While pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology at Stanford University in the late 1990s and early aughts, Maya A. Beasley, who is bi-racial, was struck by how few African-Americans she saw participating in Silicon Valley's dot-com boom. So she decided to conduct research into why highly-educated African-Americans seemed to be avoiding potentially lucrative fields like financial management, technology and engineering in favor of social work, education and government administration.
That research turned into her new book, Opting Out: Losing the Potential of America's Young Black Elite. Based on 60 in-depth interviews with black and white college students at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, the book explores how self-selected segregation, the desire to give back to the black community, and the relative newness of a sizable black middle class have inhibited the career choices of African-Americans.
FINS chatted with Beasley, now an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at the University of Connecticut, about why African-Americans are reluctant to join fields where they are under-represented and how that might change.
Joseph Walker: Your inspiration for the book came from your time as a graduate student at Stanford University during the dot-com boom. How did that happen?
Maya Beasley: Palo Alto is right in the heart of Silicon Valley. As graduate students with little money and expensive tastes, we'd go out on the weekend and be at restaurants with people who were clearly dot-com-ers. I noticed that nearly none of them were black. There were a fair amount of Asians and South Asians and a lot of white people, but there really weren't any African-Americans. You'd pick up the paper and find out about a new start-up but they were never founded by African-Americans.
I thought this was really odd because I went to college with really brilliant black students. And I knew that Stanford had a high proportion of black students so I was surprised to see such a disparity between what I saw on campus and what I saw on Main Street.
JW: You've said campus set-ups such as black dorms and student associations hinder career prospects. Why?
MB: There's a danger in completely segregating yourself. When black students only interact with each other it really inhibits the information they're getting. White students are getting advice from their parents and summer jobs through their connections. If you're limiting the number of times you're spending with white people, you're also limiting the types of information you have available to you.
Black students need to learn to interact with white people and have some amount of comfort with them and I don't think that's asking a lot. I'll say freely that black students face lots and lots of racial antagonism on campus, but that's not the only thing they're going to encounter, and that's not the only type of white person they're going to encounter on or off campus.
JW: African-Americans who graduate with lower debt and have parents who are better off, you say, are less likely to go into more lucrative fields like business after college. Why is that?
MB: It has a lot to do with students' values. One thing that pretty much all students I interviewed had in common was that they wanted to help the black community. They were all committed to their families, but for African-American students, there's this limit to how much exposure they've had to different types of occupations. So the students with less debt felt freer to choose whatever job they wanted, so they chose careers that could help the black community through traditional routes of being a teacher or a social worker.
It's the students who need to support their parents or have lots of debt, they have to be very pragmatic, or think that they do, about what they want to do with their careers. So they're looking for the job they can make the most money from to help their families or make sure they're not in debt for the rest of their lives.
JW: You write that black students feel that STEM disciplines [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] are hostile toward African-Americans. Why do they feel that way and what is the impact?
MB: A large reason is because the fields tend to be predominantly white male or increasingly Asian male, and it's not a place where you see a lot of African-Americans or white women or any other group. And I think there's a sense that this is a signal of how welcoming a particular occupation is. If I see one other black person at a job interview and there's 10 people in the room I might be more concerned about the racial air in that office than if I saw three African-Americans there. It would tell me something about the company's commitment to diversity.
So when students look to the STEM field they're looking at something that is dominated by white males and they're coming to a conclusion that I can't say is entirely irrational.
JW: What would your advice be to a young African-American who wants to go into a high-paying, prestigious career?
I've thought about this a lot. I would suggest to them that there has to be a group strategy for African-Americans. It can't just be one person, it has to be something that as a group we decide to diversify and push ourselves to pursue these kinds of careers where we're underrepresented.
Write to Joseph Walker at Joseph.Walker@dowjones.com