I can’t really think of any academic field of study, including math, sociology, physics, mathematics, English, history, music, medicine, art history, classics, biology (including evolutionary biology), and so on, that hasn’t been indicted for systemic racism. Remember, “systemic racism” is not individual racism, and nobody denies that there are bigots in every area of academia. The question, which is one that motivated this course, is “is there systemic racism”? That is, is there a pattern of practices, or a set of policies, that are designed to discriminate against minorities?
Actually, that question didn’t motivate this new course at Barnard’s chemistry department, for it’s taken for granted from the outset that the Barnard Chemistry Department is systemically racist, and the course was designed to get rid of it.
You can read about this course at the American Chemical Society publication website (click below), and obtain the full pdf on the course here (if that doesn’t work, try a judicious inquiry). This is a description of a course offered for half a credit, one hour a week, in the fall of last year. Beyond the summary, there’s also a list of student reactions (positive) and recommendations.
The pdf with all the info (click):
It’s assumed from the outset that chemistry in general, and Barnard’s department in particular, are systemically racist. That occurs in the first sentence of the abstract:
To explore the myriad ways in which systemic racism diminishes chemistry, and to recommend changes to our home department, a seminar-style course was created that provided a structured venue in which to collaborate with students.
And they had a dream:
The dream was to dismantle racism in chemistry. The goal was to participate in dismantling racism in chemistry at Barnard College.
To dismantle systemic racism in a field or department, you first have to establish that it exists. Sadly, the article fails to do that, and I suspect it’s because systemic racism doesn’t exist in chemistry at Barnard (or practically anywhere in the U.S, though surely racists and bigots do. Instead, assuming that there was this kind of racism, and that the purpose of the seminar was to dismantle it at Barnard, if not everywhere, the course included the usual material: personal anecdotes or “lived experiences”, documentation of inequities as evidence for ongoing racism, à la Kendi, and so on:
Secondary readings included a recent letter from the 2020 ACS President Luis Echegoyen on ACS commitments and actions to diversity, inclusion, and respect and a recent essay in the Journal of the American Chemical Society written by Professor Melanie Sanford about an “actions not words” approach to equity and inclusion in the chemical sciences. Students learned about career stages, academic ranks, tenure, and the process of receiving grants as well as the career implications associated with grant funding. This information provided an important context for the demographic information provided, where students observed the obvious discrepancies.
Now these students and the professor are well meaning, for who wants to perpetuate racism? But before you start accusing departments of being infested with racism (with the downside being that if they’re not, students of color will still be discouraged from applying there), try adducing some data. As I said, none are given. This thus appears to be a performative course, a course designed to show that the department was doing something about the problem.
There is also the usual denigration of meritocracy, here in comments from students:
“In our past few meetings, a lot of people discussed their frustration at the fact that the sciences are known notoriously for being used to unfairly “ weed out” those who are deemed less capable. Working to implement growth mindset practices everywhere could help dismantle this exclusive stereotype that looms over the field of science and deters prospective scientists from entering.”
“I thought our discussion about how STEM classes are often set up to ‘weed people out’ and how this creates even more exclusion in the field was interesting.”
These are tacit admissions that increasing inclusion and diversity will lower formal academic standards, and nobody who’s honest will deny that. The question is how much compromise with merit should be done to avoid “weeding people out”? And it is really bad to weed some people out if they have no talent for going on in a field? Remember, academic jobs are far scarcer than candidates. (See below.)
At any rate, this is what the course summary says it accomplished:
These three major takeaway ideas emerged from the class:
• We need to talk about racism and inclusion (a lot).
• Institutions need to truly prioritize inclusion and diversity, weave it into the core mission and budget.
• Structural racism exists, but can be dismantled
You can be the judge if the game is worth the candle here.
Now not everything the course did is questionable. For example, they’ve recommending holding seminars in chemistry that “invite seminar speakers who are not academics in an effort to make clear that training in chemistry provides a strong foundation for work in many different fields.” In the sciences, where academic jobs are far scarcer than Ph.Ds, it’s good to let people know other areas in which you can profitably use a doctorate.
But in the end, it’s not the job of science departments to give credit to students to show how their disciplines are racist—even if they can establish, as they haven’t here, that their disciplines are racist. The solutions are all the same in every department: the three points above, which aren’t really solutions that eliminate racism. What about sending students out to inner-city schools to tutor or lecture kids in chemistry? And, of course, there is always the hard problems of ensuring equality of opportunity, which is the overweening factor at play in every accusation of racism in STEM. The solution to that certainly does not lie in courses like this one. The problem is that the entry to the pipeline is narrow for some minorities, not that departments deliberately narrow the terminus of the pipeline to prevent exit.