Are Blacks and Hispanics too Lazy to be Statisticians?

I am at the Western Users of SAS Software conference this week and just like the Joint Statistical Meetings, SAS Global Forum and SPSS Directions, there is about as much diversity here as at the Republican National Convention.

I brought this up here and at two other meetings I attended. Each time at least some of the people I talked to dismissed me with,

“Well, isn’t it obvious why? Asian students work harder. It’s their culture.”

This, I believe is a perceived politically correct way of calling African-American and Latino students lazy. After all, they work “less hard”, correct?

It is NOT obvious to me. I drive by the strawberry fields pretty regularly and see lots of people picking in the fields. They don’t look like they have a lazy culture to me. Admittedly not a random sample, but I do know some pretty damn hard working African-Americans – my friend who works 80 hours a week for LAPD, my students who work an 8-hour day and then attend six hours of class in the evening.

Inspired by the hilarious Baratunde Thurston’s #negrospotting at the GOP convention, I decided to engage in my own exercise at WUSS. The total for the first day was five.

Hispanic spotting is a little trickier because Hispanics can be of any race and don’t necessarily have a Hispanic last name. Based on the last name, people I knew to be Hispanic and counting myself, I came up with a total of seven.

I am going to ignore the insulting, repeated suggestion that it is because members of these minority groups are lazy or “don’t have a natural aptitude for math”.

I don’t KNOW the reason why we see so many fewer people from these underrepresented groups. I don’t know why I “made it”. I have a hypothesis about both.

The first hypothesis is that Hispanic and African-American students are subjected to a constant barrage of “you can’t make it” and an almost complete drought of mentors. I see almost no efforts of outreach to urban schools. I spoke to over a dozen classes at three middle schools in Los Angeles last year about a career as a statistician, and to an urban school in another state via Skype. I was asked to speak a fifth time but I was out of town and unable to do it. Whether I meet with students in sixth grade or doctoral programs, I am usually the first person in their life who has said,

“You should really consider a career in statistics. It’s interesting, it pays well and you could do it. “

On the contrary, I think in both covert and overt ways students are discouraged from kindergarten on.

My second hypothesis, regarding why I have been successful is that I am a stone-cold bitch. When I have been discouraged from taking a course in Calculus, specializing in statistics, taking more advanced courses in statistics outside of my department, taking more courses in statistics, publishing in refereed journals, applying for tenured positions, my reaction has always been a silent (or sometimes not so silent)

“Fuck you! I can do it and I will!”

This attitude is what probably feminists in the 1950s and 1960s needed and perhaps why they were frequently characterized as angry. No wonder they were angry. Not everybody has that will, self-esteem, arrogance or whatever you want to call it to believe they can succeed when they are constantly being told they can’t.

I was also lucky. I had a few people in my life – my mother, my brother, my grandmother, my aunts, and later a few professors, who told me that I could succeed and did encourage me. Believe, me, though, those folks were by far the minority and except for one nun in the sixth grade, I did not meet any of those people outside of my family until my senior year of college.

So, what can you do about it, if you care to do anything? Five suggestions

  1. NOTICE. The next time you are at an event, notice if there are no Latinos in the building except for the waiters and housekeeping staff.
  2. SPEAK. Go to your local middle school or high school about a career as a statistician.
  3. MENTOR. Encourage ALL of your students to present, major in statistics, learn programming, do an internship, work on a project.
  4. SPEAK UP. I was hesitant at first to say anything because I really like the hard-working people who put on the WUSS conference, and the SAS Global Forum and JSM people seem pretty sincere also. If no one says anything, though, no one will see this as a problem, and I *DO* see a problem when I live in a state that is 45% Hispanic and African-American that there is almost no one from these two groups in the profession I have chosen.
  5. REACH OUT. Really reach out. If we are sincerely concerned, as Maura Stokes said in her keynote, that we will need 160,000 new statisticians then maybe we should look into fields like social science or nursing or social work where students DO have to take a course or two in statistics and research methods and learn some programming and recruit from there.

If we don’t do these things then it is a sign that we don’t really want more students in statistics unless they look , talk and think just like us. Well, none of them look and talk like me. That’s my point.

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  1. I would add one more reason; poverty. It is impossible to avoid the high correlation between poverty and race. Poverty impacts college-going, but it also impacts much earlier in terms of preparedness for school, I’m afraid that to really fix this we need to go back to a much earlier point and push for early childhood education and programs to prevent the backsliding that happens over the summer in terms of learning. The better prepared students are early, the more ready they will be to hear that they CAN do it when you see them in middle school.

  2. I’ll suggest another (possible) small source of bias: your informal survey was taken at a SAS conference.

    In the words of one Hispanic math professor: “I just don’t have the time to join any more committees.” I’m betting (based on anecdotal evidence only) that Black and Hispanic in any math field tend to spend more of their time on various committees, mentoring, etc. This might mean they may have less time to go to optional events like the SAS user’s groups meetings.

  3. I’m sure draypresct has some truth in his assumption. I know even as graduate students the very few of us at the university were pulled in many directions to present, volunteer and be involved in the community in other ways. I still remember the professor who came to an event at El Centro Culturo and told all of us, “Yes, you are the ones that ‘made it’. I give you permission to say ‘no’ to some of the people that ask for your time, because there aren’t enough of you to go around.”

    To Rebecca, though, I would say NO! As my granddaughter says, “Wrong answer!” Yes, of course there is a correlation between race and poverty but pushing it back on the early childhood folks is the easy route because it absolves us of doing anything. This may seem contradictory to what I just said but it really isn’t. Just because we can’t do everything, or sometimes even very much, doesn’t mean we can’t all do SOMETHING. Hence, my five points above.

  4. Nice post. Agree the lack of diversity seen in professional organizations/conferences (SAS -related and otherwise) is a huge problem for our community and our nation.

    What can conference organizers do about it?

    One option is organizing scholarships and mentoring.

    When my brother was a first year Kindergarden teacher, his principal encouraged him to apply for a scholarship from a National literacy education conference. The scholarship was for African-American teachers with less than 5 years of experience. Awardees received free conference attendance for 2 years, an invitation to present in the second year, and a mentor to help them develop the presentation and show them around the conference. This says to me that the Education community is committed to increasing diversity, rather than sit back and bemoan the fact that it’s a shame there isn’t a larger pool of diverse candidates for teaching positions.

    So if as a field we are committed to increasing diversity, there are definitely steps we could take.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  5. Thanks for this great post. I’m one of those who came to the profession via social work and while I’m still kind of new to the field, I don’t notice the statistics community really prioritizing or embracing diversity in the same way that, say, the NASW does. Also, in my own search for interns/mentees, I find that many students in the “helping professions” would rather work directly with people and not sit at the computer all day. Perhaps like me, they’ll reconsider if they get burned out. I like to tell these students that I actually feel like I’m helping more people through statistics than I ever could as a therapist or program director. I’d like to see this discussion continue, thanks again.

  6. AnnMaria,

    You make some great points: So much more needs to be done to educate children and young adults in the science and math fields – including historically under-represented groups. And cultural stereotypes must be resisted at all levels. We want to highlight some existing programs to encourage involvement and replication, including:

    •The diversity workshop at JSM, a regular activity of the ASA Committee on Minorities in Statistics, to help develop mentoring and networking relationships and motivate students to pursue graduate studies and careers in statistics.
    •StatFest.com, sponsored by the ASA since 2001, to increase diversity in statistical sciences by encouraging statistical careers. Bob Rodriguez from SAS is an invited speaker this year.
    •”Fostering Diversity in Biostatistics” workshop hosted by ENAR on April 1, 2012 to provide a forum for discussion of important issues related to diversity.

    Readers of your blog can search “ASA fostering diversity” and other terms for ways to get involved.
    ~Waynette Tubbs, SAS

  7. Thanks, Waynette. Sorry for the delayed response. I did see the diversity workshop at JSM but I think I already had a commitment that day so could not attend. I am going to check out StatFest.com

  8. Hi! I just found this post because I googled Black statisticians. I am a Ph.d student who had no clue about statistics let alone statisticians. I think you are spot on and also I have the same attitude. Thank you for speaking truth to power.

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