Predatory Inclusion within STEM: Why we need to challenge white supremacy within our workplaces, organizations and beyond
By Dante O’Hara
A few months after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, I was attending the National Society of Black Engineers convention, where they held a ceremony and told everyone to wear a hoodie as a performative gesture. This was a Black-space where, if you didn’t have a high GPA, there were no internships or jobs, and recruiters would laugh in your face if you had anything below a 3.0 (that was me). Students were mostly there to ingratiate themselves to corporate managers to find the perfect internship or full-time job after college. It was a strange mix of class hierarchy and American exceptionalist ideas among Black folks all in one space. I continued to attend these conventions because I met a lot of friends and made some great connections with folks that I still have to this day, but these experiences were illustrations of what I came to know as “predatory inclusion”, also known as racial liberalism.
Predatory inclusion is when Black people (or those historically excluded) are no longer legally excluded, yet the consequences of their historical exclusion shapes the terms upon which they are included, meaning new forms of exploitation, like debt. Racial liberal ideas like “financial literacy or counseling” and “building Black business” have been ineffective at addressing the racial wealth gap or ending anti-Black racism or other forms of racial hierarchy. I’ve seen “predatory inclusion” in the STEM field throughout my career firsthand.
My background is in engineering and materials science, and the only “professional” minoritized organizations available to me were those like the corporate-controlled National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), problematic fraternities, fellowship organizations (i.e. GEM National Consortium), and organizations like National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP). Unfortunately, many of these organizations pride themselves on “diversity and inclusion” and creating a “pipeline” for Black students and students of color to get decent-paying jobs for a hard-earned college degree. And yet, NSBE is a tool of the military-industrial-complex. Its conferences are run by corporate leaders of military defense contractors like Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin, organizations so caught up in the idea of liberal inclusion that they want to put Black students through the same white supremacist institutions that cause harm to our communities here and abroad.
Why would any bright-minded Black student want to intern or work a full-time job for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who are both responsible for killing Black liberation and African decolonization leaders such as Fred Hampton in Chicago and Patrice Lumumba in Congo?
Corporate and academic models for “solving racism” have time-and-time again led to a dead end, with “diversity and inclusion” councils positioned as a weak response to systemic social forces. Wage gaps, lack of hiring, lack of retirement benefits, and different levels of exploitation still exist for Black workers, even those with higher degrees.
We need to use these Black-led spaces to educate our folks more, not just put them through liberal inclusion to inflict further violence and harm on the world.
The “diversity and inclusion” framework simply cannot work within an institution that causes violence and harm to those that they are supposedly trying to include. A Black leader of the CIA or FBI or a police unit is still going to cause harm to their community because the institution they work for is an intrinsically violent, white supremacist institution.
By building a new, radical, anti-oppressive, and anti-exploitative vision, we need to create spaces inside and outside of the “diversity and inclusion” framework that allow Black voices and its co-conspirators to challenge class exploitation and Black oppression.
These struggles are intertwined and cannot be completely separated, hence why all attempts at “diversity and inclusion” have ultimately failed, though there has been minimal progress.
How do we create a non-exploitative working environment? Capitalism itself is an exploitative economic system between an employer and an employee, and its highest stage–imperialism, inflicts violence all over the world by creating underdevelopment in countries through debt from high-interest loans and economic restrictions.
The way to challenge this employer-employee exploitation is to create independent, “dual power” institutions like labor unions, worker cooperatives, public banking, etc.
Studies have shown that workers have better healthcare, better retirement benefits, and better wages when they are a union member. Majority of U.S. workers are not unionized, thanks to the anti-Communist, McCarthyite attacks on union members in the 1940s and 50s and the further onslaught on public sector workers by the presidency of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and so on. The last time we actually saw true relief for working class families was due to the unity among workers in the Congress for Industrial Organizations (CIO) back in the 1930s fighting against oppressive conditions during the Great Depression.
Let’s say you work for a defense contractor or the national security apparatus that has supposedly responded to this summer’s uprisings against police terror. They allow its Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, disabled and other oppressed workers to organize into a “diversity and inclusion” council, but everything must be approved by management. This is a problematic foundation because it is not in the best interests of the workers and they will be shut out from any radical change from within the company.
The best way for the workers to really get change is to organize themselves outside of the confines of the council and begin meeting among themselves, independently.
From there, they can begin actually discussing organizing a union drive and fighting for an actual bargaining contract (assuming they are legally allowed to do so in their state).
We can build a better world without exploitation and war. It is possible to use the D&I framework as a basis to begin building relationships with other workers that see the limitations of the D&I councils.
We need a resurgence of this worker’s movement now, especially in the midst of a dire unemployment crisis from a pandemic and a global boom-bust cycle economy that is intrinsically built for the wealthy few. Within the confines of the minoritized non-profit industrial complex (i.e. organizations like NSBE), students and workers need to lead campaigns to remove the influence of the military-industrial-complex and open up space for leaders of democratic enterprises (i.e. worker-owned cooperatives) in STEM and organizations fighting white supremacy through movement work and not the same old liberal representation politics. It is my hope that we can find a way to liberate Black and oppressed workers in STEM through developing forms of economic democracy and a solidarity commonwealth free of tokenization, co-optation and the influence of capitalist individualism.
About the Author
Dante O’Hara is a materials engineer in Washington, D.C. He graduated from the University of California, Riverside with his Ph. D. in 2019. Dante is an organizer, a member of the National Society of Black Physicists, Science for the People, and the Debt Collective. You can find him on Instagram @dante_ohara and Twitter @DanteOHaraPhD.