Several days ago I got an email that yesterday there was going to be a #ShutDownScience and Shut Down STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) initiative, in which the organizers called for “no research, no meetings, no classes, no business as usual in order to challenge and address anti-Black racism. This initiative is a small step towards educating ourselves and working against anti-Black racism in STEM and academia.”
The email provided a couple of links (e.g. here, here, and here) for resources and actions you can take. I can understand why the organizers want to bring discussions of race and racism into academia, and I can’t bring myself to say that these initiatives are useless or performative, for they might well have salutary consequences if they get conversations going. What turned me off was the implication that all of us white folks in STEM—as well as POCWAB (people of color who aren’t black)—perpetuate racism, and that, in fact, science is riddled with endemic, structural racism:
The first statement is not only hyperbolic, but palpably false. No, academia and STEM (STEM is the only aspect of academia I know well) do not sustain racist systems, nor do they contribute to the murder of black people. Science, in fact, is about as egalitarian a discipline as you can imagine, and science departments throughout America are fervently trying to increase diversity, attempting to hire black and Hispanic faculty and to recruit students of color. This is a form of affirmative action of which I approve. But any failures here are attributable not to racism, but to a too small pool of candidates. The solution is to increase the pool, and that means giving equal opportunity education to everyone, starting at the very beginning of school—kindergarten on up. This also means working to eliminate poverty and inequality and, yes, racism in American society. But the solution is not to try sniffing out racism lurking in the crannies of science.
Nor do the methods of science sustain racism. In the past some scientists, and some fields, were imbued with racism, but those days are pretty much gone. If you claim that there is “systemic racism” in science, I’d ask you to show me where in the system that racism is built in. Where in the procedure of science, in the “scientific endeavor”, do we see support of racism?
Of course, science is done by humans, and some humans are racist. But I will not assent to the claim that science itself sustains racism, much less contributes to the murder of black people, or creates a “toxic space” for people of color (another claim at the websites above). The reason that people like me might go along with the claims in yellow, when they are such over-the-top exaggerations, is that nobody wants to be called a racist for questioning them.
The second statement, that not only white people, but Asians, people from the Middle East, Hispanics, and other “people of color who are not black”, play key roles in perpetuating systemic racism, is unevidenced, but simply asserted. Given the absence of systemic racism, the argument that, say, Hispanics, Palestinians, Indians, and Asians perpetuate systemic racism in science is foolish.
I’m not alone in this opinion. Below, for instance, is a video discussion of the issue by evolutionary biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, hounded out of The Evergreen State College by accusations of racism (in fact they both had a long history of anti-racism). Their story is well known and you can read about it at the links.
They see #ShutDownSTEM” as “a demonstration of power” rather than as “an honest confusion about whether science is a good thing.” Their previous experience gives them a unique perspective on the call to shut down science. They also assert in greater detail what I said above: the claim that science is structurally racist, and sustains racism, is without evidence. (Again, this does not deny that individual black researchers may have faced bias at times or that science has sustained racism at times in its history.)
The discussion of this issue begins at 10:46 and goes on pretty much for the rest of the hour.