It’s (past) time to say no to sySTEMic racism. So, academia, we need to talk. The lab is one of my happy places – when I’m there I feel at home away from home. And it was kinda surprising how easy it was to slip back into this comfort zone. But, for my Black colleagues, the lab may not be a place of comfort. And this is unacceptable. Last week I showed you some of the things our lab is doing to protect all of the workers from coronavirus. But COVID-19 is just one of the threats facing society, and this week I want to talk about systemic inequalities in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math). Things can’t go back to “business as usual” here either. Well, actually, they *can* if we don’t do anything – and that’s the problem. 

Today is Juneteenth. It’s a holiday to celebrate when the last enslaved African Americans got the word that they were free. Well, physically free that is… that was in 1865, 155 years ago – yet, to this day, Black Americans face racial inequities at almost every turn. Because, although our society was largely built *by* Black people, it was not built *for* them. This is clear to see in how this holiday itself is treated. If you’re like me, you might just now be learning about it. They didn’t teach Juneteenth to us in school. The banks don’t close for this holiday. At the same time, one of the “holidays” we do learn to celebrate in school, what businesses do close for, is Columbus Day. Yup, we literally celebrate the colonization of America at the expense of the Indigenous Peoples already living here. Yet we don’t celebrate the end of slavery?

Over the past 2 weeks, I made a lot of PhD-research-focused research progress. But one of the most truly productive and meaningful things I did was research of a different type – taking last Tuesday’s #ShutDownSTEM as an opportunity to begin to educate myself further on the history of racial inequality in America, especially how Black people have been treated by medical and scientific establishments and how these establishments, some built off the labor and non-consensual “donations,” are tainted with systemic racism to this very day. 

As just a few examples, Black Americans are more likely to die from a wide range of medical conditions, strikingly seen in disparities in maternal health (Black women are more likely to die from childbirth), pain control (Black patients are less likely to receive pain medicine and less likely to be believed they’re in severe pain), and COVID-19 deaths (Black Americans are dying at 3X the rate of white people).  

Whereas Black people are overrepresented in these “bad” statistics, they’re grossly underrepresented in “good” ones, including ones from my favorite field, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). This is clear to see in the numbers – here are just a few:

  • Black people make up 12% of the American workforce, but only 5% of the science and engineering workforce 
  • as of 2014, 78% of early career doctorate holders in science & engineering (i.e. recent PhD graduates ready to join the ranks of faculty if desired (and not impeded)) were White. Black women made up 2.7% and Black men made up just 0.8%! 
  • When it comes to faculty, only 0.7-2.9 percent of faculty in biology, chemistry, and economics are Black And those Black faculty are more likely to be in lower-paying, non-tenure-track positions 

Scientists are often portrayed as being kinda robot-y and not having feelings (or at least not letting feelings impact our work). But (as I’ve hopefully been showing you in my daily bumbly posts), scientists are human. But science people do like numbers. So they see disparities in numbers as something they feel they can do something about – they think that if they just get more Black kids interested in STEM, recruit more Black scientists, the problem will be fixed. This has led to most of the effort being placed into getting Black kids into STEM. And these efforts are important, but they aren’t enough. 

Because, despite more Black youth trying to get into STEM, if they actually get here, they’re often met with an uncomfortable, even sometimes a hostile, environment. An environment that they often turn away from. And this is apparent in the numbers too.

  • when it comes to college, if you look at *enrollment* the disparities aren’t quite as stark (though still in need of addressing)
  • in the year 2018, 37% of Black people in the 18-24-year-old range were enrolled in college, compared to 42% of their White peers 
  • and Black students *are* interested in STEM – percentage-of-student-wise, Black students declare STEM majors at about the same rate as White students (19% vs 18%, respectively) 
  • but that was just looking at *enrollment* – when you look at how many actually graduate, that’s a whole ‘nother story… about 26% of Black STEM majors leave without graduating, compared compared to 13% of white STEM majors (data from a recent study analyzing people who enrolled in the 2003-2004 academic year) 
    • note – that’s for all colleges. The data is better for HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Institutions) (when you compare for things like socioeconomic status & academic preparation). A study found that Black students were 6-16% more likely to graduate from an HBCU within 6 years than Black students at a PWI (Predominantly White Institution) 
    • even when Black college students *do* graduate, they’re more likely than their White peers to have switched out of a STEM major (40% of Black students compared to 29% of White students). 

AND THESE STARK STATISTICS ARE NOT THEIR FAULT! These numbers are the result of society and STEM institutions systematically failing them at every level. Just look at where those field-switchers are going – many of them are facing a discriminatory STEM field and turning to social justice-related majors. They’re switching to study how better to confront the very issues holding them back. They haven’t lost their love of scientific inquiry – they still love molecules and stars and leaves or whatever it is that got them to declare a STEM major in the first place – but they’ve lost their faith in the scientific establishment which is controlling the gates to the resources needed to pursue those passions. 

You really can’t fault them from leaving, yet they often *are* faulted – their leaving is often portrayed as them “not being interested” or “not having what it takes.” 

No. No. No. The issue isn’t whether or not they’re interested – look back to those enrollment numbers. And look at how almost 37% of the physical science bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black students in 2010 were from HBCUs 

And it DEFINITELY is NOT a question of whether or not they have what it takes – the issue is whether STEM institutions have what it takes to tackle the systemic inequalities making the environment toxic for their Black colleagues. 

This problem doesn’t have as easy of a fix as the “let’s get more kids interested in STEM” (and then leave future generations to deal with the consequences) or “let’s recruit more grad students and junior faculty of color.” Even just getting institutions to admit that there *is* a problem with “them” as opposed to just “others” – recognizing that the problem isn’t just education’s fault – is hard. And addressing it is even harder. It will likely require some uncomfortable conversations. Whether it’s hearing Black colleagues tell stories of some of the microaggressions and flat-out explicit racist encounters they’ve faced or confronting a colleague who’s making racist “jokes,” these conversations aren’t all warm and fuzzy. But being uncomfortable for a bit is important. And as you sit with that discomfort, think about what it might be like to feel uncomfortable all the time. 

I often talk about imagining you’re a molecule. But now I want you to imagine something else – imagine you’re a Black scientist at a research university, and you look around and no one looks like you, no one can relate to some of the cultural components crucial to your identity. Even worse, you can hear rude comments being said about you personally or about your race. And there’s no one to turn to. If you speak up you’re seen as “aggressive” and may be retaliated against, and you can’t make an “anonymous” complaint when there are only a handful of Black people on campus. So you either stay silent and miserable. Or you leave. 

That’s where things stand for a lot of Black researchers in this country. But it doesn’t have to be like this. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but there are lots of great advocacy groups who (with research to back them up) have a lot of great resources for people looking to make change. 

A really great article to start with is White Academia: Do Better. written by Jasmine Roberts. 

If you just want a few quick tips, here are “4 Ways That Scientists And Academics Can Effectively Combat Racism” from Ethan Siegel. 

  1. Recognize that your black students face additional challenges above and beyond those faced by all students.
  2. Actively create a welcoming, supportive environment.
  3. Provide resources to ease the financial burdens that perpetuate systemic inequalities.
  4. Do the hard work of learning how to be inclusive yourself, rather than putting the onus on your black colleagues.

You can also read a transcript of a meeting from of the Working Group on Race and Racism in Contemporary Biomedicine entitled How do Black Lives Matter in Teaching, Lab Practices, and Research? put together by Anne Pollock and Deboleena Roy 

There is also a lot to be learned from HBCUs. In addition to producing a disproportionate share of Black STEM bachelor’s degrees, HBCUs are doing a better job preparing STEM graduates for PhD-ing. More than 1/3 of Black STEM doctoral degree-earners between 2005 and 2010 got their undergraduate degree from an HBCU. Yet these institutions are constantly under financial strain. 

In addition to those links, encourage you to check out #BlackInTheIvory to hear Black academics tell their first-hand accounts of systemic (as well as explicit) racism at work. They’re sharing experiences that many White people have been trying to deny and discount for much too long. But their stories need to count. Their lives need to count. Black Lives Matter. They matter in the streets and in the labs. And, until this is truly acknowledged, at the level of action and not just words and promises – until then, they are not truly free. 

To all my Black colleagues – as well as to all other underrepresented groups – I am so sorry for all of the discrimination you face in our society in general and in STEM. I want you to feel included. I want you to feel like you belong. I want you to feel appreciated. I appreciate you. I appreciate you as scientists and as human beings. And I hope that I can do a small part to help advocate for meaningful change.

I am so grateful to have the support of the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (IUBMB) in helping me share this message and resources. This post was just one in my series of weekly “Bri*fings from the Bench” as IUBMB student ambassador and I encourage you to follow them for news and resources for biochemists around the world.

If you want to learn more about all sorts of things: #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉 

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