Racism Doesn’t Belong In My Classroom

I am a white woman about to start a faculty position in astronomy at the University of Washington, Seattle. Justice John Roberts wants to know why I would care who was in my class. Although I find it baffling that a man who leads the court of a country built in an attempt to honor and value those disparate experiences and backgrounds doesn’t understand the strength of that diversity, I will do him the service I do for all of my students. I will assume that his intentions are good and explain to him why his question is easy to answer, if only he spent any time thinking about it.

Physics as a discipline holds the tools of revolution at its roots. We sometimes lose track of its power and think of it as some arcane set of rules or algorithms that one follows to execute tasks. This is not physics. Physics is a growing, breathing entity that captures our understanding of the universe and its underlying structure. As we tap into this structure in new and profound ways we find our lives change drastically. The revolutions of the last many centuries may move on the tides of politics but the tools that drive those revolutions often come from huge shifts in how we understand physics and the application of those understandings. Electricity, radiation, combustion engines, rockets, a vast range of materials, computers, lasers. These are the tools that shape our lives and the histories of our worlds. We build new modes of transport, methods of communication, medical devices, even communities. To underestimate the power is much to our detriment.

I care who is in my class because I’m training revolutionaries. Revolutions come not from walking down the well trodden path, but from finding new paths. How does that happen? The act of physics is an act of rigorous creativity. Our creativity flows not from the set of equations we drape over the top, but from our personal experiences and knowledge of what comes before. New ways of thinking come from daydreaming, and pushing the limits of what we think we understand. If I am not putting those tools of knowledge into a broad range of hands, I’m failing our next generation. Maybe one of my students helps us overcome our limited access to space travel through deep insight, or contributes to solving climate change. Or maybe we end up with a generation broadly educated in these tools of revolution and knowledge. I’m not willing to risk losing another generation to casual institutional racism. You shouldn’t be either.

When I look out at a class in our nominally desegregated country and I see a class that drastically fails to reflect that country, I would be a wildly remiss researcher to not question that failure. Why am I failing to train more black physicists? Why are my classes so white? How are there large swaths of communities that don’t get the same access to education I did?

John Roberts doesn’t want us to ask these questions because the underlying reason is ugly and exposes the systemic racism that is institutionalized at the deepest levels of our society. The laws that John Roberts and his colleagues nominally clarify and protect are created to keep Justices Roberts, Scalia, and their ilk of mediocre white men at the helm of our country. This is particularly ironic because our Justice seems to require minority students to justify their existence in any classroom they might wish to join. Since when is access to education something that must be earned through demonstrated greatness? For those of us that are white, seats at the table have always been available for the mediocre.

This state of affairs is unacceptable, be it in my classroom, laboratory, or the Supreme Court of the United States. Anyone who doesn’t understand the drastic failings of our nation to serve our Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Immigrant populations doesn’t belong in positions of leadership. My nation will be stronger when I do everything in my power to clear the way for all the geniuses, regardless of their background or the color of their skin. We are failing and as opposed to brushing those failings under the rug it is time for us to repair our nation.

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