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STEM’s Racial Reckoning Just Entered Its Most Crucial Phase

by | May 25, 2021 | New, News

An unexamined life is not worth living.

— Socrates

One year later, the legacy of George Floyd’s murder continues to permeate the entirety of society. The slow, barbaric nature of his public execution and its associated images and sounds captured our attention like few events have, offering a turning point for public conversations about the reach of racism.

Science and technology, which have suffered from well-documented and long-standing gaps in representation, were invoked at various points during the past year with regards to particulars of respiratory physiology, the sickle-cell trait, the pharmacology of fentanyl, and the problems with predictive policing algorithms. And then over the course of the past 12 months, STEM emerged as one of the arenas in which some of the most elaborate discussions on systemic racism, inclusion, and diversity have taken place.

These conversations evolved into a series of overlapping phases. Like the barrier between two closely related species of insect, these phases are not categories with hard boundaries.

It began days after the murder, with statements and manifestos from Black and brown STEM workers. They communicated how strongly they felt about racial justice, how these issues are close to their sense of purpose, even in their role as a statistician or software developer. Importantly, the idea is not that Black lives are valuable only if they study the multiverse or live in the Tidyverse, but the opposite: That we are not special or exceptional and that George Floyd could have been any of us.

Tech companies, universities, and scientific societies soon followed with statements of their own, signaling solidarity and an awareness that they too have a long way to go on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Across the board, the goal of this phase was to convey a broader commitment to a more equitable world and that implementing it starts with our own professions.

Phase 1 brought attention to the problem and allowed institutions of various kinds the space to communicate where they stood. This was important, both to the institutions themselves (drawing a proverbial line in their sand), and to their workers, many of whom were eager to see where their employer stood on the issues. But it created a world of symbolic gestures, full of platitudes or outright contradictions (for a non-STEM example, take the National Football League: Years after quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blacklisted after a peaceful racial justice protest, the league issued a series of apologies and new commitments to those very issues). The statements became institution-speak, even part of the NFL's marketing. Its logic: If our employees care, so do our customers and clients, and so we’d better get with the program.

The problem, of course, is that authoring statements requires little activation energy (often little more than a Slack message to a Black employee, asking for input), and no energy at all once the statement has been issued.

Time would (and will) tell us, however, which institutions meant it and which didn’t.

In Phase 2, which took hold on the doorsteps of the summer of 2020, control shifted from institutions to individuals with a very concrete goal: to find ways to promote Black STEM scientists and tech workers. Examples include the #BlackIn[Blank] hashtag movements, such as the Black Birder movement (a reaction to a racial profiling incident that predated the Floyd murder but took on new life as the protest movement took shape) and #BlackIntheIvory, which was less about STEM specifically but was discipline-wide and articulated everyday micro and macro aggressions in academia. The logic here: Create community among those who have been historically denied a voice so that they feel welcome and seen. After all, police violence is the most tragic feature of deeply entrenched biases that run throughout many of our professions and workspaces, that suppress voices, deny access, and stymie development.

Phase 2 represented an advancement from phase 1 because it shared the stage or provided a signal boost to hundreds of scientists and tech workers (at whatever the level of training). The only evidence we need for its utility are the thousands of individuals who participated, the many thousands of digital affirmations in support of it. It was important, and people benefited from it.

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The limits of phase 2 are embedded in their hashtags: They are mostly ephemeral. They serve as fleeting feel-good moments to celebrate excellent people. But they are, almost by definition, finite. And they are most limited because they are guilty of a grand conflation between visibility and influence. It is one thing to have a stage, hashtag, or other mechanism to attract eyeballs to individuals. It is something else altogether to convert that visibility into an instrument for cultural or institutional change.

Phase 3 emerged as a way to lay bare the dichotomy between visibility and influence and underscore that only resources can transform attention into impact. As the fall of 2020 arrived, new, important creations began to transcend retweets: professional networks, lecture series, free computer programming classes aimed at Black scientists, commitments to diversity training at institutions of many kinds. And while anything can be a “resource,” the one that served as the strongest quantifiable proxy was financial support.

Financial support signifies a concrete commitment to racial justice and addresses a long-standing complaint that diversity, equity, and inclusion infrastructure is under-resourced, a reflection of it being of little interest to institutions.

If my employer emails me a statement that they wrote in support of racial justice, I’ll reply with “I appreciate that.” Retweet my #BlackinScienceWriting tweets, and I’ll DM you a thanks. Hand me $1,000, and I can organize a small research symposium for early-career Black scientists who study herpetology, or provide a small stipend for a high school student to spend a summer writing computer simulations in my laboratory. Hand me several times that, and I can hire a team of data scientists to publish a series of white papers that describe new and underappreciated challenges in diversifying professional spaces. Add several zeroes to the end of that amount, and I can start a company that may help us come up with long-term solutions.

Phase 3 encouraged us to pay Black scientists for their unacknowledged labor, hire diversity consultants to examine the status of inclusion in our workplaces, or fund new positions at a corporation or university dedicated to diversity and inclusion efforts. Nothing can happen without financial resources, and the little things that we have observed at work in phase 3 are critical.

It may be tempting to say that this is just throwing money at the problem. Take the case of Jack Dorsey, for example. We might (should, I believe) applaud the Twitter CEO for donating $10 million to an antiracist science institute. That a tech giant wants to donate millions to an antiracism outfit might be laudable in any context, but our interpretation changes when we add context: Twitter has been an active instrument in the flourishing of white nationalism for many years.

Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and others had been aware of how their platforms were being used for white nationalist propaganda for a long time, and they could have helped to stymie the rise of organized racism long ago. That they did not before the George Floyd murder is reflective of their priorities. Consequently, it is not especially cynical to surmise that, in some cases, the sums of money donated to racial justice is intended to provide a public relations force field: “Some of my best friends are Black” has become “I donated to the Black fund.”

Of course, many who lead large institutions couldn’t truly be bothered with the well-being of their Black workers or users. Because Jack and friends know that addressing institutional barriers requires much more than shock therapy.

Make no mistake—the resources phase is critical. When done correctly, resources (especially financial) provide the infrastructure necessary to address long-standing problems. That is, resources aren’t supposed to be the end of the conversation, but the beginning. Little can happen without them.

The question is, what do we do with them once we have them?

One year after George Floyd was murdered, phase 3 continues to grow in scope: New job titles are created, new hires have been greenlit, and job announcements feature impressively transparent language about commitments to antiracism and diversity. But past these important advances—and I want to emphasize that all of them are important—we now walk into uncharted territory.

The defining question of this new phase 4 is, Are we there yet? What exactly are we supposed to do, and how do we know if we’ve made progress? Have we done a good job if we hire a number of indigenous computer scientists in the next five years? Few would doubt that this is a great sign. If the enrollment of students with a self-identified disability doubles in the next two cohorts of graduate students, we should be encouraged.

Even here we must be careful and consider the lesson of Goodhart’s law: When a metric becomes the goal, it is no longer a useful metric.

If the low numbers of Black or brown scientists indicate that an institutional culture is biased or unwelcoming, then targeting those numbers alone is not the way to change that culture. Extending further, if you simply change the numbers of Black and brown faces in the crowd, you may not have changed much.

Have we in any of these phases examined what problem we are trying to solve? And by problem, I mean something more specific than “address systemic racism.”

But this isn’t entirely true. Surely increasing the diversity in the faces in the crowd is a part of the goal. Because the problems are so large, shock therapy that increases numbers immediately might create a critical mass. And a critical mass would at the very least make early-career scientists from marginalized communities feel less alienated in their respective programs and professions. And by extension, the culture would then change.

Perhaps phase 4 should involve a rigorous evaluation of our progress. Every sophisticated initiative that aims to address a social ill requires an equally (or more) sophisticated tool to measure whether that initiative is at all effective. The roads to nowhere are paved with even the best of intentions (from phases 1 through 3).

Even our evaluative powers are useless if we haven’t decided what the goal actually is. Even more banally: Have we, in any of these phases, examined what problem we are trying to solve? And by problem, I mean something more specific than “address systemic racism.”

This and all subsequent phases will succeed only if we come clean with an uncomfortable truth: Institutional racism is so pernicious because it lurks in the margins of society, often in lanes that are difficult to diagnose and legislate. That they are difficult to diagnose doesn’t mean that they are less meaningful. The contrary might be true: That racism at the margins is difficult to diagnose is precisely how it embeds itself all over our universe and rots society from the inside.

This rot manifests in how some startup pitches are received when they come out of some mouths relative to others.

It lives in who gets to be an expert, and why we require credentials from some but not others.

It lives on editorial boards and on dissertation and promotion committees.

It tells us why students of similar talents or interests are mentored differently, why some are encouraged to pursue more challenging projects with more potential for growth.

It explains why one scientist is labeled a polymath and the other a dilettante for similar work.

It lives within how professional networks are built, often in social and informal settings. (I may not like IPAs, but I could benefit from the associated after-work chatter.)

It may even live in how Black teachers are treated by the students they aim to inspire, or how Black health care workers are treated by the patients they are trying to treat.

Phase 4 and beyond might be most radical in its subtlety: It doesn’t require celebrity voices or super allies, but admitting that racism may permeate all aspects of the scientific craft. And it is not mutually exclusive with respect to the resources offered in phase 3. The hiring initiatives are a great idea, as are efforts to work conversations about race into basic human resources protocol.

And this acknowledgement that we are fighting a two- (or 200-) front war is where phase 4 may draw its strongest connection to the legacy of George Floyd. The protest movement of 2020—maybe the largest in American history—was defined by sub-conversations about the world that made the ordeal possible: how we value lives, how we police communities, and what is the goal of the criminal justice system.

In STEM, the healing must start with our very definition of what merit even is. By having these larger conversations, we aren’t kicking the rock down the road, but are considering that the whole darned thing might be broken. That doesn’t mean that science and technology are themselves broken ideas—they are the most powerful instruments in the history of the known universe. They would be even stronger if we could all participate.

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