mean the contents of the post but the very title of it.
    It reads for me the same as “Jews in industry” or “Yellow people in medicine”.

    BTW: The following was written 20 years ago:
    =============================
    There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
    The light bulb’s gettin’ dim
    There’s meltdown in the sky

    If you can judge a wise man
    By the color of his skin
    Then mister you’re a better man that I
    ============================
    @Aerosmith


  4. Lana,

    Thanks for your input, but I still don’t see where the offensive bit is. Neither in my title, nor in your examples. “Black people”, “jews”, and “yellow people” do exist. And they all can be happily mixed with “science and innovation”, “industry”, and “medicine”. Or so I think.

    Do “women in IT”, “kids in fashion”, “lesbians and the law” sound as offensive to you? Not that I want to offend anyone or anything…


  5. As a second thought, let me try to put one of my demographical groups into these examples.

    “caucasian in rap music”, “man in the kitchen”, “married with kids”, “third world immigrant in Europe” … hmm … I am not even remotely offended by any of these.

    Can someone be? I’m sure they can. There are people out there who get offended by all sorts of things. Should I worry about it a lot and go as far as change the title or the content of the post? Nope. If you are offended by the above, I’m sorry. I’m not sorry for what I have written, but for you that you feel that way…

    Oh, and if you got offended, you probably missed the whole point of the post too.

    P.S.: I’m using “you” here mostly not as in “you, Lana”, but as in “you, my dear visitor”. Just thought I should make it clearer. :)


  6. Lenia,

    Of course I understand that “you” means “us” i.e. the visitors of your blog.

    The thing is that , say, some groups of people are prone to be/ feel offended more easily than the others. (We wouldn’t go in details whether it is due to their ethnic origin, history, customs and social habits etc. )
    I just know that by some reasons black people and Jews are not so happy to be referred to as such. The same applies to gays.

    And it will take many more years to come till their, maybe, unreasonable and unjustified sensitivity shall be overcome and comforted.

    I don’t think that black people are keen to learn the above-mentioned statistics and that was a reason I thought that the blog’s title might offend some readers.

    But I might be mistaken as well…


  7. Lenia,

    Since the above comment has been posted successfully, I’ll try to repeat what I was going to say before in response to your latest comments.

    Of course I understand that “you” means “us” i.e. the visitors of your blog.

    The thing is that some groups of people are prone to be/ feel offended more easily than the others. (We wouldn’t discuss here the reasons whether they are of ethnic origin, cultural and social habits and beliefs or history or whatever.)

    For e.g., black people and Jews are not always happy to be referred to as such. The same applies to gays. And there are many more years to come till their sensitivity is overcome and comforted.

    I don’t think that the black people are keen to learn the above statistics in their racial axis, this is why I thought that the post’s title might be offensive to them.

    But I might be mistaken as well…


  8. Dunno…
    I’ve posted it again but no way to see it on screen.
    I’ll send it to you by e-mail.
    Funny thing is that the other comments came through :)

    (I wrote VERY decent things)


  9. Lana,

    I found your comments (all copies of them). For some reason they were marked as SPAM by the Akismet plugin. It happends rarely, but it does. My apologies. I have removed extra copies.

    As to your point of:

    I don’t think that black people are keen to learn the above-mentioned statistics and that was a reason I thought that the blog’s title might offend some readers.

    I see these stats more than a reason for action, rather than an attempt to annoy and offend. Whatever…

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