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John Brooks Slaughter: ‘An Inability to Be an Active Participant… Is Tantamount to 21st Century Apartheid’

[I recently asked these four questions. Below is one reply, from John Brooks Slaughter. Please join the conversation either by tweeting @Digital_Du_Bois or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this or any other post on]

Dr. Du Bois would be astonished by the rapid growth and evolution of the information and communication technologies. He would derive satisfaction from the knowledge that black scientists and engineers like Mark Dean, holder of three of the nine original patents for the IBM PC, and Juan Gilbert, chair of Human-Centered Computing at Clemson University, are internationally recognized leaders in their fields. But he would be dismayed by the relative paucity of producers of technology and the persistent under-representation of students and practitioners in science and technology from the African American community.

W.E.B. Du Bois would view the continuing socio-economic divide that afflicts millions of people of color in America as a potentially insurmountable barrier to technological equality. The problems of limited access to state-of-the-art technology coupled with inadequate levels of skills development plagues many poor and minority communities and relegates them to a future of falling further and further behind. An inability to be an active participant in a global society in which commerce, education, employment, political engagement, and social interaction increasingly demands a level of proficiency in adapting to and using modern information and communication technologies is tantamount to 21st Century apartheid. 

He would recognize that the uneven distribution of wealth in this country has a severely negative impact upon the preparedness of the poor and many minority students for college and for their retention to graduation. They are far more likely to come from less well-educated families, to attend the worst schools, to be taught by the least capable teachers and to suffer from the low expectations imposed upon them by society. Fewer than half of them will graduate from high school and those who do go on to college are far more likely to enroll in a two-year school than a four-year one.

Du Bois would be greatly disappointed to realize that there is an absence of a nationwide dialogue among African American communities on raising awareness and developing strategies to reverse the trend leading to a bigger and deeper digital divide. He would engage himself in efforts to counter the indifference and reluctance of could-be leaders, the “talented tenth”, in the African American communities in order to mobilize them to assist those communities in gaining access to information and communications assets, training in their use, and resources for entrepreneurship in the production of relevant and marketable content and artifacts. 

He would encourage these communities to take full advantage of the current national commitment to STEM education (which will not last forever as we learned from the post-Sputnik experience) and guide K-12 students toward more math and science courses in order to prepare them for college educations and possible careers in science or engineering. 

This latter effort will help to serve as an antidote to the reality that only four percent of African American high school graduates have taken sufficient numbers and levels of math and science to pursue one of the STEM disciplines when they reach college.

– John Brooks Slaughter, Ph.D., P.E.

John Brooks Slaughter was the Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Chancellor of the University of Maryland, and the President of Occidental College. He is a Professor of Education at Rossier School of Education and Professor of Engineering at Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California.

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