Blacks in the hard sciences: Any basis for this?

Mods: Apologies in advance if this is the wrong forum.

My dad has a post-retirement job teaching at a local college. Now, I should say upfront that he’s in his seventies, so although he’s not prejudiced against any group, he does have a tendency to talk and think in terms of “they”, and to make generalizations. Anyway, he mentioned that a colleague of his has a Physics 20-something course in which almost all the students are African-American. “And it’s not a black college, either,” my dad hastened to point out.

He went on to say that there are always more blacks in the hard sciences than any other major, “except P.E.,” for two reasons. The first reason being that pre-med requires a lot of science, and “they’ve” been conditioned to think that being a doctor is the be-all, end-all. The second is that “that’s just how their minds work. They like things to be cut-and-dried, and they’re a lot better at math than they get credit for.”

So I was wondering, is there any basis for this; any cites to back it up?

According to this webpage:

African-Americans earn the bulk of their bachelor degrees in the social sciences and psychology.

I did some Googling on appropriate terms, and that was the only relevant statistics I could find offhand.

Are there any black Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, or medicine?
(There surely must be, but I can’t think of any right now… Mandela won for peace).

The number of black Nobel laureates in science subjects is wandering pretty far from Rilchiam’s question. This is going to turn into a Great Debate really quickly unless we are very careful to answer her question and nothing else. What she (um, Rilchiam, you are a “she,” right?) is asking is what proportion of the bachelor degrees awarded to African-Americans are in science subjects. Her father has claimed that science subjects are the largest category (except maybe for physical education). The only citation I can find (and I admit it’s not a very good one) says that the bulk of bachelor’s degrees awarded to African-Americans are in social sciences and psychology.

I work in academia. I don’t know where your dad teaches, but my initial reaction is that it must be on some other planet.

In my own fields of Ecology and Ornithology, there are vanishingly few blacks. (In fact, offhand I can’t think of any in the U.S., although I’m sure there are a few.) It is my impression that this is true throughout the “hard” sciences, to the extent that it is a major problem for those trying to satisfy affirmative action/diversity goals.

Because of social and economic background, I think that most blacks with scientific interests tend to gravitate to the social sciences. These considerations might also lead them to enter medicine.

It may in fact be true that at some local colleges at the undergraduate level, because of regional demography, there could be a preponderance of black pre-meds who might dominate some prerequisite classes in the hard sciences. But it is extremely inlikely that this constitutes a general situation.

Your dad’s first generalization may have a small element of truth to it, in that blacks in some places may make up a disproportionate percentage of pre-meds and for that reason dominate some prerequisite classes. However, his second generalization is complete nonsense.

I’m sorry, can’t find any statisics for this either just now, but if memory serves blacks are among the historically underrepresented minorities in the physical sciences. That’s why scholarships and outreach activities exist to encourage their participation in science, e.g.,

Anectdotally… the EEO office of my university sometimes gave the institute I worked for a hard time for not having a more diverse postdoc population. The frustrated attitude of folks at the institute was… we can’t hire minorities as postdocs in the same proportion as the general population if there aren’t sufficient minority PhDs to be hired. Also, in the years that I’ve attended professional meetings (in Earth sciences), I’d say that very few participants have been black, and most of these are African (not African-American).

Yes, it’s considered a problem that there are two few african-american college students in the science fields.

The most comprehensive data I can find is from the Patterson Institute’s Databook. Sorry that this is 10 years old, but in 1993-94 the most popular major field (as measured by bachelor’s degrees awarded) among AA students was business (21%).

I don’t know how to define “hard sciences”, but here’s a breakdown of the science fields they did list (I’ll put the professional field of Engineering in there, and health professions):

Health Professions: 6.4%
Engineering: 6.7%
Bio & Life Sciences 4.4%
Computer /Info Sciences: 2.1%

So even if you add all these up, they still are less than business (although close).

I will point out that there was a large “Other” category accounting for 20% of degrees and I don’t know what that might have included. Perhaps some sciences like Physics, which I don’t think fit in any of the above categories. I don’t have time to dig through IPEDS data to figure it out. I think this data is available at the U.S. Dept of Education website, though.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, it seems like lower-income people of any race, (not just blacks) often don’t think very highly of the hard sciences. It seems like most scientists come from middle-class or professional-class backgrounds, with comparitively few from working-class backgrounds and very very few from poor backgrounds.

Here’s a little more data: The US Census Bureau has a report entitled What’s it Worth? Field of Training and Economic Status: 1996. From that document, look at TABLE 3D. BACHELOR’S DEGREE FIELD OF ADVANCED DEGREE RECIPIENTS BY SEX, RACE AND ETHNICITY, AND AGE, 1996 These data are for all degree-holders of any age, so it’s not tageted at current graduates, but nonetheless here’s a subset of the data, showing percentages of degrees awarded by ethnicity:

          Blacks  Whites
Business   25.4%   22.2%
Education  15.3%   14.4%
Lib Arts    7.1%    6.3%
Soc Sci     7.0%    4.9%
Health Sci  5.7%    5.7%
Psych       4.3%    3.2%
Nat Sci     3.9%    5.1%
Engineer    3.1%    7.9%

zut, your titles and link are confusing. The title of the table you cite claims that this tells what people with GRADUATE degrees majored in as UNDERGRADS. Whis is going to skew it a bit, as some fields are more likely to have baccalaureates going on to get more education. However, when I actually look at the table you’ve linked to (which is in fact Table 3C, not 3D), it includes only adults that have the bachelor degree as their highest degree–which eliminates anyone who has gone on an earned a Masters or higher.

But you accurately describe data that includes all degree holders as being what we need–which is right. I’m just wanting to make sure that’s what you’ve put into your table, as opposed to the title and the link.

Actually, I’ve been in or associated with several science and engineering departments over the years, and my experience is precisely the opposite. There have been very few blacks in physics. In one of my departments, there was only one black in the entire graduate class, and nobody ever seemed to see him.

Bah! My sloppiness. The data above come solely from table 3C, which reports only people with highest degree = bachelor’s, and I wasn’t clever enough to parse the titles correctly to notice that 3C and 3D are different populations. As a penace, let me calculate percentages of graduates in different fields, using all degree holders (tables 3C + 3D), again remembering that these are people of all ages (not just recent graduates):

            Black       White
Total no.  2,640,000  35,509,000
Business    22.1%       18.3%
Education   18.7%       15.5%
Lib Arts    6.7%         6.8%
Soc Sci     7.5%         5.5%
Health Sci  5.0%         5.2%
Psych       5.2%         3.8%
Nat Sci     3.8%         6.3%
Engin       3.4%         7.9%

This table represents only some of the listed majors. If you want to see all the data, go here and choose Tables 3C and 3D. In addition, you can choose any one of a number of different tables cross-comparing professions, wages, and degrees by age, sex, and ethnicity.

In Computer Science, I have seen very few blacks, even in regions with a lot of qualified people to draw from.

I recently taught for several years at a historically black women’s college. At the time over 50% of the students were Sci/Math/PreEng majors. Greatly outnumbered the dance/lit. types. But I think that was sort of unusual. Very few of the CS majors went on to grad school. Jobs with $$$ lured them.

Note that women outnumber men in undergraduate college today, including many sciences (but not CS). Even greater ratio for black female vs. black male.

I don’t dispute that the view in the OP is correct for some places, but probably not in general.

Fun fact: At the time I started at the HBCU, there were 2 black female PhD candidates in CS in the US. I was sharing an office with 50% of them.

We should specify here that this discussion is about black Americans. If you go to a college or University in a country that is predominantly black, you will find black students in every discipline. This may sound like an obvious statement, but it’s important to remember that it’s harder to categorize or generalize about a “group” when it is the mainstream.

When I was in grad school for urban planning, there were very few blacks in the architecture program. On the urban planning side, ALL of the black students specialized in community development (i.e. housing, slum redevelopment, free paint programs, job programs, etc); there were none in urban design, economic development, GIS or land use.

Hey, I said he’s old. Maybe he just notices the blacks more. Or maybe it’s the pre-med thing.

Thanks for the info, anyway!

Interestingly enough, I ran across this a while ago on the internet. When I saw your post, Colibri, I looked for it again:

**>From John Robinson:

“The Black Birder: An Endangered Species on the Brink of Recovery” will
examine the fact that relatively few African-American bird watchers exist in
North America. I will also offer inspiration and encouragement to all
minorities to become more active in birdwatching and the study of nature.
The book will feature three prominent African-American bird watchers in
addition to myself, and it will explain how each of us got started studying
birds. I believe the book will be a real role model for black youth and
young adults who also want to study nature.

The reason why I am writing to you is that in order to complete my book I
need to conduct some basic research that gets at the heart of the problem
that I am investigating. To that end, I have developed a questionnaire that
can be completed by any bird watcher. The American Birding
Association has been gracious enough to post a pdf copy of the questionnaire
on their web site–> see

Sorry if I came across as bit critical. I’m just curious about where he does teach in order to have come by such a perspective. Is the college in an urban area, the South, or in some other place where there are more blacks in general than in most of the country? A Physics class that’s “almost all” black would strike me as being extremely unusual unless the area was heavily black in the first place.

In my physics undergraduate year at university, the only black person I can remebr was my lab partner. However the home counties don’t have particularly large black population and I in my experince black’s weren’t hugely over or underepresented in the area of science.

It’s an urban area. As I said, it’s not a black school, but the community is not predominantly white.