Dexter Thomas, Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2015
This week, brown children across America learned a lesson: If you try to be like Steve Jobs, you could get arrested.
By now, you’ve heard about 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a boy who brought a homemade clock to his high school in Irving, Texas. School officials and police called the engineering project a “hoax bomb.” Late Tuesday evening, a photo of Ahmed being led out of the school in handcuffs went viral.
You may also have heard about the #IStandWithAhmed hashtag, and that the young man now has multiple invitations–to several college campuses, to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to a television show hosted by a Canadian astronaut, and even a personal invitation from Mark Zuckerberg to visit the Facebook campus.
He’s even gotten a ticket to the White House.
Hillary Clinton also tweeted her support, telling Ahmed to “stay curious and keep building.”
Many believe that Ahmed Mohamed’s name, race and religion caused him to be punished for something that is normally encouraged in white children.
That’s why it’s important that the #IStandWithAhmed hashtag is more than a post-racial saga with a fairy-tale ending. It has reignited a conversation about race and bias in the tech industry and related STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. In a climate where the lack of diversity in even the youngest tech start-ups is a constant point of scrutiny in Silicon Valley, the arrest of Ahmed is another telling example of the barriers that students of color face even before entering the job market.
Irving Police Chief Larry Boyd has said that Ahmed’s race was not a factor in how he was treated, and that the “reaction would have been the same” had a white student brought a clock to school.
But to Freada Kapor Klein, founder of the Level Playing Field Institute, the high school’s response was a “shameful example of bias” that minority students can face.
“Young people like Ahmed are exactly the kinds of budding engineers that our schools need to be encouraging, not criminalizing,” she wrote in an emailed statement to The Times.
It could have ended worse for Ahmed. If all goes well, he’ll have internships waiting for him next summer, and plenty of interested recruiters in any tech field he chooses.
But for the other children across America who look like him, the message is clear: You’re not Steve Jobs. If you want to get an early start on a career in STEM, do so at your own peril.
Your hobby might get you arrested.