Black Lives Matter & STEM

As I write this post, the date is May 30, 2020, approximately five days since the senseless murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis Police Department. Protests have erupted in many cities across the country, and my city, Tampa, is no different. I am faced with the reality of our justice system, racism, and my own privilege as a white American. With this intense (and necessary) magnifying glass set on our country, I can not help but reflect on my surroundings and university. 

My name is Kailey and I am a student at the University of South Florida. A focal point of our university is the Martin Luther King Jr. plaza: here, you will notice a large bust of Dr. King overlooking a reflection pond, as well as his famous “I Have a Dream” speech immortalized in stone. While this part of campus serves as a rallying point for peaceful protests and events, the true meaning and impact of Dr. King’s message is lost in nearly every aspect of society, and higher education is no different.

A National Science Foundation study in 2019 reported that out of all bachelor’s degrees earned in biological sciences in 2014, 4.23% of those were by Black women. 2.83% of all physical science degrees were earned by Black women, and 0.99% of engineering degrees were earned by Black women. While these statistics specifically quantify the degrees earned by  Black women, all marginalized populations face significant barriers to STEM education. Scientific culture and broader society have built these barriers, causing incredible talent and perspective to leave science, or not enter into STEM fields in the first place due, in part, to a lack of representation. 

A lack of diverse and inclusive representation permeated my education growing up, and very likely the majority of my peers. For many people, myself included, the idea of a scientist was dictated by the scientists we learned about and heard from in class: white men. This concept has shifted the dreams of many young people to aspire to enter these fields because they never saw themselves represented as scientists and weren’t encouraged or provided opportunities by the education system to explore this path further. This is oppressive because it paints a completely inaccurate history of science that ignores the achievements of Black scientists, further entrenching science history in white supremacy. Further, lack of representation and over-representation of white men in science cements for white students the idea of “who” is allowed to participate in science- when you only see white scientists, your mind forms that stereotyped image. This negative cycle continues and the problem is exacerbated when marginalized people, and specifically Black people, are made to feel unsafe in public spaces and in outdoor environments. This means that white scientists often make assumptions about Black scientists, paving the way for microaggressions and harassment at scientific institutions. 

As scientists, we cannot remain silent. We need to take action to not only raise awareness of the obstacles Black scientists face, but also actively work towards making the science community anti-racist. Science is not apolitical and it never has been. White scientists, for hundreds of years, have been performing racist experiments, claiming that Black people are “less evolved” or “less intelligent”; scientists have experimented horribly on Black bodies causing unspeakable pain, and developing methods and medications we still use in modern science (e.g., Henrietta Lacks, Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, etc.)

Science has been shaped by white supremacy, just as every other system in the United States has been. The history of racism in science continues to shape how we, meaning white people, treat our Black colleagues and students and this is unacceptable. We cannot remain silent and we must stand with our Black colleagues and neighbors. Finally, we must take action. 

Educate yourself. Read books and articles written by Black writers. Listen and learn from Black activists, professors, community members. Understand that as much as we can try, we will never understand what it is like to live as a Black person in a racist society. Speak out. If you see or hear racism from non-Black people, step in and correct them. If you’re non-Black, you will mess up sometimes. Apologize, listen, and make sure to do better next time. Support initiatives to create programs for Black students at your university, and initiatives to increase support programs for Black students and faculty. I encourage you to contact your local government, make your opinions known, stand up for what you know to be right, and vote! 

These protests all over the country are providing something stronger than a “like” or a “comment” on a social media post can. With the ear-pounding sounds of mourning, and the bravery of those protesting, those that demand peace, equality, and justice for every Black person, they are working towards creating a better world for all. 

I challenge every person with a platform to use that platform for good. Silence is no longer an option. We have to be better and be active allies to causes for racial equality, as well as to our fellow neighbors who have been continually victimized and oppressed by police, the “impartial” criminal justice system, and individual prejudices/biases.

I would like to also recognize and thank Dr. Sarah Sheffield, a geosciences professor at the University of South Florida (USF), Mckenna Dyjak, a recent graduate from USF, and Lisette Melendez, an undergraduate at USF, for editing this post and ensuring our message is heard.

Note from the Editors: If you are interested in more actionable items, ways to become anti-racist, and a list of organizations to financially support please see our statement on Black Lives Matter.