Since the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many researchers out of their labs and field sites and most students from their classrooms and dorms, the process of learning about and doing science has moved almost entirely online. Lab group meetings have migrated to Zoom; office hours to Slack; manuscript writing to Google Docs. But today, all over the US and across the globe, thousands of scientists—as well as scholarly societies, journal publishers, and university departments—are hitting pause on even these virtual activities to protest anti-Black racism in the world of research.
The killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis Police Department officers on May 25 has sparked weeks of ongoing nationwide demonstrations against police brutality. But it has also forced millions of white and non-Black Americans into a reckoning with the racist systems that they participate in and benefit from. Corporations put out statements of solidarity. People posted black squares to Instagram and Twitter. Similarly milquetoast messages went out from university officials to their faculty and students. But Black scientists and their allies weren’t having it.
“We saw those and thought, ‘We don’t need your solidarity, we need your actions,’” says Brittany Kamai, an astrophysicist with a joint appointment at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Caltech, where she studies gravitational wave instrumentation. A Native Hawaiian, Kamai is one of the organizers of the June 10 “Shut Down STEM to Strike for Black Lives,” a call for researchers to stop their work and spend the day learning about how systemic racism functions in their fields and at their institutions, and then to draft plans for eradicating those inequalities. The event was conceived and coordinated by a diverse coalition of scientists using the hashtags #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia and #VSVillage. It is aimed at people who are not working directly on critical, Covid-19-related research.
“In both academia and STEM, we make enormous contributions to society in the form of research papers, books and technology,” says Kamai. But if scientists are not intentional about eradicating anti-Black racism, she says, those contributions can be—and have been—weaponized against Black people, including biased facial recognition technologies and algorithms used in predictive policing. “The root of the problem is anti-Black racism, which shows up in all of its manifestations. This includes perpetuating racist narratives that lead to murders of Black lives and is perpetuated within STEM and academia. With this day of action, we’re bringing that protest into our digital streets,” she says.
The event materialized in little more than a week. On June 1, after a weekend of non-stop, televised, police-on-protester violence, Kamai was texting, Slacking, and emailing with an informal group of physicists, astronomers, biologists and diversity and inclusion experts about what they could be doing to connect the dots between racism in policing and in science. One of them was Brian Nord, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago with whom she had worked at Fermilab when she was a grad student. Meanwhile, Nord was having the same discussion with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire, and other members of Particles for Justice, a group of particle physicists that banded together in 2018 to denounce structural sexism in their field.
Together, they teamed up with VanguardSTEM—an online platform that hosts conversations with women of color in STEM—to put out a call to action. By Friday, the organizers behind #ShutdownSTEM and #ShutdownAcademia had launched a website with a request for scientists to cancel any experiments, classes, or work-related meetings planned for June 10 and details about how to participate. The same day, Particles for Justice released a similar request, and invited other scientists to join by pledging to #Strike4BlackLives. As of Tuesday night, more than 4,000 people had signed, representing scientists on every inhabited continent.
A number of influential research bodies are also observing the work stoppage, including the publisher of the Nature journals, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science, and arXiv, the physical sciences preprint server. The American Physical Society and Britain’s Institute of Physics are striking too. The Canadian Association of Physics cancelled a full day of its annual (now-virtual) meeting and in its place organized a session focused on improving the lives of Black students and researchers. One group of female physicists are recruiting volunteers to use the day as a Wikipedia edit-a-thon in order to combat anti-Black bias in entries about African American scientists, scholars, and activists.
The organizing groups are encouraging all scientists, but especially non-Black academics, to use the day to educate themselves, organize protests, amplify Black voices on social media, and formulate long-term action plans for confronting racism in their everyday lives as scientists. For their Black colleagues, they hope it will be a day they can take a break from the demands of being a Black scholar—to relax, recharge, grieve, whatever they need—without publishing deadlines and teaching hanging over them. VanguardSTEM is hosting an evening gathering on Zoom exclusively for Black people of all gender identities to have a space in which to do that.
“Giving concrete actions that people can do really has seemed to help guide people to channel their energy to make a difference,” says Tien-Tien Yu, a physicist who studies dark matter at the University of Oregon, and a member of Particles for Justice. She says she hasn’t always been an activist. As a student, she was often too uncomfortable to speak out against racism or sexism when she saw it. But once she became a faculty member, she felt a responsibility to model that behavior for future generations of scientists. Now she hopes others are starting to listen and will follow suit. “For a while, I’ve been the annoying person in my department trying to hold people accountable to no effect, so it’s been encouraging to see my colleagues start backing me up and now people pledging across different fields—it’s just snowballing in a way we never expected,” Yu says.
Physics is a particularly white, male-dominated field. According to the American Physical Society, underrepresented minorities hold just 6 percent of all physics faculty positions in the US. (That includes African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians and Native Hawaiians.) Prescod-Weinstein is the first Black woman in the world to hold a faculty position in theoretical cosmology and only the second in particle theory. From 1973 until 2012, a total of 66 Black American women earned physics doctorates in US colleges, compared to more than 22,000 white men.
But racism has been baked into the bricks of the Ivory Tower since it was first erected. Take genetics, with its long, lurid history of eugenics, modern medical colonialization, and woeful dearth of DNA from non-White people. Consider the exploitation of Black biomedical research subjects, like Henrietta Lacks and the unwitting Tuskegee syphilis study participants. Look to the massive disparity in health and disease between Black and white Americans, which the coronavirus pandemic has laid disturbingly bare. Other disciplines often have it just as bad. A 2016 survey done by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 81 percent of full-time professors are white. Having so few people of color in positions of power in academia ensures that the science that gets done and the textbooks that get written don’t serve everyone equally; according to research by Harvard historian David Yacovone, Black scientists are also less likely to get prestigious research grants because topics they want to study, like health disparities, don’t match funding agencies’ priorities.
This is a compounded problem, says Kamai, because universities evaluate faculty based on the grants they pull in and the papers they publish. But there’s no mechanism for placing value on the additional work Black scholars often are pressured to take on—from serving on diversity committees to mentoring Black students because there aren’t any other faculty of color in the department.
If you have not lived this experience yourself, you can get a peek at what that looks and feels like by scrolling through #BlackInTheIvory, a hashtag which began trending on Twitter almost immediately after it was first posted by Joy Woods, a graduate student in communications at the University of Texas, Austin on June 6. She and her friend Shardé Davis, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut, had been up that night texting about racism in academia. They wanted some way to merge the thoughts they each had into a more public dialogue. Davis came up with the hashtag, but Woods beat her to the tweet. Neither expected to wake up to hundreds of notifications, that have since then become many thousands. In just a few days, #BlackInTheIvory has become a cascading catalogue of casual, everyday racism, at times breathtaking in its banality.
There’s the chemist who was accosted in the faculty mailroom on her first day and accused of trying to steal mail because she didn’t “look like” she could work there. And the molecular biologist who was accused of not writing his own research plan in a grant application. And the pediatric hematologist who was told the only reason she got into Harvard Medical School was because of the color of her skin.
Davis and Woods have been amazed at the outpouring of Black scientists willing to share their painful, infuriating stories. “It seems like it finally gave people a voice,” says Woods. “People who’ve felt gaslit by their experiences, people who live their working lives in isolation in all-White spaces, finally they had a place where they could see and hear other Black stories. And that’s been really powerful.”
Neither of them know where the newly-spawned social movement is headed next. But they both say they have a glimmer of hope that these stories, combined with the swelling ranks of striking scientists, could be the first steps toward lasting change. “If we can call for the firing of police officers who murder people, we need to be able to call for the same thing with regards to faculty, staff, and students who are abusive to Black faculty, staff, and students.” says Woods. “I didn’t think this could have happened last year. I don’t think this could have happened even a month ago.” But for the first time, she says, she can imagine it.
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