Racism in Science and Academia
By Brittany Williams (1), Chris Nyambura (2), Phuong (3), and Ayumi (3)
Pathobiology PhD Program, University of Washington
Chemical Engineering PhD program, University of Washington
Molecular Engineering PhD program, University of Washington
These past few months have been difficult for everyone. With the pandemic, isolation, and watching the global death counts rise day after day, as well as the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, one cannot help feeling dejected and wondering how our society devolved from what was “normal life.” When thinking about the vast history of racism in this country, and how it has seeped into every pore of our institutions, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless to do anything about it. How do you fight a system that was built to be racist? How do you have difficult conversations with friends and loved ones, who may defend these institutions, blame the victims, and ignore centuries of injustice? In fact, deleting facebook accounts and logging off of all social media has now become a reasonable choice to make. Social media is so toxic, and we have to prioritize our well-being first.
But those of us with privilege should not turn away when we’re uncomfortable with the level of ignorance and blatant racism we are seeing. Black Americans cannot turn off the color of their skin. They can’t log out of life when they see and experience racism. Our sadness and anger over these past few months is but a drop in the ocean of centuries of suffering that carries on to this day. Humans feel empathy for a reason, and we need to sit in these feelings if we want to be better allies. Those of us with privilege should not turn away from the level of ignorance and blatant racism we are seeing and address it. We need to see the racism in the people and systems we love and benefit from, especially when it’s difficult. We need to reckon with our own racist past behaviors and complicity. We are highlighting the ubiquity of racism in our society, particularly in our corner of the world-- American academia. We also realize the importance of including the voices of Black UW grad students on a post such as this. So we want to introduce our co-authors, Brittany Williams and Chris Nyambura. -Ayumi and Phuong
Our Amazing Guest Authors
As an undergraduate, Brittany attended the University of Arizona as a first-generation college student where she majored in Molecular and Cellular Biology. Brittany is currently a graduate student in the Pathobiology program and ARCS scholar. She currently studies TB vaccine design in the lab of Rhea Coler at the Seattle Children's Research Hospital. Brittany is an avid runner, foodie and desert gal adjusting to the Pacific Northwest!
Chris is currently a PhD student in UW Chemical Engineering, and received his BS in Chemical Engineering from UC Santa Barbara in 2017. He was born in Kenya, but moved to Los Angeles at the age of 10. His research is on protein-loaded polymer nanoparticles, using all-atom molecular dynamics and ubiquitous nanoparticle formulations, to develop rational design-guiding principles for precise control of their drug release profiles in the Nance Lab. Chris likes stand-up comedy, playing ping pong, taking walks and listening to audiobooks, meditating, outdoor activities and lastly, enjoying life at every moment!
**As a disclaimer, we want to emphasize that this is NOT a comprehensive list. There are hundreds upon hundreds of examples that could be included, enough to fill many textbooks. Please keep learning about these other examples. The examples given are described very briefly, so please read more about these in your own time as well! This post is aimed at anyone who is looking to learn more about the myriad ways that racism is intertwined with science and academia.
Racism in academia runs deep. A historically prominent example is through “scientific” racism, which employs empirical evidence to support or justify racial discrimination, racial inferiority, or racial superiority. Prominent scientists such as James Watson (1962 Nobel Prize Laureate) and other academics have used scientific racism to come to biased and racist conclusions that People of Color (PoC) are inferior in intelligence to their White counterparts. They argue that Black people are inferior due to brain size. Intelligence, a psychology journal published by Elsevier, has, until recently, had known eugenicists on its editorial board. Disturbingly, examples of scientific racism are still present today. The disgusting resilience of this pseudoscientific belief has had lasting impacts on minorities and representation of PoC in STEM. The following is a timeline depicting several historically relevant cases of scientific racism, which we hope emphasizes its harmful extent. We will follow this timeline of historical cases with a series of examples on how the concept of scientific racism permeated throughout modern academia and harms Black communities in STEM.
Slavery Shaped American Colleges (1700’s)
Dozens of colleges and universities across the nation are tied to the slave trade. In fact, profits from slavery and related industries helped fund some of the most prestigious schools, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton and Yale. In many southern states — including the University of Virginia, which was founded by Thomas Jefferson — enslaved people were used to build college campuses and served faculty and students. Donors to institutions such as Brown and Harvard are also guilty of promoting slavery. Many of them made their fortunes running slave ships to Africa and milling cotton from plantations in the South. Though there is no record of exactly how much money American colleges earned from the slave trade, most American colleges founded before the Civil War heavily relied on money derived from slavery to fund their programs and professors’ salaries.
Student protests and campus leaders have established a growing movement to confront this legacy at various universities. The result has been historical investigations, university commissions, conferences, memorials, and at Georgetown, reparations in the form of admissions for descendants of enslaved people. Black students who are attending these colleges feel out of place amongst the various buildings titled by the names of their ancestors’ oppressors. Universities are responding with renaming buildings, creating scholarships and other form of monetary reparations, and erecting programs and studies for educating students on slavery and racism. While history can never be rewritten, it is of utmost importance that students are educated on the intricate ways that their institutions were shaped by slavery and Black history. Universities need to investigate and acknowledge their own connections to the labor of the enslaved, and foster a community that welcomes their descendants.
Regionally based characterization of five human ‘races’ (1700’s)
Dr. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a natural historian, proposed in his dissertation “On the Natural Varieties of Mankind“ that there were 5 distinct races of humankind, defined by geography and appearance: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, And Malayan. Blumenbach chose the name Caucasian, because he believed that Mount Caucasus produced “the most beautiful race of men” and believed it to be the cradle of mankind. While there were many previous classifications based on race, this treatise changed the way race was discussed in science. Blumenbach himself was against the use of these classifications to justify racism, but many proponents of scientific racism would go on to use these classifications in their quest to prove the superiority of Caucasians.
Sarah Baartman’s body used to push scientific racism, 1810
Sarah Baartman’s real name is not known. Very little is known about her early life, but she is believed to be a South African Khoisan woman. In 1810, she was brought to Europe under false pretenses and made to take part in shows that displayed her body for the amusement of white audiences. The british physician that capitalized off of Baartman reportedly had a contract with her, however Baartman could not read nor write. Baartman reportedly had large buttocks, however drawings of her were highly exaggerated to emphasize how “other” she was compared to Caucasian women. She died at age 26 in 1815, but she was not given a proper burial. Instead, her body was dissected, her skeleton preserved, her brain and genitalia pickled and displayed at Paris’ Museum of man until 1974. Her body was used to justify scientific racism. Julien-Joseph Virey, a French naturalist, described her reproductive organs as more developed compared to white women. Her body, and dissections of other African women, were used to support the notion that those of African-descent, particularly Black women, were sexuallty primitive and intellectually equal with orangutans, some going as far to say that the Khoisan could reproduce with orangutans. This is part of a larger issue of the sexualization and objectification of Black women for centuries. Even now, a report from Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that adults are more likely to view black girls as “less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5–14”. Nelson Mandela requested the repatriation of Baartman’s remains to South Africa in 1994, but the French government did not agree until 2002. She was laid to rest 192 years after leaving South Africa.
Phrenology of the 1800’s
Phrenology was a pseudoscientific field where the shape of the skull was used to indicate personality and mental ability. White scientists pushed the hypothesis that there were phrenological differences between races and believed it showcased the intellectual superiority of Caucasians. It was used to justify slavery, with physicians such as Charles Caldwell using it to “prove” that African people were mentally inferior and rightfully meant to be slaves. He concluded that the skulls of African people showed a “tamableness” that made them suited to be slaves, and required them to “have a master”. Phrenology has been since thoroughly debunked.
Eugenics Record Office controversy (1910-1939)
The danger of eugenics is that it utilizes quantitative science to fuel racism. Some people believe that racism is justified due to the inherent unbiased nature of science. The issue: hard numbers are themselves unbiased, but the scientists interpreting these numbers are not. As a result, conclusions borne out of the genetic data used to fuel eugenics are not unbiased. Eugenics in this country has only recently been deemed a pseudoscience, but at one point was so prominent in scientific research that the US government founded a Eugenics Record Office in New York, as a part of the renowned Cold Spring Harbor laboratories. Upon its founding in 1910 hired scientists were considered progressives, intent on applying classic genetics to breeding better citizens. Funding was provided by prominent families such as Rockefeller and Carnegie. Researchers sought out “unfit” Black families in the Manhattan slums and the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. They cataloged disabilities and undesirable traits, recording the dimensions of heads and arms, and developed pedigree charts from the data collected. By the 1920s, the office had begun to influence Congress to pass The Immigration Act of 1924 that effectively barred Eastern Europeans, Jews, Arabs and East Asians from entering the country. At the state level, thousands of people who were deemed unfit were sterilized. The research from the Eugenics Record Office influenced Nazi ideology throughout World War II and the Holocaust. Although the office was closed in 1939 due to widespread discomfort of eugenics and the realization that conclusions drawn from this research were biased, the history of science being used to justify racism is still haunting. “The Eugenics Record Office was flawed in terms of methodology, taking hearsay evidence, and in terms of bias, accepting evidence that resonated with social prejudices,” said Daniel Kevles, a science historian at Yale University. It is extremely important for scientists to consider how quantitative data can be manipulated to justify biased conclusions that create lasting harm for PoC.
Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-1972)
In 1932 there was no treatment for syphilis. The U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) recruited 600 Black men to study the progression of untreated syphilis. These men, nearly 400 men with the disease and 200 to act as a control, were promised free medical care for “bad blood”, meals, and burial insurance for their participation. Instead, they were given placebos to “treat” their syphilis, even after penicillin became available to treat syphilis in the late 1940’s. The PHS researchers even went as far as preventing local physicians from providing penicillin to treat these men. Treatment was continually withheld from them, even as the men went blind, insane, and died of the disease. In the 1960’s, a PHS investigator named Peter Buxton learned of the study, and recognizing it to be unethical, expressed these concerns to his superiors. A committee was formed as a precaution, and decided to allow the study to continue until all the men had died. Nevertheless, Buxton leaked the story to the press, and it sparked immediate outrage by the public, which eventually led to the study being shut down, though the damage caused by this study was irreparable. Many of the men had died, and the disease had been passed to wives an unknown number of sexual partners, and given to children congenitally during these 40 years. The surviving study participants and their families received a 10 million dollar settlement, but what they truly lost was something money could never replace: happiness, health, friends and family.
This study is important to understand because it not only highlighted how easily science without ethics devolves into sadism, but also shed light on the brutal effects of scientific racism. Dr. J.E. Moore, an expert consultant during the inception of the study, wrote “Syphilis in the negro is in many respects almost a different disease from syphilis in the white”. Dr. O. C. Wenger, chief of the federally operated venereal disease clinic, praised this, adding, "This study will emphasize those differences." He went on to say "We must remember we are dealing with a group of people who are illiterate, have no conception of time, and whose personal history is always indefinite.” Dr. Thomas W. Murrell wrote on syphilis in the African American community stating, “So the scourge sweeps among them. Those that are treated are only half cured, and the effort to assimilate a complex civilization driving their diseased minds until the results are criminal records. Perhaps here, in conjunction with tuberculosis, will be the end of the negro problem. Disease will accomplish what man cannot do.” This was the prevailing belief among white physicians at the time. We could write so much on this topic, but many historians and researchers have already written so much, so we encourage you to read our sources, such as this article from Harvard historian Allan M. Brandt which details the racism behind this study. Other sources include the CDC, the History Channel, and Tuskegee University.
‘Mismatch Theory’ (1940s-present)
‘Mismatch Theory’ argues that non-academic preferences (such as ethnic diversity, athletic ability, musical ability, social diversity, etc.) in college admissions actually harm some students who end up being admitted to schools that they are unprepared for. These students end up struggling at schools that are ‘too elite’ for them rather than thriving at different schools. Mismatch Theory is a prominent argument against affirmative action, and also a prominent argument against racial diversity in academia. What’s more disturbing is that there are people in power who believe in Mismatch Theory, such as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. During the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared that “there are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.” Infuriating and frightening, we know. While inconclusive evidence can be drawn from the limited data released by colleges and universities surrounding their admissions practices, Mismatch Theory is one way ideas of racial segregation and White superiority propagate in academia, harming minority students as a result. Despite the theory’s overall conclusions and its subsequent effects, resources provided at elite undergraduate programs and post-graduate developmental programs have enabled many underrepresented Black students to be successful, even if they come from under resourced backgrounds.
HeLa Cells (1951)
HeLa is the first immortal cell line developed in 1951 and is one of the most widely used today for cancer research. Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore first obtained these cells from the cervical tissue of a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. Moreover, the name, HeLa, comes from the first two letters of her first and last name. HeLa cells were the first human biological materials ever bought and sold, which helped launch a multi-billion-dollar industry. They played an essential role in developing the polio vaccine and other scientific landmarks such as cloning and in vitro fertilization. Despite HeLa cells playing such an important role in research, not much is known about the woman they came from. In fact, Henrietta Lacks’ family was kept in the dark regarding the existence of this cell line for decades and to this day have not received any compensation from their extensive marketing of HeLa cells. Lack’s family lived in poverty while her own cells created billions of dollars for this predominantly white industry. Currently there are over 17,000 US patents that use HeLa cells and individuals behind those patents have potentially profited without consequence. Scientists at Johns Hopkins Hospital (segregated at the time) obtained Lacks’ cells without her consent, and goes to show why discussing allyship and finding tangible ways to support the Black community in research is critical. Scientific research has a history of exploiting African Americans, and this is just one example of how research has continued to benefit from this injustice.
PoC barred from many universities until the 1960s
For much of American history, most white-centric universities barred admission of African American students. Black colleges and universities, as a result, were established to provide higher education for Black students. These institutions received less funding from the government, and therefore had fewer resources to offer their students. Despite so many barriers, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) provided and continue to provide high quality education and opportunity to underrepresented students. The landmark Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 outlawed segregation in schools. However, many schools still did not integrate. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 took particular issue with the slow progress of desegregation in higher education, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act protected individuals from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. At the time that Title VI was enacted, “19 states were operating racially segregated higher education systems”.
Modern Racism in academia
Implicit bias refers to the involuntary attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Implicit bias permeates our decisions and behavior towards PoC. Extensive research has documented the disturbing effects of implicit racial biases in a variety of realms ranging from classrooms to courtrooms to hospitals. The following examples will delve into the ways that explicit (attitudes and beliefs we have about a person or group on a conscious level) and more importantly, implicit bias, perpetuates modern racism in academia. While the examples present glaringly problematic concerns in academia, we want to emphasize that racism and bias can be curbed. The first steps are through education and acknowledgement of one’s biases and privileges. There are several tests available to evaluate one’s implicit biases (racial, sexual, gendered, etc.), such as this common tool used by Harvard.
Who among us in higher education doesn't remember at least one teacher during our formative years who had a lasting impact on our goals of entering academia? These individuals have an important and overwhelming responsibility to educate everyone fairly, but past decisions, made by the teachers some of us may love and/or hate, have had terrible consequences. A study from Vanderbilt University found that Black students are less likely to be screened for gifted programs, “a pattern that persists when controlling for other background factors, such as health and socioeconomic status, and characteristics of classrooms and schools”. They also found that “Even after conditioning on test scores and other factors, Black students indeed are referred to gifted programs, particularly in reading, at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers”. Teachers are the first gatekeepers of academic success, but they too, are not free of bias.
Researchers from Stanford University showed in a paper titled “Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students”, that racial stereotypes play into whether or not a student is labeled a troublemaker. Primary and secondary school teachers were provided with identical school records of students with one primary difference: some students’ names sounded and/or were white in origin (Greg or Jake), while some were black in origin (Deshawn or Darnell). Results showed Black students were disciplined more harshly and teachers were more likely to see common, childish misbehavior as part of a “troubling” pattern. Today, Black students are 3 times more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students. A single suspension in the first year of high school doubles the chances of that student dropping out, and children who are expelled are 3 times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. How much has implicit biased played into these suspensions and expulsions?
This problem goes beyond primary and secondary school. An audit study of 6,500 professors at top U.S. universities drawn from 89 disciplines and 259 institutions found that “faculty were significantly more responsive to Caucasian males than to all other categories of students, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions”, when receiving emails from prospective students. Names of students were randomly assigned to signal gender and race (Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese), but messages were otherwise identical.
There are many more studies and articles that highlight how educators, who have the power to shape the future of their students, are biased against Black students and we encourage you to read more on the subject.
Hunting for a job can be stressful, discouraging, and mentally and emotionally draining. What’s worse is that hiring managers are human, and therefore, have implicit biases that can put PoC at a disadvantage, even with just a glance at their name on a resume. Biases that affect the hiring outcome of an individual is called hiring bias. A study in 2003 led by the National Bureau of Economics Research showed that a job applicant with a white name sends out around 10 resumes before receiving a callback; a job applicant with a Black name has to send out about 15 resumes before receiving a callback. Furthermore, if the resume indicates that the applicant lives in a wealthier, more educated, or more-white neighborhood, the callback rate rises. This preference strongly affects many Black Americans who are living in lower income communities. Another similar study drew the conclusion that Black college graduates are about 15% less likely to receive a callback than a white college graduate. The conclusions from these studies are incredibly concerning, given that resumes are often the first (and only) information provided to a hiring manager about a candidate. Though our focus on this article is on hiring bias towards PoC, it also affects women and the LGBTQ+ community.
A recent Northwestern University study by Quillian et. al in 2017 showed that after a meta-analysis of over 55,000 job applications, racial discrimination during the hiring process has been unchanged over the past 25 years. Since 1990 white applicants received, on average, 36% more callbacks than Black applicants and 24% more callbacks than Latino applicants with identical resumes.
There is a striking persistence of racial inequality in the hiring process. This needs to change and the figure below, showing a time-persistent, positive discrimination ratio, provides a strong rationale for affirmative action policies and point to the continuing need for the enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation.
(Quillian et. al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017)
Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic in which a victim doubts their thoughts, ideas, or beliefs in addition to insistent denial of their abuse or trauma by other individuals. There are many forms of gaslighting, but trivializing painful moments or minimizing a person’s potential are two forms that are a common experience to Black faculty in academia especially in regards to college admissions and academic success. As a result, low-income, minority students who are accepted to prestigious universities are left to wonder why, and then feel alienated when they arrive on campus to find out that their peers are from wealthier, more prepared backgrounds. Contempt drives the more privileged peers to gaslight minority beneficiaries at programs urged to increase PoC population. As a response, Black students feel othered, stressed, discouraged, and that they have to work harder than their peers to be at the same level. These toxic climates among institutions insist that Black students should not and could not be there, minimizing the Black college experience and their academic success.
Prejudice Against Faculty of Color
Even though faculty can come from diverse backgrounds and hold esteemed credentials and years of experience, the playing field for those participants is far from even, especially if they are a woman and/or a PoC. Faculty of color are provided fewer resources, less mentorship, lower salaries, and are frequently bullied when compared to their white counterparts. Unsurprisingly there are dramatically low numbers of Black professors nationally. A survey by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that of all full-time faculty in degree-granting post-secondary institutions in fall 2017, 76% were white; 6 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander males; 5 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander females; and 3 percent each were Black males, Black females, Hispanic males, and Hispanic females. Various accounts of Black faculty detail experiences of gaslighting, increased workload, hiring biases, and microaggressions among other concerns. Some have left academia due to their institutions’ inadequate or, even worse, impartial responses to hate crime or prejudices that they were subjected to. Despite many universities being built on slavery, most have never had a Black president, rarely hire few Black faculty, and have no policies set in place to address systemic racism. Universities and those who benefit from these institutions have a responsibility to create welcoming and just environments for their Black faculty members, almost by definition. Academia can only thrive from the exchange of ideas and conversations among diverse faculty and students populations.
Lack of Racism Training in Health Sciences
Shockingly, many health sciences programs provide inadequate (or even nonexistent) training regarding race and cultural sensitivity for their students. After all, the point of working in the healthcare industry is to aid those in need, right? A study in 2017 surveyed healthcare trainers regarding their experiences with this lack of training. This failure in providing adequate racism training is evident in maternal health where Black women have historically and currently have the highest maternal mortality rate.
At a recent conference held by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) medical students expressed their growing need to implement more standardized race and racism training across the nation. Students attending the AAMC anniversary event celebrating White Coats for Black Lives mentioned several theories as to the failure of their institutions from providing this training:
”Faculty don’t think it’s their problem or issue”
“Faculty feel too vulnerable to talk about such a sensitive topic.”
“Faculty don’t think it’s their problem or issue.”
“Faculty don’t know how to talk about race.”
“Faculty fear that they will say the wrong thing and sound like a racist.”
An essay published in the Annals of Family Medicine by a white medical student confesses that “Our medical system is structured to individually and systemically favor white physicians and patients in ways that white people are trained to ignore.” Some studies have suggested that implicit bias affects the care that physicians give to PoC. Black patients tend to be presented with fewer medical options and receive less time with physicians than White patients. To mitigate this shortcoming, the disparities that exist in access to care, safety in neighborhoods, and economic opportunity must be brought to light. Moreover, spreading awareness is easier than discussing a clinician’s biases when caring for patients. The history of medicine and health sciences have been clouded by mistreatment of Black and underrepresented communities. This history has created a mistrust amongst the community with healthcare professionals that needs to be addressed. To do this, thorough training on race and implicit biases is critical to opening conversation about a clinician’s contribution to health inequity and to providing Black patients with the level of care that they deserve.
Promotion of Racist ideology in High-Impact Journal
In 2012 a review published in the well known journal, Elsevier, focused on understanding whether pigmentation modulates aggression and sexuality in humans as it does in animals. Written in the abstract of the paper, authors J. Philippe Rushton and Donald I. Templer, conclude:
“Both within human populations (e.g., siblings), and between populations (e.g., races, nations, states), studies find that darker pigmented people average higher levels of aggression and sexual activity (and also lower IQ). We conceptualize skin color as a multigenerational adaptation to differences in climate over the last 70,000 years as a result of “cold winters theory” and the “Out-of-Africa” model of human origins. We propose life history theory to explain the covariation found between human (and non-human) pigmentation and variables such as birth rate, infant mortality, longevity, rate of HIV/AIDS, and violent crime.”
While this paper and its authors may have had science as it’s main motivator for this review they failed to realize how it echoes the racist declarations from the past. It perpetuates the common racist ideology that the strife seen amongst black populations is a born issue and based on nature and biology. This gives justification for the predarization of black males, education inequality, lack of diversity in higher education, and healthcare inequality. Intentional or not academics giving validation to such work continues to sustain this idea that black community and darker skin belongs to the category of “other”. It allows for an excuse and distraction for the main reasons this equality exists that being the history of a racist system that has promoted black oppression.
Anti-Diversity in High-Impact Journal
A personal essay published in Angewandte Chemie, an elite international journal, was published on June 5th 2020 (this month!) and described diversity in the workforce to be a negative influence on the field of organic synthesis. The author, Tomáš Hudlický, is a senior faculty member at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, who holds a prestigious Tier 1 Canada Research Chair. While the essay has since been deleted, you can find screenshots of the text and figures online, including on twitter and from blogs such as Retraction Watch. Since its publication, 16 members of the paper’s international advisory board (including Nobel laureates) have denounced the publication and resigned.
Here are some highlights of what was written by Hudlický:
“The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates. Such practice affects the format of interviews and has led to the emergence of mandatory “training workshops” on gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and discrimination…”
A Figure made by Hudlický which states that diversity in the workforce has a negative influence on organic synthesis.
“An example of focusing on “underrepresented minorities” can be seen in the recently established “Power Hour” at Gordon Research Conferences. While this effort is commendable in order to increase the participation of women in science it diminishes the contributions by men (or any other group). Universities have established various centers for “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion”, complete with mandatory seminars and training. These issues have influenced hiring practices to the point where the candidate’s inclusion in one of the preferred social groups may override his or her qualifications.”
The Gordon Research Conferences Power Hour is a “forum for conversations about the barriers to inclusivity within its 400 communities...reflecting growing conversations in the sciences about issues including unconscious bias, mentoring and sponsorship, strategies for addressing harassment and inappropriate behavior, and the culture change needed to support the professional growth of all scientists throughout their careers”. Hudlický takes issue with highlighting underrepresented groups in STEM because he thinks doing so diminishes the contributions of disproportionately represented groups.
Dr. Heather Williams pointed out on twitter:
“This is a hair's breadth away from saying anyone who isn't a white man is only there because they're "diversity hires". He finds it hard to believe they'll be there because they're actually really good.”
Tomáš Hudlický is a senior faculty member. How has his implicit and explicit bias against minorities and women affected the many decisions, from hiring to taking on students, he has made over the course of his career?
Into the Storm
While understanding racism statistically and systemically is important to finding a path forward, examining how it affects students on an individual level is equally critical. This study, “Into the Storm: Ecological and Sociological Impediments to Black Males’ Persistence in Engineering Graduate Programs”, followed 21 Black graduate students in engineering programs at a highly-ranked research institute. Authors state:
“...the sample of 21 Black males in engineering graduate programs is not, nor should it be, considered representative of all Black males in engineering graduate programs as this study’s goal was not to generalize to a broader population. Rather, the focus on 21 participants who were all Black males in engineering at the same institution provides more depth for understanding participants’ lived experiences. Focusing on these 21 students allowed for consideration of their unique contextual (institutional and departmental) experiences, which might be lost or overlooked in a larger sample that included students across academic disciplines or institutions.”
This article is detailed and provides a number of great citations to better understand how racism affects Black students.
Despite our wish of Pubmed studies for every single way PoC, and especially Black students, are discriminated against in academia, the fact of the matter is many of these acts of discrimination can never be fully quantified in the calculated, controlled way that most science is conducted. How can you count the number of times a student is unsupported, treated poorly, and spoken down to from kindergarten to grad school? How can you track the numerous ways implicit bias shows up in our daily lives? Think of the number of Americans in our history who were unable to attain their American dream because of the color of their skin; unable to get an education, unable to get that high paying job, unable to be socially mobile because of institutional racism. Think of how those obstructions years ago affected the generations to come. Think of how many Americans were forced into poverty, not because of their lack of effort or so-called laziness, but of a lack of humanity in their contemporaries. Think of how racism affects African Americans today. While it is hard to fully quantify acts of discrimination, there should be an effort for them to be heard and understood. Talk to the PoC in your life, and believe them when they tell you about their experiences. Read stories by black authors, read about the history they don’t teach us in school, and work to educate yourself on the deeply troubling legacy of this country--whatever corner of it you occupy.
Within Our Own Programs
Most Black students enter academic environments fully knowing that they are one of a very few. Black students know that historically, higher education was tailored for the white student and this notion continues to be perpetuated as higher education continues to show single digit percentages of Black students, Black faculty and Black administration.
Mimicking the same notion, Brittany is currently the only Black student in her PhD program. Reviewing the graduate admission summary of the University of Washington’s 2018 graduate enrollees, other Biology-related programs such as Immunology, Microbiology, Pathology, Laboratory Medicine, Genome Sciences, and Molecular and Cellular Biology, amongst others, had zero Black enrollees and at times even zero applicants. This brings into question how a large research university that vocally advocates for diversity prioritizes representation in it’s graduate school. Also, the type of the student the university recruits and effort it puts in creating a diverse environment.
Ayumi and Phuong’s program currently does not have any Black graduate students, and the College of Engineering has very few Black faculty. In Chris’s UC Santa Barbara undergraduate Chemical Engineering program, he was one of two Black students in the department and now, the only black PhD graduate student in UW Chemical Engineering. In 2017, the National Center for Education Statistics concluded that the national average of Black faculty members per university was 6%. In 2015, a survey conducted by the American Society for Engineering Education concluded that the national average of Black faculty members across all engineering disciplines was 2.5% per university. Bleakly, this number has virtually not changed since another study reported values from 2006-2015. Compare this to representation of white faculty, who made up over 65% of full engineering professors, or Asian faculty, who made up over 26% of engineering faculty. These numbers represent the stark lack of Black representation in academia, and more specifically, in engineering fields that claim to promote diversity.
Some sources to learn about Black history, as well as racism in science, academia, and this country:
Timeline of significant examples of scientific racism put together by NYU.
Go to Pubmed and search 'racism', 'implicit bias', 'discrimination', and other terms related to this subject. You will find a lot of peer-reviewed studies to read and critically analyze.
Museums: Check out the website for the Association of African American Museums, which shows “African and African American focused museums nationally and internationally, as well as the professionals who protect, preserve and interpret African and African American art, history and culture.” This website shows locations across the country that you can visit (after public health professionals deem it safe). National Geographic highlights 13 destinations to learn more about African American history in this article.
The 1619 podcast highlights “how slavery has transformed America”. This podcast is hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist with the New York Times.
You have probably heard it before and we will say it again, check out 13th on Netflix. This documentary covers the “intersection of race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States”. It is directed by Ava DuVernay, the award-winning director behind other critically-acclaimed films/series’ such as Selma, When They See Us, and Queen Sugar.
This is a list of books to read from Shondaland, the storytelling company founded by Shonda Rhimes. If you haven’t heard of her (how??), she is the brains behind some of the most binge-worthy shows on television, including Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, and For the People. The list details 25 must-reads, including history books, fictional books, and autobiographies.