by Greg Mayer
Three of us wrote a letter in response to, and disagreement with, a statement issued by three evolution societies concerning the mass shooting on March 16 by Robert Aaron Long, who shot to death eight people, six of them Asian, at three Atlanta area massage parlors. On March 19, the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), the American Society of Naturalists (ASN), and the Society of Systematic Biologists issued a statement condemning the killings.
This is the statement by the societies:
Dear SSE Colleagues,
The Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biologists stand in solidarity with the many Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander communities and vehemently condemn these acts of domestic terror. To our Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander members: we support and respect you. We will continue the work of transforming our Societies into safe and inclusive places for you, and for all members of our communities.
The murders of Soon Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels in the Atlanta area are symptoms of violent anti-Asian racism, which has only increased since the onset of the pandemic in the United States last year. These events are widespread. Across the country, Asian elders are being attacked in the streets with increasing frequency. Asian and Asian-American communities have been living with heightened anxiety and fear every day. Asian women in particular have been the targets of these violent and racist attacks. We are outraged seeing perpetrators of these hate crimes once again excused at the expense of their victims, enabling continuous xenophobic and racist violence in the U.S.
We call on our largely white membership to capitalize on their privilege to support their colleagues. We must deny comfort and complacency in the midst of oppression by engaging in self-reflection and active anti-racism. Be vocal and openly expose and reject racism, prejudice, and exclusion in all forms both inside and outside academic spaces. Please reach out to those you mentor and the students in your classes. Tell them you condemn these acts and share resources where they can get support. Work with your trainees to make your shared spaces safe and welcoming for people of Asian descent. Learn the history of U.S. anti-Asian policy, military occupation, and colonialism at the root of these issues. There are endless resources, but here is one place to start: https://anti-asianviolenceresources.carrd.co/.
This violence is not external to our community and our scholarship. Some members of our community have been directly harmed, while others, also within our community, have caused some of this harm. There are numerous ways to practice effective allyship, and we include several useful resources below. If you want to learn more, you may be interested in following these Twitter accounts: @stopaapihate, @aapiwomenlead. Professional societies have a substantial role in making shared spaces welcoming and safe for all.
If you have been affected by violence and/or racist actions, please feel free to share your concerns and suggestions with our leadership. We need your input, feedback, and criticism to better support all of our scientists, especially those who have been actively excluded for so long. You can reach the society committees focusing on this work at these email addresses: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Asian Americans Advancing Justice
OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates National Center
Anti-Asian Violence Resources
Free Bystander Intervention Training
How to Be an Active Bystander When You See Casual Racism
Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab
Black and Asian-American Feminist Solidarities: A Reading List
Anti-Asian racism and COVID-19
Anti-Racism Resources for the AAPI Community
Stop AAPI Hate website for reporting hate incidents
Tri-society Diversity Committees
SSB DEI Committee and Standing Against Racism Statement
ASN Diversity Committee and Statement on Anti-Black Racism
SSE Diversity Committee and Statement Against Racial Injustice
In response to this, Luana Maroja of Williams College, Jerry, and I sent the following letter to the SSE’s council on March 23. While writing the letter, another mass killing occurred in Colorado. We told the Council that we thought the statement above ought not to have been made. Our letter expresses our reasoning succinctly, so I need not restate its argument.
Dear SSE Council members:
We feel that the Society is misguided in issuing a statement about the killings that recently occurred in Atlanta. Furthermore, the expressed reason for the statement—to oppose anti-Asian violence—is premature, as there have been no findings by investigating authorities about what the motivation of the self-confessed killer is. Indeed, the evidence so far made public suggests that the crime was not motivated by racial hatred.
The officers of the Society are not like a newspaper editorial board, for whom expressing opinions on matters of the day is expected and warranted. Nor should the Society engage in consultations with, or polling of, its members to determine their views on such matters, and then express those views—even were it the case that the membership was unanimous in holding some opinion.
Our own reaction to the killings in Atlanta—and now, another episode in Colorado—is that gun violence, including the ease with which deadly weapons may be obtained, is a critical problem in American society. Though we feel strongly on this issue, we have absolutely no desire for the Society to express an opinion on the matter. It is wrong for the Society, as a Society, to have an opinion about any such social and political issues. Individual members may have opinions, and they should express them, but they should be expressed in the appropriate venues—political parties, elections, newspapers, protests, etc.—not on behalf of the Society.
It is not that the killings in Atlanta (or in Colorado) are not to be condemned in the strongest terms; nor that the issues they raise are unworthy of deep concern; nor that gun violence is the more fundamental issue; nor that there might be better ways to oppose racism (or gun violence). All of these things are worthy of public statement and debate; but the Society is decidedly not the forum for expressing such concerns. The purpose of our Society was—and should continue to be—fostering the study of evolutionary biology, not promoting political change.
The Society should issue a statement saying that the previous statement reflects the opinions of those who wrote it, and that it is not the policy of the Society to adopt positions on such matters.
Gregory C. Mayer
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin-Parkside
Luana S. Maroja
Department of Biology
Jerry A. Coyne
Department of Ecology and Evolution
University of Chicago
I sent a similar letter to the Executive Council of the ASN; I am also a member of that society.
No response has been received.
As Jerry remarked concerning the letter written by a number of past presidents and vice presidents of the SSE concerning the former Fisher Prize, this is a kerfluffle that will interest relatively few. (The near simultaneity of the Fisher letter and the one above is coincidental. The SSE changed the Prize’s name last year, and that response, I suppose, must have been long developing; while the letter above was in response to something published in the same week.)