This is Urgent: Black Scientists Matter
It Matters Whether Our Professional Societies Speak Up
note: Yesterday, an article came out about underrepresented minorities in astronomy. In response to a query about a Black Lives Matter statement a nameless spokesperson for the American Astronomical Society said that it only “issues statements only on matters directly related to astronomy in some way.” It is heartbreaking to hear that speaking up about protecting the lives of members like me from a very racist injustice system doesn’t relate to astronomy. Since I am a member of the astronomical community and this impacts my life and therefore work, I’m pretty sure it is directly related to astronomy. But maybe this attitude is why that article is necessary in the first place. Below, I respond to it. (The day I published this, someone else said something very similar about medical/biological sciences!)
It has now been over four years since Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood.
And it’s been decades since I first understood as a child that the police murder people with impunity. I understood this happened to Black and brown people, in my neighborhood, in adjacent neighborhoods, and in communities like ours around the country. That was my childhood, knowing that as a fact of the way the world works, knowing that this would contextualize every single move I made for life.
My adulthood has included the occasional phone call from my mother reminding me that if I am running, and I see the police, no matter what, to stop and walk. This means two things: I have to watch myself around the police, and my mother is being terrorized by them into making these phone calls.
“But mom, I’m fairly light skinned, you shouldn’t worry yourself.”
“They shot a Latino kid who looks like you just a few blocks away last week.”
All this to say that we’ve been knowing about police/state sanctioned violence and how it makes Black people especially but brown people too unsafe. And Black people like my mother have been fighting it not for years, not for decades, but for centuries. For hundreds upon hundreds of years now.
So, I feel that professional societies have had some time to think on this and decide to respond. And that is why in 2016, I am outraged that there has been almost total silence.
Even on the non-violent stuff that is very explicitly related to minority participation in science, they keep quiet. The American Physical Society, the American Astronomical Society, and the larger American Association for the Advancement of Science all failed to submit amicus briefs in the Fisher vs. Texas affirmative action case. Then many of their members and leadership acted all surprised when a SCOTUS judge said some racist shit on the bench. Never mind that the things he said were things I’ve been hearing white physicists and physics students say to me since I was a 16 year old admittee to Harvard.
The American Physical Society responded to the judge’s comments with a statement reminding us that we are all hoping to find the African Einstein. Because really, goals, right? To be more like a dead white dude.
And carefully, they didn’t speak a word in support of affirmative action. Or offer some facts, like that it mostly benefits white women and this business about Black people and affirmative action is a complete and total red herring.
Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken off. And even though Facebook keeps banning Black people for talking about white supremacy, they’ve got a Black Lives Matter banner up at headquarters. Twitter has an emoji trio of power fists that goes after #BlackLivesMatter when you tweet about it. Google has held hours-long vigils at its headquarters to honor those murdered and has made clear statements of support for its Black employees. Some of those people are my friends, and I can see that Google’s actions have had meaning for them, made it easier for them to work and to be a part of that workplace.
In other words, the T and E in STEM are at least superficially on it, even if they are on utter fuckery when it comes to hiring and a host of other things. They recognize that in this moment, it is important to tell the Black folks in your immediate vicinity, in your immediate community:
YOUR LIFE MATTERS. THE LIVES OF YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS MATTER. WE KNOW YOU CAN’T DO SCIENCE IF YOU ARE SHOT ON THE WAY TO WORK OR CLASS.
I don’t know what the fuck the S and M are doing though. Science and math, where you at?
Well, after some pushing, here’s what we got out of the American Astronomical Society on a Saturday night:
President’s Message: Supporting Our Colleagues
Saturday, July 9, 2016–20:19
Recent events have shocked, disturbed, and frightened many of us. Many of our members, particularly astronomers of color and LGBTIQ astronomers, are suffering at this moment. I encourage all of our members to be mindful as you reach out to support our colleagues during these difficult times. The AAS’s commitment to ensuring a safe, inclusive, and supportive environment for all astronomers is enshrined in Article XI of our bylaws, and I encourage all members to uphold these principles at their home institutions.
So, what’s wrong with this statement?
- Orlando was fucking terrible. I’m a queer person who goes to clubs like that (ones for Latinx/Black/Afro-Latinx people), I’m a member of the AAS committee that supports queer people, and I couldn’t sleep for a month after Orlando. By the time this message came out though, I was actually starting to sleep okay BECAUSE IT HAD BEEN A MONTH SINCE ORLANDO HAPPENED. And you know what that looks like? “Well, we can’t do this thing for Black people because the queers!”
- I’m the only Black queer person on any of AAS’s committees and no, no one came to talk to me about this.
- What happened in Orlando is not at all like what happens daily to Black people who are murdered by STATE actors for walking down the goddamn street. It is rude and mean as fuck to not notice the difference.
- Don’t say “people of color” when you mean “Black.” Don’t say “people of color” to avoid saying “Black.” People of color who are not Black are not experiencing the same levels of police terror that Black people are. This is borne out BY THE DATA. (I highlight data because scientists are supposed to mold their ideas around it.)
- Let’s have a look at Article XI of the bylaws:
ARTICLE XI. NON-DISCRIMINATION IN PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES
As a professional society, the AAS must provide an environment that encourages the free expression and exchange of scientific ideas. In pursuit of that environment, the AAS is committed to the philosophy of equality of opportunity and treatment for all members, regardless of gender, race, ethnic origin, religion, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, or any other reason not related to scientific merit. All functions of the Society must be conducted in a professional atmosphere in which all participants are treated with courtesy and respect. It is the responsibility of the chairperson of an AAS committee, of the organizers of any AAS meeting, and of the members themselves to ensure that such an atmosphere is maintained. Furthermore, the rich diversity of the Society’s membership and of the astronomical community in general is a resource that should be drawn upon when selecting organizing committees, invited speakers, and nominees for office and for special prizes.
Ah, fascinating. There is absolutely nothing in here about taking active steps outside of AAS conferences to do fuck all about creating a supportive environment for all members. Also, as a Black queer femme member of AAS, indeed a member of one of AAS’s diversity committees, I have never been asked by AAS what I would need to make a conference more equitable to me. So, I’m not even sure what it means for AAS to have this in their bylaws. I guess they just know the answers to questions without asking? That’s some science!!
So look, do I think a statement about Black Lives Matter is going to do the trick and solve state-sponsored, anti-Black violence? No. But I also think that by that same logic, it shouldn’t be that hard to do because a statement is on some level chump change. But, as is very evident in the Silicon Valley, a statement in support of Black lives can make a meaningful difference in people’s emotional well-being and that matters, just like their right to breathe and walk down the street and drive a car without being murdered in cold blood.
Of course, there’s no rule that AAS has to stop at stating that Black Lives Matter. They can take seriously that just as they needed to modify their bylaws to address the existence of sexual predators among the membership, they need to set standards around racist harassment and discrimination that they expect their members to follow.
Being a member of the American Astronomical Society or the American Physical Society is a privilege, and it should signal a certain level of honor. This is already to some extent recognized by AAS in that to obtain full membership one must get the signatures of two current members. In other words, we vouch for each other as a way of saying, “This person has earned the right to be a part of our community.”
So, I have to ask: why are racists so readily welcomed in our community? As evidenced by the process over the last year, it’s been recognized that sexual harassers should not be.
Why is confronting racism still at the back of the bus?
I recently heard some (unfeeling, in my opinion) white queer physicists argue that the reason APS has addressed homophobia and transphobia to the extent that they impact white people is because they’ve been working on this issue for 6 years. Since I’m a theoretical physicist and it’s 2016, let me respond with some math:
490 years > 6 years.
Those 490 years of struggle include Black queer, trans and genderqueer people, the very same ones who helped start the gay rights movement. They include the multitude of Black women who were raped repeatedly because every Black woman was a sex slave and a victim of forced reproduction, the very same ones who helped start the reproductive justice movement and whose bodies made modern gynecology possible.
490 years > 6 years.
AAS and APS can and should do better. It’s been long enough. And study after study after study shows that racism is psychologically and physically harmful, even when it does not come in the form of physical violence. And study after study shows that psychological harm is disruptive to one’s work capacity.
Science tells us that racism is a problem for getting science done. And yet, our societies fail their Black members by choosing to remain silent. Because they are white majority organizations and they can.
What a privilege, to choose to remain silent while other people’s lives are on the line.
What a terrible answer to the question, “Do Black Lives Matter in Science?”