Dear American Astronomical Society: Black Lives Matter
A Letter from Members
Recently, a letter went out to the American Astronomical Society membership. Many of us signed a response. There has been no public response to the letter from the AAS leadership. Here I share it publicly, on behalf of the letter writers. My sincere thanks to the others who initiated the letter and worked on it. This letter is also published at Sarah Tuttle’s blog.
Dear Dr. Marvel, and AAS Leadership,
On Monday, August 8th, you posted a letter on the AAS website entitled, “Supporting our Community by Convening.” We were hopeful at this title. Many of us have contributed to AAS programming, events, and committees, many of us attended the Inclusive Astronomy conference last summer, and all of us have been waiting for a clear message of unwavering support for our Black colleagues in a time of national crisis. We hoped that finally, after months of requests and conversations and responses from committees, working groups, and individuals, your letter would contain this message. Sadly, it did not. Instead, your letter demonstrated that the AAS is not willing to listen to feedback and requests, not willing to voice support for members of the astronomy community, but quite willing to capitalize on our time and work. Your letter seems to send contradictory messages — the AAS does not care what we think, but wants to take credit for it and tell us how to collect our thoughts in the future.
We appreciate attention to conferences like Inclusive Astronomy and Women in Astronomy, and recognition of their importance.
You are right that conferences like IA and WiA are “too important and too impactful to leave to chance, and they support our mission, our members, and everyone else working in the astronomical sciences.” The offer to provide “institutional resources and infrastructure” to mitigate the burden on the astronomical community is greatly appreciated — especially as support from the AAS as an organization for such initiatives has been minimal up to this point. Also appreciated is your vision of the AAS “not […] dictating or even establishing the content of the meetings,” since as demonstrated already, people who do good and important work have managed and even thrived without AAS support. It is important that these meetings remain community organized and driven. We hope that this offer of support marks a change; in the past the AAS leadership’s response to attempts by members of the community to address these issues has been tepid at best.
The AAS is not achieving its mission, and is relying on its members (specifically early career and minoritized) for leadership. This is unsustainable.
If “villages are communities that protect, nurture, and support their members through shared effort and responsibility,” the AAS is failing at being a village. More basically, the AAS is not fulfilling its mission statement, parts of which include, “the Society supports and promotes increased participation of historically underrepresented groups in astronomy,” and, “the Society represents the goals of its community of members to the nation and the world.” The Society indeed does have “an important role to play in galvanizing our community through its unique position in the discipline,” but so far the AAS leadership has relied primarily on astronomers early in their careers and/or belonging to groups traditionally marginalized in society and in astronomy to provide guidance and leadership in these areas. Your letter mentions more than once that the AAS “stands ready,” yet it has not “help[ed] the community […] discuss […] topics of great importance to our community of scientists,” one of which is the new racial justice movement of Black Lives Matter. It is frustrating and demoralizing when the AAS asks the community to reach out when so many of us do, and are ignored. Furthermore,
Science and community are not and should not be separated. Right now the community of astronomers is in crisis and it is affecting our science.
According to “The Counted” database, in the United States 1146 people were killed by police in 2015, and 654 have been killed so far in 2016. Police violence is disproportionately directed at Black, Native American, and Latinx people, and has been throughout the history of this country. Extrajudicial killings of Black citizens — including recently Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Korryn Gaines — are not isolated incidents, but the outcome of systemic racism in our society, a framework our community not only exists within but upholds when we fail to act in support of our colleagues. It is unjust to expect people to be the best scientists that they can be when they fear for their lives or mourn a tragedy, or when they face discrimination at work, at conferences, in hiring practices, from their colleagues. Anti-Black violence, harassment and discrimination both on the street and in the academic workplace represent a real crisis for Black scientists, their families, and their friends. We cannot seriously work toward inclusion without directly confronting and opposing it.
In addition, it has become clear from a spate of highly publicized cases over the last year that sexual harassment and open gender discrimination are pervasive in astronomy and harming the participation of women and gender minorities of all races and ethnicities. These actions devalue women and gender minorities and represent a real crisis for the astronomy community.
Just because these issues are not experienced daily by white and/or male astronomers does not mean they are not fundamental to the safe and productive practice of science for all. Meetings about community are indeed meetings about science, and the reverse should also be true.
We are hanging on to hope.
We acknowledge that progress can take time, and that everyone makes mistakes (including us). We still want astronomy to be a village, and grow stronger together. In fact, we are heartened by the statements you and the AAS made, deploring sexual harassment and making clear how it fundamentally hinders the advancement of science. Your statements, along with the bravery and action of AAS members (again, mostly early career), have brought the problem of sexual harassment to the attention of many astronomers and given confidence to some of its survivors. We feel that the language around “real crises” in your letter significantly undercuts what we believed to be a real commitment to ending sexual harassment and gender discrimination in our community.
There has been no such statement about Black Lives Matter, however, despite significant data about the very real threats Black people face. The lack of public acknowledgment and support of Black Lives Matter is taking a toll on your community, on the streets, in the workplace, and at scientific meetings. The AAS is failing at supporting us by refusing to address this reality.
(see signatories here)