Response to ongoing police violence against Black Americans

Kyle Niemeyer
Jun 4, 2020 · 7 min read
Source: Black Lives Matter

After spending nearly a week in public silence (beyond retweeting and liking tweets, and trying to follow more Black voices, especially in STEM), I cannot continue to remain silent on the brutality and violence that Black Americans face every day in our country.

Non-comprehensive, and now-outdated, list of Black deaths at the hands of police in the US, since July 2014. Source: NPR’s Code Switch

Like most others, I was shocked to see the casual murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis—but I was not surprised. And no other Americans should be surprised, because Floyd’s murder was just the latest in a long history of Black lives ended brutally, and in many cases casually, by police or white vigilantes in America. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Tony McDade. David McAtee. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Sandra Bland. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Trayvon Martin. Akai Gurley. Tanisha Anderson. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Amber Monroe. The list goes on, and on, and on. Black men and women continue to be terrorized and murdered, and any list of names will likely be outdated when you read it. They are fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and children—not just names. That this happens is not a matter of opinion, or interpretation. Black men and women are disproportionately killed by police in America, for the crime of being born Black.

Black Lives Matter.

I’ve spent the last week upset, sad, angry, and unable to focus much on my work—and I am not Black. I cannot imagine what my Black friends and colleagues must be going through at this time. I mean that literally: white people cannot understand what Black Americans feel right now, because we do not live what they live every day from birth. But we can listen, and try to make things better. Also: this isn’t about us, or our feelings.

As others have said—particularly Black voices, who white Americans should listen to most right now—being non-racist is not sufficient. Being consciously and actively anti-racist is essential.

The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘anti-racist.’ …One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ – Ibram X. Kendi

I have long considered myself to not be a racist—though we all hold implicit biases that require constant work to address—but I admit I have not been an anti-racist. I’ve remained silent, not just for the last week but for years, and have not done enough.

I am extremely privileged, as a white, cisgender man in America with an upper-middle class, suburban background. My privilege extends in my profession, as a recently tenured professor in engineering at a research-intensive university. It is an abdication of my duty as a fellow human—much less as a fellow American—to not exploit this privilege to advocate, and help improve society, for Black Americans, and especially students and colleagues in STEM and my research fields.

To my Black friends, colleagues, and fellow citizens

I will listen and continue educating myself. I support your anger. I support your right to protest, politely or angrily or aggressively or however you need to protest. (As does the U.S. Constitution.) I will do more, including promote your voices, and advocate for you, both loudly and behind the scenes.

To my students

I’ve already said some of this—more or less coherently—to those of you in my research group and classes, but it is hard to focus on research and class work with all that is going on. And if it’s hard for me, it’s probably hard for you, and especially hard for Black students right now, along with students who are indigenous and/or people of color.

(For the white folks reading this, it’s worth remembering that Black, indigenous, and people of color [BIPOC] always face the additional burden of dealing with systemic racism and bias. Think of what could be accomplished without a significant portion of our society having to constantly deal with the oppressive distraction of racism, as Toni Morrison called it?)

Your individual backgrounds, experiences, and personalities matter, and I value you. I take my research group’s Code of Conduct seriously, but I will work beyond this to fully include you all and support your development as engineers, scientists, and human beings.

I am here for you, in whatever form you need. I support your right to protest—and might be there with you. If you need help, or someone to come get you or protect you, I’ll be there. For anyone out there, my Twitter DMs are open.

To students who are Black, indigenous, and/or people of color: I will do a better job of mentoring you, if you consent to that, and supporting you, both vocally and behind the scenes.

To my white colleagues

We need to step up. This means educating ourselves, and doing more than lip service on these issues. Listen to and amplify the voices of Black people, and those of indigenous and/or people of color, especially your colleagues and students in STEM. I’ve shared some links below to lists of resources and things that we can all do.

What not to do: do not ask Black people what to do. The information and resources are out there. Google it. They have enough to deal with, and are not responsible for fixing you. Take responsibility for this yourself—the resources are out there. However, this is not our moment to be saviors or performative allies, and this is not about our feelings.

In academia, this means removing our collective heads from the sand on how the things we teach and research affect, and are affected by, society. Engineers and scientists are human, and so the power structures and systemic racism inherent to our society pervade engineering and science. Refusing to acknowledge this fact does not make racism go away, and in fact contributes to its persistence. By addressing these issues, and changing the way we teach and mentor students, we can work towards fully including our students and colleagues who are Black, indigenous, and/or people of color. In doing that, we can better serve society and humanity in our work.

What does that actually look like? Well, I don’t have all the answers. Further educating ourselves is the first step. Things we can do are to better address social issues connected to our technical topics, and also move beyond the Western, male-dominated “history” emphasized in most textbooks. For those of us in engineering, and even more specifically those who teach thermodynamics, Dr. Donna Riley, Head of the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University, has written some helpful books that can serve as a starting point:

I plan to post future entries about this work, integrating these issues in my classes, and working with my colleagues to do the same.

Beyond teaching, academics—particularly those who are in positions of privilege and power—need to recognize the systemic bias inherent in things like federal grants and student fellowships. Donna Ginther and colleagues showed in 2011 that Black applicants were 10% less likely to be awarded NIH funding than white applicants, when controlling for all other factors. Recently, Travis Hoppe and friends showed that proposal topics that emphasize priorities of communities of color and low-income communities are less likely to be funded, even for white applicants. Black/African American applicants had even lower chances, and were significantly more likely to have their proposals triaged before discussion. As grant proposal reviewers, we need to recognize these biases, and work to correct for them.

Systemic bias also applies in graduate student fellowships. Others have pointed out how the majority of NSF Graduate Research Fellowships overwhelmingly favor students attending elite, private universities. For example, for multiple years in a row, the same numbers of fellowships have gone to students graduating from Harvard University as from the entire California public university system (~40–50), despite that the former only graduates around 7,000 students and the latter sees more than 400,000 students graduate annually. You simply cannot argue that there are not more as-deserving students in the larger, public university systems. (Also, as a past reviewer for this program, I have seen this bias play out live, favoring students from smaller, private programs—and had to fight it in myself. Full disclosure: I recieved this fellowship in 2010.)

I appreciate the letter that outgoing President Ray at Oregon State University recently published. I hope that my colleagues in the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering, and the College of Engineering, take that call to action to heart.

To my friends and family

This all applies to you too. Furthermore, I will not tolerate racist acts or comments in any form, and will call you out on that shit. That may make us uncomfortable, but such discomfort pales in comparison to what Black families face every day.

Let’s get to work. ✊

Resources

20 things you can do right now as an ally. Source: @mbrianaepler

NRG Excitations

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