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Racism within the Scientific Community - Angela Gupta

People are being killed on the streets for the colour of their skin. We cannot turn away from this. We also cannot turn away from the systematic racism that perpetuates all aspects of society – including the scientific industry. The severity of police brutality and the injustices within academia seem unequatable, it seems obvious that one takes precedence over the other. However, when tackling hard-pressing issues, it is crucial that we deal with the underlying structures that fuel and sustain them too. Racism manifests in different forms, ranging from microaggressions to physical threats, and we can’t neglect any of these.

It is naive to believe that science is politically neutral – it is inevitably influenced by the people who conduct the work. While we may never be able to resolve the clash between the objectivity of science and the inherent human subjectivity, we can vigilantly work towards peeling away the biases and prejudices that cloud our judgements.

The scientific industry has become increasingly open and accepting, but these issues are far from resolved. Specifically, Black scientists are still suffering from injustices and underrepresentation. Here are some statistics:

  • In the US, approximately 9% of STEM workers are Black, whereas 69% are white

  • At higher positions within the industry, situations are even worse as Black Americans make up only 2% of full-time professors

  • In the STEM workforce, the mean salary of Black people is $58,000, while white people have a mean salary of $71,897

  • 26% of Black STEM majors leave without earning a degree, while only 13% of white STEM majors do the same – demonstrating the lack of support that they receive

  • One in five Black Americans have said that their race has hindered job success

It is so easy for us to explain these staggering statistics by saying things such as “there aren’t many qualified Black people to choose from” – but these are just excuses that are testament to the historic racism that exists, and we have to openly acknowledge that. If there aren’t many qualified Black people to choose from, consider the reasons why: For one, academic pursuits are put to the side when the priority is sustaining the livelihood of themselves and their family. Therefore, Black scientists will continue to be underrepresented until institutions provide greater financial support. Other reasons include include limited educational opportunities and mentorship, lack of encouragement to pursue STEM subjects, reinforcement that they can’t be successful, as well as discrimination in recruitment and publications.

For the minority of Black scientists who have found success, many have reported being accused of only being there because of the institution’s diversity efforts rather than their individual merit. It is insulting for someone’s hard-earned achievements to be discredited simply due to their race – which is a form of racial profiling. If you scroll through the #BlackintheIvory Twitter feed, you will see countless stories of Black scientists being mistaken as a housekeeper or janitor, or being hassled by security guards when they are on campus or at their workplace, questioned about their right to be there. Although these actions may seem small, their frequent occurrence erodes a person’s path to achieving their dreams, eating away at their confidence and sense of belonging that we all crave. Actions like these continue to discourage the involvement of Black people in science.

On Wednesday the 10th of June, groups of physicists and astronomers organised a strike within the scientific industry: nearly 6,000 scientists and academics participated. The one-day strike entailed cancelling lectures, meetings, and advancement in research and publications. Not to be mistaken for a day to sit back and be silent, the focus was to instead spend time reflecting on individual complicity in anti-Black racism, and engage in education and discussion of the prevalent issues in academia and how to intervene. Journals only released content directly related to the movement and shared resources to amplify the voices that haven’t been heard. It was also a chance to give Black academics a break from their work, as they are overwhelmed by the current events and struggle with focusing on doing their jobs well.

But from here, where do we go next?

While it is important to increase outreach and recruitment efforts, I think that resolving racial discrimination involves more than just meeting a specific quota; it’s also important to focus on making them feel welcome and supported. Institutions often engage with racism in superficial ways – organising Black celebratory events and slapping a couple of Black faces on their brochures to preach “diversity” – while not recognising them outside of that and hypocritically failing to address the more subtle forms of racism that undermines their daily lives. This is merely performative activism, not concrete steps to making a difference.

It can be hard to think of tangible actions we can take to be more inclusive, but I think that the first step is awareness. Racial prejudice often slides by unnoticed, which is why stricter investigations of how racism is experienced on campus or in the workplace need to be implemented. The ignorance when projecting negative stereotypes and beliefs or the ignorance of its harmful impacts are not justifications for perpetuating racism. We need to recognise that Black people face additional challenges that are unique, and actively identify it as racial harassment.

Listen to their experiences and show compassion, understand that they have the right to feel hurt, fearful, angry, and fed up. Keep an eye out in the classroom, lab, office, and hallway – correct any students or colleagues who are behaving explicitly or implicitly racist in the classroom. Even derogatory phrases, expressions of contempt, and interjections should be called out. Go the extra mile to provide encouragement, drop their names for opportunities or hires, invite them to social activities.

The process of peer-review is integral in scientific publication, and if there isn’t a diverse group of people involved in this, implicit biases within the system can magnify. We need to rethink scientific collaboration: more people from ethnic minorities should be involved in the writing, editing, and peer-review processes. In conferences, issues of diversity and inclusion should be addressed, and Black people should be involved in these discussions and decisions. Funding for anti-racism education and supporting African American studies programs is another way for institutions to be more proactive.

Black people are often accused of having inferior intelligence and abilities, and being unmotivated or less interested in academic pursuits. Although many people don’t personally believe this, being a part of an institution where a small percentage of people do, can still result in negative impacts on vulnerable groups. “That’s just the way it is” is a dangerous attitude to have because being a part of the industry doesn’t mean that we have to accept the systematic racism that infiltrates it. A lot of scientists don’t actively speak out about racial discrimination or sensitive issues in general, probably because questioning the system makes them vulnerable to attack, which could affect their career success. However, it is crucial to bear in mind that the system only rules over us if we continue giving it the power to do so. It is the responsibility of each individual to speak up within your institution.

Science isn’t separate from societal issues – only the privileged will have this kind of ignorant perception. For one to progress, the other one needs to as well. Even from a utilitarian perspective, scientific progression will be hindered if we discriminate; having a diverse group of people working together provides different perspectives and unleashes maximum potential.

More importantly, science should be a safe and welcoming place, where people are valued and respected for their passion, efforts, and achievements – this shouldn’t be a privilege that only a selected group of people are entitled to.

Works Cited

Bartels, Meghan. "NASA Astronaut Victor Glover Explains Why Sometimes We Can't Just Stick to Space." Space.com, 8 June 2020, www.space.com/nasa-astronaut-victor-glover-social-justice-message.html.

Bauer-Wolf, Jeremy. "Latinx, Black College Students Leave STEM Majors More Than White Students." Inside Higher Ed | Higher Education News, Career Advice, Jobs, 26 Feb. 2019, www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/02/26/latinx-black-college-students-leave-stem-majors-more-white-students.

Calma, Justine. "Black Scientists Call out Racism in Their Institutions." The Verge, 11 June 2020, www.theverge.com/21286924/science-racism-strike-stem-black-lives-matter-protests.

The Cell Editorial Team. "Science Has a Racism Problem." Cell, 9 June 2020.

Crane, Leah. "Scientists Around the World Are Striking Against Racism in Academia." New Scientist, 10 June 2020, www.newscientist.com/article/2245743-scientists-around-the-world-are-striking-against-racism-in-academia/. Accessed 14 June 2020.

Eisen, Michael B. "Racism in Science: We Need to Act Now." eLife, 5 June 2020, elifesciences.org/articles/59636.

Funk, Cary, and Kim Parker. "Diversity in the STEM Workforce Varies Widely Across Jobs." Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, 31 Dec. 2019, www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/09/diversity-in-the-stem-workforce-varies-widely-across-jobs/.

Overbye, Dennis. "For a Day, Scientists Pause Science to Confront Racism." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia, 11 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/10/science/science-diversity-racism-protests.html.

Siegel, Ethan. "4 Ways That Scientists And Academics Can Effectively Combat Racism." Forbes, 9 June 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2020/06/02/4-ways-that-scientists-and-academics-can-effectively-combat-racism/#3b9646051d27.

Subbaraman, Nidhi. "Grieving and frustrated: Black scientists call out racism in the wake of police killings." Nature, 8 June 2020, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01705-x.


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