Tandy Caraway was an early adopter when it came to tech. Upon entering college at the University of Texas at Dallas in the ’90s, she found herself immersed in the newly booming world of computer science, which became her major. But she never finished her degree, and she didn’t end up working for a major tech company.
Instead, she became an educator, founding CollegeMode Academy, an organization that helps families obtain funding for college through financial aid and scholarships. She’s not part of the tech world at all, except when it comes to supporting students with an interest in the field.
Caraway’s interest in gadgets isn’t isolated among Black Americans. Neither is the fact that it didn’t translate to a career. In fact, a 2019 Nielsen study found that:
African Americans are more devoted to tech as consumers than any other demographic.
The numbers are stark, as 61 percent of Black adults say they’re “fascinated by new technology” — 10 percent more than the proportion of White people who agree. They’re also 44 percent more likely than White peers to say they’re the first person in their social group to get new gadgets, and similarly far more likely to say they have a lot of tech toys.
A lot of that has to do with age. African Americans are the second-youngest racial group in the U.S.: Twenty-eight percent are under 18 and more than half are under 35, and thus have lived their entire lives in the digital age. They also use apps and social networking far more on average than the general population. But that interest isn’t translating into an increase in tech jobs and degrees: While about 13 percent of the U.S. population is African American, only 9 percent of computer science degrees are going to Black students.
“We were excited to do STEM and tech stuff, but we weren’t those kinds of nerds,” Caraway says. “The people who were giving me these internships and stuff, for me, lived on the other side of the tracks. Some of the things that I needed to talk about that were intersecting with my STEM world, they weren’t able to talk to me about that.”
Caraway’s response was not only consistent among African Americans but all students of color. According to federal data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Black and Latinx students left their major at far higher rates than White ones — about 37 percent of Latinx students and 40 percent of Black students switched majors versus 29 percent of the White students. The study also found that 26 percent of Black STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors left their institutions without earning a degree, double the percentage of White students who did so. And some colleges are shouldering the load far more than others: While historically Black colleges comprise just 3 percent of U.S. institutions, they graduate 27 percent of the country’s Black STEM majors.
In her capacity as director of communications at DiscoverE, an organization founded to spark student interest in engineering, Thea Sahr conducted research on how to help turn interest in tech into a life path. “What we’ve found is [that] what you need to persist in the field, and this is especially true for people of color, is a strong support network,” she says. “Having the support of their family, their friends, their peers and their role models is particularly important.” To solve this problem, Black students need education, support and mentors to show them they can do it, as well as how vast the STEM world actually is. A lack of mentorship was one reason Caraway drifted away from computing.
“I was so ill-advised about what computer science was,” she says. “I didn’t know computer info systems was different from computer science, and I thought IT wasn’t computer enough.” A 2019 study by the National Academies of Sciences found that mentorship is a key factor in expanding diversity in STEM fields.
Black students who have the talent and interest to do well in STEM fields are less likely to have the advice and tools to pick the right programs and follow them through. Recent diversity reports from Twitter, Google and Facebook found that fewer than 5 percent of the companies’ tech workers identify as Black.
Michael Ellison, founder and CEO of education nonprofit CodePath, says very few Black students know anything about careers in software engineering. “All they see are these math and these algorithm courses that they don’t like because they’re designed to filter students out, not choose them in,” he explains. “So that connection to your iPhone that you may have as a Black consumer does not translate to the type of courses that are taking you into school.”