Scientific Community Joins Reckoning Over Racism

Demonstrators kneel at San Francisco City Hall on May 31, 2020, to protest the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Several groups marched to the Embarcadero, through Union Square and to the Hall of Justice, eventually converging and returning to City Hall. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In recent days, the scientific community has joined the wider movement against racial bias that has taken hold following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. As part of the effort, some 6,000 scientists and academicians have pledged to participate in a one-day strike Wednesday.

Last week, the initiative grew organically online under the hashtag #ShutDownSTEM, as well as  #Strike4BlackLives and #ShutDownAcademia. Organizers say their aim is to “transition to a lifelong commitment of actions to eradicate anti-Black racism in academia and STEM.”

Major scientific groups like the American Association for the Advancement of Science are signing on and encouraging their members to participate, listen, reflect, read and demonstrate.

“Almost every generation has arrived at a similar moment of opportunity born of tragedy,” the group's CEO, Sudip S. Parikh, wrote in a statement posted online. “Progress will require systemic change that, as of yet, we have been unable to make. To be clear, AAAS is part of that system. As we plan for the actions to ensure this moment does not slip away, it’s time for us to pause, listen, and reflect on how — as an organization, as members of the scientific community, and as members of our broader communities — we can and must be a powerful force for change.”

Staff at arXiv, which posts and archives study preprints, are also participating. From a statement posted June 8:

We acknowledge that in research, as in life, people often perpetuate bias and systemic racism, both consciously and unconsciously. Members of arXiv’s own physics community asked us to pause business-as-usual this week and join scientists participating in the #Strike4BlackLives. Our US-based staff agreed.

 

The influential research journal Nature published an editorial Tuesday acknowledging it is “one of the white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship." It continued:

The enterprise of science has been — and remains — complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices.

At Nature, we will redouble our efforts to do so, and commit to establishing a process that will hold us to account on the many changes we need to make.

Even the World Health Organization, amid grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, has weighed in,  stating it believes that public protests are important and sharing advice to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19 while demonstrating.

"WHO fully supports equality and the global movement against racism. We reject discrimination of all kinds," said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday.

(See KQED's How to Protest Safely in the Bay Area.)

Meanwhile, Brandon Taylor, author of the successful debut novel "Real Life," published in February, was interviewed on NPR's Short Wave podcast this week. He walked away from a graduate biochemistry program in 2016 after being the target of racist attacks. He tells host Maddie Sofia why he left, and what he misses. Listen to the audio below or read the transcript here.

You can also read his essay, "Working In Science Was A Brutal Education. That's Why I Left," on BuzzFeed. Here's a particularly compelling excerpt:

Science was beautiful and it was wild and it was unknowable. Science was spending days and weeks on a single experiment with no way to know if it would work and no real way to tell if it had worked. Science was like trying to find your way to a dark forest only to realize that you had always been inside of the forest and that the forest is inside of another, greater, darker forest. Science was laughing with my labmates about television the night before, about the song of the summer, about tennis, about the unruly nature of mold growing on our plates, about cheap wings at Buffalo Wild Wings. Science was being taught to think. Taught to speak. Science was a finishing school. Science was a brutal education. Science made me ruthless. Science made me understand the vast beauty of the world.

But science was also working 15 hours a day for weeks or months. Science was working weekends and holidays. Science was being called lazy for taking a break. Science was the beat of doubting silence after I answered a question put to me. Science was being told that racism was not racism. Science was being told that I was fortunate that I had running water while growing up and that I was actually privileged because there are some places that do not. Science was being told that I was mistaken for a waiter at a party because I had worn a black sweater. Science was being told that I had to work harder despite working my hardest. Science was being told that I talked too much. Science was being told that I was too loud. Science was being told that I was behind, always behind. Science was being told that I had failed but had been gifted a pass by virtue of who you are. Science was being told that I had never once been to class despite attending every session and office hour because I was mistaken for someone else.

Science was being the only black person in the program for four years. Science was saying nothing because I was tired of being corrected about the particulars of my own experience. Science was being told that I should consider moving to the other side of town where more black people live. Science was someone suggesting that I find a church in order to find community. Science was having my hair stroked and touched. Science was being told that I was articulate. Science was watching people’s eyes widen slightly in surprise when I told them what program I was in. Science was the constant humiliation of wondering if I had justified my presence or if I had made it harder for the next black person to get admitted. Science was having to worry about that in the first place.

Science was a place I ultimately left, not so much because I wanted to, but because I had to. Read the full essay

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