February 28

“Black” and “Brilliant” Are Not Antonyms:  How Our Failure to Recognize Black Intellect Widens Racial Inequality and What We Can Do to Turn the Tide – Senay Daniel

I want you to close your eyes for a second and think of an intelligent person. Get a picture in your head of this person, in as much detail as possible. Once you’ve got an image in your head, I want you to then picture an entrepreneur, again with as much detail as you can imagine. Finally, I want you to do the same thing again, this time thinking about someone you would consider an expert in their field. 

While there is no way to see what every reader imagined, there would be a lot of interesting insights if we were able to do so. I vividly recall a similar exercise from my time at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. Our professor asked us to close our eyes and imagine a “leader.” Afterward, he asked if anyone pictured a woman. Not a single student raised their hands and our response to this question was a silence that spoke volumes. Even in 2017, even in our class full of forward-thinking young men and women, virtually all of my classmates and I were carrying biases that prohibited us from being able to imagine a woman as an ideal leader. 

While our professor made a profound point about gender, I am certain that the result would be equally damning if he asked about the race of who we had in mind. Although we are making strides, as studies show that implicit biases towards races and skin tones different from our own are dropping, too many folks would still run through the exercise in the first paragraph and strongly associate “intelligent person”, “entrepreneur”, and “expert” with an image of a white man, and many would struggle to see a Black person in that light. While this social phenomenon would require an exacting level of research and detail to thoroughly explain, I would argue that age-old stereotypes and myths, a chronic underrecognition of Black people’s intellectual contributions, and a lack of platforms where Black subject matter experts are featured combine to play a large part.

For millennia, humans have adapted to their surroundings by observing their environments and drawing conclusions based on what they see. In modern America, where adults spend over 11 hours a day interacting with some form of media, the influence of the media ecosystem on how we make sense of the world cannot be overstated. An American child’s typical day involves seven hours of school followed by three hours of media consumption, underscoring the impact both a child’s education and the media he or she consumes will have on the worldviews he or she will adopt as an adult. While Black people being featured in media is not as controversial as it once was, we still stand to do a better job of including African Americans in both fictional and non-fictional media. Black characters in fictional works are often written to fit a number of recurring stereotypes and tropes and are too rarely portrayed as intelligent or competent. Non-fictional media is also falling short on this front, with the underrepresentation of Black journalists in newsrooms leading to coverage that misrepresents the perspectives and lived experiences of African Americans. 

Even podcasts, a form of new media that is free from the constraints that make traditional forms of media slower to change, still do not feature their share of Black voices. Despite podcast listeners being more diverse than the national population, leading podcasts have overwhelmingly featured white hosts/guests. Additionally, the leading podcasts that regularly feature Black people predominantly feature hosts and guests who discuss sports, comedy, entertainment, race relations, and politics, and seldom feature Black experts in fields such as STEM, business, and medicine. Black people are especially underrepresented in technology podcasts, as only 4% of guests brought onto leading tech podcasts are Black. Podcasts are known for featuring expert guests that educate listeners, and the long-form style of many podcasts offer a unique opportunity for listeners to hear rich discussions seldom featured in other forms of media. If Black people are not featured in these podcasts, then they will be less likely to be seen as subject matter experts in their chosen fields. Put more bluntly, a listener of a podcast about programming that features no black guests may assume Black people are not educated in programming as a rule, though that is far from the truth. Given that our schools often fail to educate students about the scientific contributions and inventions made by Black people, spotlighting the Black experts, inventors, and entrepreneurs of today would be a welcome shift, and podcasts provide a powerful vehicle to do so.

If people are not presented authentic and nuanced portrayals of a demographic group in the media, they will likely judge that group using assumptions and stereotypes that are often baseless and grossly inaccurate. Stereotypes depicting Black people as lacking capability and intelligence are far from new, having often been employed by America’s first colonists to justify their participation in the transatlantic slave trade. Throughout our history, many grotesque caricatures and falsified scientific findings were used to convince Americans that Black people were violent, lazy, animalistic, and possessed inferior intellect, thus making them deserving of their enslavement and subjugation by whites. 

Although it has been 155 years since the end of slavery and almost 57 years since the 1964 Civil Rights Act became law, these tired and destructive myths live on, even if it is now taboo to recite them aloud. In 2016, 26% of white Republicans and 18% of white Democrats surveyed said that Black people were “less intelligent.” White millennials differ little from previous generations in their attitudes, with 23% deeming black people “less intelligent” than whites, a higher percentage than Gen X whites (19%) and roughly equal to Boomers. Studies show that even children as young as five years old are more likely to believe white men are intelligent and rarely apply “brilliance” as a label for black people. These biases have real-world effects, as Black academics are more drastically underrepresented in fields where professor reviews are more likely to include the words “genius” and “brilliant.” Sadly, this coming generation may have fewer opportunities to have these preconceptions challenged, as our cities and local schools are undergoing a wave of de-facto resegregation that results in our communities being as racially divided today as they were during the latter years of the Civil Rights movement.

If we operate under the assumption that Black people lack intellectual potential, we will act as if nothing is lost when our systems do not give Black Americans the tools they need to flourish, and by extension will not be compelled to oppose this status quo. With that said, it is not surprising that a Black graduate from Harvard is equally likely to get called back for an interview as a white graduate from a state school, and roughly 50% less likely to get an interview callback than a white graduate from a similarly elite institution. It is no wonder how a society that does not see the potential of young Black people is willing to incarcerate Black men at such a high rate that 2.3% of Black men in the US were in prison in 2018, including over 5% of Black men age 35-39, and 1 in 3 Black men born in 2003 is projected to go to prison in their lifetimes. Finally, these aforementioned biases create roadblocks for Black people making their way in the business world, resulting in an environment where Black-owned small businesses are half as likely to get a loan as their white-owned counterparts, and less than 1% of VC funding goes to Black founders. Underpinning the economic, political, and structural factors that create these disparities lies a harsh truth: long ago we as a nation decided Black Americans did not have aptitude worth investing in, and we are still not entirely in agreement that we made the wrong choice. 

While the above data are a sobering reminder of how much more work we still have to do, there is plenty we can do to turn the tide. Despite our media historically being a significant part of the problem, more fictional and documentary works featuring Black scientists, academics, gifted students, and entrepreneurs would be a great start. An example I fondly remember is the sitcom Smart Guy. Starring Tahj Mowry as T.J. Henderson, a child prodigy that attends high school at 10 years old, Smart Guy serves as a great case study that is not dissimilar from TV shows featuring white whiz kids such as Jimmy Neutron and Young Sheldon. As audiences continue to crave shows featuring diverse casts, TV shows and films featuring clever protagonists that happen to be Black would be well received by viewers and also net producers more money to boot.

Outside of fictional television and film, new media presents great opportunities to spotlight the many examples of talented Black folks doing their thing in the real world. As mentioned before, podcasts are a rapidly growing medium, and Black and Latino listeners are the fastest-growing demographic of podcast consumers. The relatively low barriers to entry in the podcast space compared to legacy media allow for a great number of opportunities to produce new content featuring Black entrepreneurs and subject-matter experts as hosts and guests. During a time where Black women are starting businesses at a higher rate than any other demographic in the US, Black graduates were awarded a still-too-few but hardly insignificant over 50,000 STEM degrees in 2018, and successful Black-founded businesses such as Calendly are gaining traction and visibility, there will be a growing number of Black folks ready to share their stories and expertise with the world , and podcasts have great potential to effectively serve as their much-needed platform.

Finally, I have an opportunity to do my part. As Marketing Director of build21, Venture For America’s resource group for its Black fellows, I have the opportunity to spotlight the excellence of the Black entrepreneurs in our program and share their stories not only with the VFA audience but with the public at large. I also am committed to passing the mic to some of the many brilliant Black minds across the country whose perspectives and insights will inspire and amaze many. While I don’t wish to spoil the surprises that will be coming shortly, rest assured that we at build21 have a lot planned for 2021 that will showcase the Black excellence already present in our ecosystem. Millions of people across the world took to the streets in the historic summer of 2020 chanting “Black Lives Matter!” in a deafening chorus. I hope that my work in the coming months sends a message that forcefully screams “Black minds matter!”. Stay tuned…

Update 5/11/21: To everyone who has read this piece since it was published, thank you. I appreciated hearing readers not only offer praise for the contents in my blog post, but express an interest in build21’s upcoming projects. The time has finally come to announce that build21 has released its first-ever podcast series titled Five-Thirds that will feature guest interviews and roundtable discussions with Black entrepreneurs, professionals, and experts in fields including technology, venture capital, medicine, and academia. The podcast gets its name from the inverse of three-fifths, and symbolizes the hard work Black Americans have done to attain success in a nation that counted Black people as three-fifths of a person in its founding documents. I hope that providing this platform for talented Black people who excel in fields where they are often not expected to be present will bring attention to the revolutionary work being done by our guests while inspiring more people to take actions both big and small that will incrementally create a more equitable world. The Five-Thirds podcast will release episodes twice a month and can now be found on Spotify.


Senay Daniel is a 2020 Venture For America Fellow who works as a Business Analyst at SmartLogic, based in Baltimore, MD.  He is a graduate of The Ohio State University and a member of build21, VFA’s Fellow resource group that is an empowerment network for Fellows/Alumni of African-American, Afro-Caribbean & African descent to directly connect personally and professionally.
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