Monday, October 20, 2014

Confronting Race and Racism to Move Away From One-Dimensional Diversity

When I joined the CSWA last year, I had dinner in Cambridge with a number of fellow CSWA members who were in the area at the time. At one point we went around the table giving our reasons for serving on the committee. I stated that my motivation was the help people of color, particularly women of color. I found the success of the CSWA and the advances of (white) women in astronomy extremely inspiring and I wanted to learn better how they had moved from being minorities to having a more equal representation in astronomy.

The CSWA Chair recently told me that if I wanted to take on the subject of race and the issues facing women of color, that rather than expecting the committee's full support for this "specialized" issue, I should go ahead and lead the way. With this post, and my previous post, I endeavor to bring the issues facing of women of color in our community into better focus, with the hope that the rest of the committee might see this as a problem worth addressing. After all, if white women made up < 5% of the astronomy community, I think there would be widespread calls for action. To focus on a specific population, Black women make up about 1% of the astro community, and 0% of faculty hires over the past 10 years. The situation for Latina and Native women isn't much better (See Donna Nelson's statistics for top-40 astro depts as of 2007). In fact, the situation is even dire for Asian American women, broadly speaking.

On my personal blog I have given understanding of racism in America, and how I teach the concept to my children. The reading list posted therein informs much of what follows, so if you’d like references please see the end of that article. See also my introduction on the subject of race in (US) astronomy. For people wishing to comment on this, please do me, yourself and the community a favor and first read this excellent reader’s guide on discussing racism. You’ll be surprised how often the first thing that comes to your mind has been previously voiced and repeated ad nauseam elsewhere in similar forums, if not on the floor of the US Senate back in 1964 during debates over the Civil Rights Act. When in doubt, please frame your comment as a question, and remember that as an educated individual you are not entitled to your opinion.

The 1927 AAS meeting. In one key respect it is the same now as it was then.
The first concept I'll address is that of race. This subject is covered extensively in the easy-to-read textbook Seeing White (see my Twitter challenges #BloggingWhite and #TweetingWhite), as well as in numerous other books, research papers, blog posts, etc. Thus, I cannot do proper justice in the space here, but I can highlight some important aspects of race that should pique your interest as a scientists and citizen:
  1. Race has little to no biological basis. Many lines of genetic research have shown that when humans are divided into various "classical" racial categories (a process that is, itself, fraught with difficulty and ambiguity), that 85% of genetic variation occurs within racial groups, while < 7% of the variability is across racial divisions. At a genetic level, we are an order of magnitude more human than we are any specific race.
  2. While race is not a biological reality, it is very much real because we humans believe in race and act according to racial divisions. This started with the US Census, which needed to identify Black slaves in the South so they could be counted as 3/5 of a human each for congressional representation. It continued as a justification for slavery (slaves are happier when taken care of by white owners!) with the oppressive Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, as well as federal appropriation of funds, employment and military service. It also formed the primary basis of the problematic eugenics movement, and eugenics researchers produced most of the junk "science" that informs even modern conceptions of race. Race divisions continue today in the wealth gap, imprisonment disparities, school segregation, etc.
The key takeaway is: race, while not a biological reality, is a social reality with numerous and far-reaching consequences for how we live and interact in American society. Race is real, but only because we have created it, defined it, nurtured it and most importantly: used it.


The six women have two things in common: they all play professional basketball
and they are all Black Americans, despite how varied they appear. There is greater genetic
diversity within a given race than there is between races. 
That last idea, the use of race is key. Without the concept of race, there cannot be a concept of one race being superior to another. But if society understands race to be genetic and immutable, then it's only a matter of time before one group asserts its superiority. Remember how German society united around the idea of an "Aryan race?" Remember how race has no genetic basis and is pretty much a fairy tale? Remember the consequences of the strong national belief in that superior race? This is why race matters.

Without race available as a tool for dividing up humans into categories, and as a tool for labeling one group as superior (whites) and other groups as inferior (non-whites), then one would be left only with what the founders of our country wrote, namely: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." Without the concept of white and non-white, then it would, indeed, be self-evident, as well as scientifically evident that all people are born equal.
Look at this and tell me race doesn't matter...
However, we live in a world with limited resources. In the 17th--19th centuries, the American South saw an opportunity to gain wealth, resources and power through the trade of agricultural products, cotton being king among those products. I don't need to go into the details of what went down after Black people were labeled subhuman and pressed into forced labor to build our country. But the institution of slavery couldn't exist without the social construct of race. 

Racism is the framework that has allowed and continues to allow white people to accumulate an unfair advantage over non-white Americans, as I detailed in my previous post (and references therein). Seeing White examines this process using social constructionism. The basic idea is that race does not need to matter, but it does because it's an effective tool for appropriating power, resources and wealth for white people while leaving non-whites out of the game. Having constructed this social reality, consequences such as a wealth gap and elevated poverty rates among non-whites quite naturally follow. The construction of race/racism causes inequality which in turn results in good things for white people and bad things for non-white people.

It's worth stating this again: the construction of race leads to racist policies that disadvantage non-whites in our society, resulting in non-whites having less; less wealth, lower incomes, less availability to health care, shorter life expectancies, living near poverty, and being excluded from positions of power in our society. It's not because non-whites have inferior cultures (the so-called "culture of poverty") and choose to occupy a lower class in our society. Rather, they have been pushed into a lower class by a system that provides them with fewer opportunities and more contingencies than a white person with otherwise identical starting conditions.

Racism, sexism, homophobia. All of these are tools that allow one group to amass wealth, resources and power while denying equal access to others. I could point out numerous examples in history, but most people know about them already. And that's the problem: because those nasty things are viewed as happening in the past, we shrug them off and think, "Jeez, how stupid were those people? Silly Nazis, subjugation is for kids!" But here's the thing: There was no magical moment between the past and present during which everyone suddenly had a software update. Views have evolved, but slowly. Primarily, we are products of our past, we inherit our cultural practices and beliefs from our ancestors. 

Don't believe me? Have you ever heard about how Americans are devout, hard-working, fiercely independent people? To whom do we usually attribute these good traits? The Puritans and Founding Fathers and all those heroes of the past, of course. All of these good things that we believe about ourselves as Americans are usually the things we venerate in our ancestors. And we act accordingly. (The Greatest Generation accomplished what they did with no competition from people of color, and benefited from programs such as home loans through the FHA and educational subsidies via the GI Bill that simply weren't available to most people of color. Yet we hold this generation in the highest esteem today.)
Behold: our moral ancestors!
But when it comes to things like racism? Bah! That's all in the past. That happened hundreds of years ago. That has nothing to do with me! Well, I'm sorry to say that unless you spent a fair fraction of your education studying these matters, you're destined to inherit the thinking of the past. Why? Because it's the default setting for our country and society.

Also kinda relevant in shaping modern American morality...
Sadly, as I see it, this inheritance is precisely what has happened and continues to occur in astronomy, both in the past and present. Astronomy is like a microcosm of America. In the US, it has a system of governance distributed among several branches, including the AAS, NSF/NOAO, NASA, etc. These organizations set policies, and distribute resources like telescope time, funding and jobs. Like resources and wealth in the US, the resources in the astronomy community are scarce and competition is fierce. And like the governing bodies in the US, a perusal of the people in charge quickly reveals a distinct lack of color. For example, the AAS council has 19 members, of which 18 are white.
The officers of the AAS Council: representative of the demographics of astronomers in 2014,
representative of the demographics of American power/leadership, but not representative
of the demographics of America. The other 9 members of the council are not pictured, but
include a single person of color.
In addition to being a part of America of and subject to the same race-based rule sets that govern society in our country, Astronomy is a part of academia, which relies to a large degree on elitism. People in academia consider themselves elite thinkers, the best at what they do. Further, they perceive their system as being a meritocracy. If your identity is built on the concept of exceptionalism and if you considers one's institution to be elite among higher learning, then the temptation to believe that your characteristics are superior will be extremely strong. Particularly if everyone around you shares those characteristics. It's a self-supporting system built on sorting the elite from the non-elite.

(This is why I'm so focused on the nature of intelligence. In truth, intelligence is less genetic and much more about hard work and dedicated practice. Brilliant astrophysicists are taught/advised, mentored/trained rather than simply born. But in some of my past discussions with senior-level astronomers I have noticed the implicit assumption that certain groups of people are genetically more likely to be successful astronomers.)

When I tell (white) people I'm the first Black professor to attain tenure in the Physical Sciences at Harvard, they tend to respond with something like, "What?! In 2014?!" As if this specific time in history is so far separated from the era of segregation. In fact, this is the same country in many respects as it was in 1960, or in 1901, or in 1860. Much of the software is still installed and running just fine in the background. One of the primary differences is that sometime between now and the 1964 Civil Rights Act is that white society decided they would no longer talk about race openly. And having done that long enough, recently there's the belief that we are now in a post-racial society, all without having to do anything!

That would be nice. But as someone who feels the effects of race and racism every single day, let me give you my observation: We are no more in a post-racial America that we are in a post-America America. Race isn't real in any scientific sense. But it is very real in our society. Ignoring this simple fact has far-reaching consequences in society, as well as in the little subset of American society that we call astronomy.

Interested in being an ally? Here's an excellent guide

Anticipated Questions/Comments and Some Responses

  1. Wait, isn't race important from a medical perspective. Don't some races have different diseases than others?

    This is not as straight-forward as you may think. Take sickle cell anemia, which is known to be present at high rates in individuals of African decent. It's a Black disease, right? Well, not quite. Greek people also have this disease, as well as almost all groups from warm or especially tropical regions. This is because sickle cell is an adaptation to malaria, and is therefore regional, not racial. Diseases like hypertension are common among African American men, but not among African men. This is because hypertension is related to the added stress of living in a racist society (See Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele). Some close-knit cultures are susceptible to genetic diseases due to limited genetic variation within their groups due to, e.g., strict rules against intermarrying.
  2. But I'm color blind! I don't see race.

    Well, you live in a racist society; a society built on the existence of race and that uses race as a basis for various rule sets. Being color blind in America is like being rule-blind in a game of chess. Also, I should note that this is far easier to say as a white American than as a non-white American. It's like being a billionaire and saying that money and possessions don't matter.

  3. Can't non-white people be racist against white people? Everyone can be disrespectful to anyone else.

    As I'll tackle in an upcoming post, racism and prejudice are related, but definitely are not the same thing. One can be prejudiced but not racist. Racism = prejudice + Power. A black man can hate a white man, and that's prejudice, and perhaps even bigotry. But after his moment of hatred, the black man goes back into a world in which he is less likely to be hired because of his race, and the white man goes back into a world relatively full of opportunities. The black man is more likely to end up in prison for an offense for which the white man would get probation. The key to racism is that it lies along the vector of the Power differential. Also, note that individual results may vary due to statistical fluctuations. Barak Obama is many-sigma away from the mean for Black Americans. However, even he and his family are nonetheless still subject to racism on a regular basis.
  4. Well, I'm not racist! I don't hate non-white people. I treat everyone equally.

    That's great! Perhaps you've read dozens of books on the topic of race, racism, white privilege and US history. But if you haven't done your homework, your concept of non-racism will be awfully thin. If you've done your homework, the question becomes: what are you doing to actively combat racism in your world? Being nice to everyone is...nice. But there are no passive participants in the fight against racism. This is simply because society is based on race by default. Racist rules are the default setting. If you're a white person conscious about these issues, I hope you'll join in and help rather than simply claiming to be the good-guy/gal and then stepping back to the sidelines.

    As white anti-racism activist Frances Kendall points out in her book, "White privilege has nothing to do with whether or not we are 'good' people. We who are white can be jerks and still have white privileges; people of color can be wonderful individuals and not have them."
  5. Didn't you run into Goodwin's Law in mentioning the Nazis?

    There are laws (legal), there are laws (scientific) and there are laws (silly memes). I'm sure Goodwin is an excellent attorney, but I missed the scientific or legal basis of his law.

    Give that my post is about race, I feel that referring to one of the most egregious cases of state-sanctioned racism is appropriate. Also, given the average American is much more familiar with Nazi Germany than they are about racial covenants, redlining, block busting, lynching and other facets of good ol' American state-sanctioned racism, I made the conscious decision to stick with what people know.
  6. I'm from [country other than America]. I don't see what the big deal is, and I'm definitely not to blame for any of this. Also, you don't talk about race/racism in other countries, such as those in which white people are the minorities.

    As a US citizen with little to no experience living in or doing astronomy in other countries, my perspective will necessarily be on the state of affairs in the US. As for not seeing the big del, while you didn't set the rules for the game, you certainly are subject to them, whether you want to admit it or not. If you are, say, Chinese, then I'm sure you've noticed how few US professors look like you, despite the large number of Chinese immigrants in our country. If you're from Europe and white, you're going to miss a lot of this because you'll get to enjoy the benefits of being on the empowered side of the equation. This is all relevant to anyone wishing to navigate academia in America, whether you were born here or not.