Computer Science at HBCUs

How do departments of computer science at Historically Black Colleges and Universities align with the fundamental questions of justice, empowerment, and liberation central to the very existence of these institutions?

HBCUs produce 37% of the Black STEM graduates in the United States although just 9% of Black undergraduates attend these institutions. With respect to computer science, CS departments at Howard University, Florida A&M University, and North Carolina State A&T University are among the top ten colleges in terms of graduating Black CS majors. That is, their role in creating and sustaining a Black technology pipeline is critical — without them the pipeline such as it is falls apart.

Yet, Black communities continue to experience harms inflicted by computing technology, among them the use of facial recognition technology in policing, racially biased predictive policing algorithms, algorithms that reinforce discriminatory patterns of hiring, and life threatening patterns of medical resource allocation. What responsibility do those departments have toward Black people?

You might argue that they are institutions and that research or computing should not be “politicized” and should stand outside of “identity”.

I would urge you to ponder the featured image of this post. It’s a photo of the entrance to Clark Atlanta University — CAU — a HBCU based in Atlanta. For many years, CAU was the academic home of W.E.B. DuBois. In addition to being a human rights activist, DuBois innovated in the use of data visualization to tell stories about the economic conditions of African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. So unfailing was his advocacy for Black empowerment across the globe that he was eventually fired from CAU for his radicalism, and exiled from the United States. My aunt, uncle, and brother are CAU graduates and my sister holds a MS in CS from CAU.

Time and again, these institutions have produced thinkers like Dr. Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael. The work of HBCU graduates Dr. Ruha Benjamin and Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottam has interrogated the bias inherent in today’s software platforms. So yes, it is important to contextualize the activity of CS departments within that history.

So I have some questions — seven of them — for HBCU CS departments.

  1. What concrete steps are being taken to increase the numbers of Black faculty?
  2. How are companies that recruit on campus and companies that provide funding being evaluated with respect to the impact of their products upon Black communities?
  3. How is the department evaluating its position with respect to military funding — that is, funding from agencies that continue to commit harms upon Africa, the Caribbean, and other portions of the African diaspora through neocolonialist policies?
  4. What is the department’s stance with respect to taking funding from police and immigration enforcement agencies that have repeatedly committed harms upon Black communities?
  5. Does the department provide classes in ethical algorithm design or privacy?
  6. What is the department’s stance on facial recognition and other biometric technologies that have been historically used to police, control, and limit Black life?
  7. Does the department have collaborations with the wider Black community, involving a representative cross section of class, gender identity, physical (dis)ability, language so that it is able to reflect that community in the work it undertakes?

The main point is that it is not good enough to just graduate software professionals, HBCUs have a responsibility to educate students that are grounded in the historical imperatives that brought these institutions into being. Those imperatives, rooted in the quest to establish the dignity and sanctity of all human existence, are as important now as they were in the 19th century. Lisa Marie Hampton (a Spelman College CS graduate now pursuing a doctorate at MIT) puts the challenge clearly in her paper Black Feminist Musings on Algorithmic Oppression

I end by inviting you to envision and imagine the struggle to abolish algorithmic oppression by abolishing oppressive systems and shifting algorithmic development practices, including engaging our communities in scientific processes, centering marginalized communities in design, and consensual data and algorithmic practices.

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