By now we’ve all read a gazillion papers like the one below: an indictment of a field of science for structural racism and a call for equity. This one, though, is slightly different in two ways. First, it’s by an educational psychologist. Terrell Morton is described as an Assistant Professor of Identity and Justice in STEM Education and a specialist in educational Psychology at the College of Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago. (He did get his “B.S. in Chemistry from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a M.S. in Neuroscience from the University of Miami, and a Ph.D. in Education concentration Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies from UNC Chapel-Hill.”)
So he does have some slight expertise in chemistry, but it’s not on view in this short article (below) published in Nature Chemistry. Although the aim seems to be to improve chemistry, this bring us to its second novel aspect: there’s nothing in the article about improving chemistry itself. Rather, it’s all about the unashamed infusion of Critical Race Theory, in its full incarnation, into chemistry as a way to achieve equity. To some extent (see below), that will involve changes in chemistry education to effect that kind of equity. But why was the paper published in a chemistry journal? The only explanation is that the journal’s editors wanted to show off their virtue: “We’re antiracist, too!” But in fact a paper like this could be written for virtually every area of human endeavor in which there is not equity by race and gender—not just science, but academia as a whole. Indeed, not just academia as a whole, but nearly all fields of business and commerce. The article could serve as a boilerplate for any academic field: all you do is substitute another area of endeavor for “chemistry”.
I should add that, like most papers of this ilk, Morton equates inequity in chemistry (a deficit of minority students or professors compared to the proportions of minorities in the population) with ongoing structural racism in the field. Of course there are racists in chemistry, as in every field, but I deny that they’re ubiquitous, nor do I accept that chemistry is full of rules and practices designed to keep minorities out of the field.
Otherwise, I’ve read similar papers many times in chemistry, physics, math, and especially biology. Every paper makes the “inequity = structural racism” mistake (these are scientists!) and also assert the undemonstrated claim that science would be much improved with ethnic equity. None of them examine whether equal opportunity for all groups would lead to equity in representation, and in fact we know that that’s not true for women in STEM: the more equality women have, the fewer choose STEM careers. (That’s presumably because of a difference in priorities.)
Click to read (and weep); the pdf is here. Both are free.
It begins, as usual, with the ritualistic invocation of George Floyd, and immediately says that the way to achieve social justice is to infuse Critical Race Theory (CRT) into chemistry:
In this Comment, I provide a brief overview of CRT and discuss how it can be used as a lens to critically examine the culture and practices of postsecondary chemistry education (learning, research and engagement) in the USA and beyond, as well as identify tangible strategies for redressing and mitigating structural racism in chemistry.
Studies on the experiences of Black students outline the stereotypes and biases they face within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) spaces. Chemistry students describe their postsecondary environments as spaces where they must alter their presentation of themselves to be seen as someone capable of succeeding — including abandoning aspects of their home and cultural identities, having to go above and beyond to demonstrate their intellectual capabilities.
Black students disclose feeling both invisible and hypervisible within science classrooms: they are often overlooked by their instructors or peers when it comes to classroom engagement — unless the conversations feature race or ethnicity, in which they become hypervisible. They also reported feeling hypervisible when it comes to performance indicators, as if they have to represent their entire race or ethnic group, proving that their people are capable of success. Students who maintain multiple targeted identities experience unique challenges — Black women report experiences that are different from those of Black men or white women.
(Note the intersectionality described in the last statement, an essential part of CRT.)
Morton then uses as evidence for that structural racism the observed deficiency of proportional representation of black individuals in chemistry in the U.S. and other Western countries (“inequities”), combined with self-reports of racism from various studies. As I said, it would be foolish to say that no racism exists among chemists, but neither can we take inequities and complaints about racist behavior as evidence of structural racism in the field. And where are the reports of the strides that chemistry departments (along with many other science departments) have made in trying to recruit minority students and professors? They aren’t mentioned. If there were pervasive structural racism, departments wouldn’t be falling over each other to secure talented minority students and faculty.
Now it is true that in STEM, many minorities recruited to elite universities tend to leave their STEM majors for ones that aren’t as rigorous, but that says nothing about structural racism. Rather, it speaks to the amply documented poorer qualifications and preparation (on average) of minorities recruited to STEM through forms of affirmative action. But from all this Morton concludes that chemistry is more or less a version of white-robed Klan members holding test tubes:
Research demonstrates, as seen from resources listed in the Supplementary Information, that chemistry (and science in general) has maintained a culture that typically favours white, cisgender, middle-to-high socioeconomic status, heterosexual, non-disabled men.
No it doesn’t. There may well be inequities in the direction indicated, but to say that the field is deliberately maintaining a culture that keeps out minorities, LGBTQ people, poor people, gay people, women, and disabled people is neither correct nor demonstrated. Again, the author is c0nflating inequities and structural bigotry/racism.
The author then defines CRT and goes into its aspects that he wants inserted in chemistry. As this is a short (four-page) paper, I’ll just give his definition, and the bits of CRT that he demands be put into chemistry.
CRT is a framework that identifies and challenges the presence and impact of structural racism and intersectional oppression embedded within policies, procedures, practices and sociocultural norms across various institutions, organizations, fields of study and communities. CRT has primarily been applied to Western societies such as the USA and UK. It positions racism and intersectional oppression (which arises for people who identify with more than one minoritized group; for example, gendered racism) as structural over interpersonal. This means that racism occurs through the subjective interpretations of presumably ‘neutral’ policies and procedures from well-intentioned people, and not just through acts of violence and hate committed by presumably lone and ‘irrational’ individuals.
This, of course, is debatable, especially the assertion of structural racism presumably enacted by well-meaning people with “unconscious bias” who make rules that are racist. The centrality of this theory in creating inequities is also under debate. We could stop right here, but the author continues to dissimulate:
. . . . however, CRT is not divisive, it is not designed to shame, demonize or encourage hate, and it does not inherently produce feelings of guilt or blame. Rather, CRT calls for a critical examination of the existing systems and structures and how they perpetuate a social stratification of people and their cultural values. It is also worth noting that CRT is not currently being taught in primary and secondary schools in the USA, and it is also rarely taught at the undergraduate (postsecondary) level.
It is certainly divisive, and it’s contestable whether the guilt and “original sin” instilled in white people is in there by design or accident.
Here are the aspects of CRT that, says Morton, should be acknowledged and adopted by chemistry departments (quotes are indented):
Racial realism. This tenet purports that racism is endemic, permanent, systemic and integral to all social institutions3.
Racial realism applied to chemistry acknowledges that the field, and science generally, exists as a microcosm of the broader society and thereby perpetuates structural racism or gendered racism. . . .
Whiteness as property. Whiteness is sociopolitical capital maintained by white people that can be used to regulate access to and full engagement with resources, spaces and ideas3. This capital is a product of the social, cultural and legal establishment of the USA coinciding with the enslavement and dehumanization of people of African descent and the attempted extermination of Indigenous peopl3 — presenting ‘whiteness’ as the default standard.
Critique of liberalism (myth of meritocracy). The belief in individualism and the bootstrap mentality communicated through US laws and social norms is a false reality given racism and its de facto outcomes. [JAC: the author says this is a “myth” because minorities lack access to the resources to demonstrate their merit, including well known academics for writing letters of recommendation.]
Interest convergence. This tenet conveys that efforts towards racial progress only occur at the juncture where those in power benefit from investing in the interests of those racially minoritized.
Here’s how this power struggle is supposed to work in chemistry:
Applied to postsecondary chemistry, this tenet would imply that investments to make chemistry inclusive (such as inclusive teaching or diversity scholarships, fellowships and programmes) occur in ways that ensure institutions gain notoriety and maintain power.
Intersectionality. Structural oppression operates on those of multiple marginalized identities uniquely.
Counter-story. The dominant narrative is recognized and challenged by elevating, embracing and empowering the stories and voices of marginalized people.
This is a bit complicated, but maintains that remedial practices or ways to bring underprepared minorities into the field are actually racist activities.
Existing equity and inclusion practices implemented within postsecondary chemistry often focus on the absence of Black people and on ways to include them. Practices adopted typically involve rehabilitation (such as tutoring, additional training, summer programmes), the development of coping mechanisms (for example, mentoring, teaching navigational skills), or training for faculty on inclusive teaching — these endeavours all stem from the perspective of the dominant group.
In contrast, rather than engaging in practices that ‘help minority students’, counter-stories position students as bold, capable individuals, and point to the flawed environment (the lake) as the space that needs change.
But how do you help the students given that the “flawed environment” will take decades to repair? I would favor tutoring and additional training, and if you don’t use them, you’re putting underprepared students at a disadvantage.
Now I’m certainly not maintaining that there are academics in chemistry who hold onto these practices because they’re bigots. I’m denying that these are pervasive and endemic racist practices in chemistry; indeed, in any STEM field. Yes, at one time there were. But times have changed.
And I deny that “counter stories” are racist. How can tutoring or additional training, which should be applied not just to minority students, but to all underprepared students, be a way to hinder minority students?
At any rate, after enumerating the aspects of CRT that need to be absorbed and enacted by chemistry faculties, Morton tells us how to do it—or rather, demands that we do it. One way, he says, is to hire a bunch of black scholars at the same to form a “critical mass.” Unfortunately, this race-based hiring is illegal:
Strategies to foster structural change include generating a critical mass of people who share similar ideologies regarding the liberation of Black people. [JAC: Note that there’s either an assumption here that all black people have the same “ideology”, or that you hire looking not just for uniform ethnicity but uniform ideology. Is that “diversity”?] This critical mass should reflect a diversity of Black social identities but also include non-Black scholars. This diversity must be established in chemistry departments and professional structures across all ranks (from junior faculty to senior faculty to administrators) — not just among those with the least power to effect structural change (junior faculty or professional staff).
This can be achieved through intentional recruitment and retention practices that build communities (mixed-rank cluster hires in which several scholars across ranks are hired at the same time in a department) and transform policies and practices around power (such as revising tenure and promotion) to account for structural racism and gendered racism. Hiring and promotion criteria should be adjusted to specifically value and reward scholarship, teaching and service activities (such as informal mentoring of Black students) that intentionally advance the needs of Black communities. Institutions should also put in place accountability structures to ensure that scholars do not in any way perpetuate discrimination or bias against Black people.
This may improve racial justice, but is that the purpose of chemistry? And will this practice improve chemistry? No, it’s not designed to. The implicit assumption is that the discipline itself will be improved with equity, but that’s not been demonstrated. Ergo, Morton’s goal is not to improve the field, but to create equity, which may or may not improve the field.
And although CRT is said by Morton not to create guilt, he recommends that non-minority chemists reflect on their complicity in this white supremacy. We are urged to pay special attention to the work of Black scholars. To the extent that they’re ignored because of bigotry, I agree. But to the extent that they’re not, and differential attention may result from differences in achievement or representation, I find this paternalistic:
Mitigating racism and gendered racism. Inequities in the field of chemistry can also be mitigated as the field collectively validates the systemic presence and continuous influence of racism and gendered racism on scientific inquiry and education. Each person should evaluate their position and actions towards social justice — with respect to their identity, privilege, exposure, awareness and commitment. High-quality research and literature that outline the lived experiences of Black people across the globe exists; I have shared some of those resources in the Supplementary Information. Access that scholarship and read. Attend meetings, professional lectures, and conference presentations by Black scholars. Watch documentaries and other forms of media that discuss Black experiences from their vantage points. Each person can leverage their power and privilege to fight for racial and gendered racial justice through the various constructs and spaces that they can control or influence, directly and indirectly (pictured).
We are also supposed to infuse chemistry classes and syllabi with CRT principles. I would argue again that this is paternalistic; a form of intellectual affirmative action:
Collins and Olesik outline how chemistry department chairs can act, through: disaggregating data to paint a more accurate picture of the current racial inequalities; listening to Black students; systematically assessing course syllabi; reviewing teaching practices; and engaging with chemistry education researchers, in particular Scholars of Colour. These recommendations can be extended to universities and/or other organizations.
Similarly, faculty members are responsible for ensuring that inclusion and social justice principles are integrated into their courses or lab spaces. This means featuring work from Black scientists and discussing problems and solutions that specifically attend to Black experiences.
With all this, how much time would be left to teach chemistry as opposed to Social Justice? Shouldn’t CRT, if it is to be taught at all, be taught in classes about race relations or sociology?
We must also use class time to educate students about racists of the past:
Additionally, learning that many scientists supported racist, sexist and other oppressive ideologies about people and their capabilities— eugenicists Francis Galton and Ronald Fisher being two of the most notorious examples — would encourage students to critically assess the relationship between a person, their scientific contributions and their ethics. This would foster critical thinking skills as well as opportunities for learners to envision scientific innovation that speaks directly to their cultural and community needs.
Unfortunately, neither Galton nor Fisher were chemists. They were biologists. (And many argue that they weren’t racists.) At any rate, you don’t drag them into a chemistry course to make a CRT point.
Further, the curriculum must change to cater to black students, for we must assume that they have a different “learning style” and thus have to learn chemistry in new ways. Do we have evidence for this?
A variety of different communication styles and teaching strategies also exist that should be incorporated into science education to allow students to bridge their cultural worlds and scientific knowledge. Examples are the use of project-based learning — a practice where teaching occurs through solving real-world problems that are based in different cultural communities — or creative types of assessments, such as asking students to write an Afrofuturistic children’s science book over taking a standard cumulative multiple-choice exam.
Afrofuturistic children’s science books? Is writing one of those going to teach chemistry?
And here’s the kicker, one that reminds me of the “other ways of knowing” gambit as practiced in New Zealand. Get a load of this:
This should be part of a wider change to revisit what counts as knowledge and how it can be displayed, obtained or gained. This can be achieved by departing from a Eurocentric model to one that embraces all perspectives as valid and appropriate. Engaging in this process would also require making amends for the generations of systemic and epistemic oppression against Black people.
What on earth is the “Eurocentric model?” Is Morton talking about “modern science in general”? And no, all perspectives are not “valid and appropriate”. It is here where the teaching of chemistry is actually degraded by the author’s suggestions.
Oh, and let’s not forget the author’s suggestion that we treat marginalized people who have been traumatized the same way we treat people exposed to dangers in the chemistry lab (acids, explosions, and so on):
The same suggestions for mitigating racism and gendered racism in the classroom apply to the research and teaching lab environments. Kimble-Hill describes an interesting approach: risks associated with marginalized social identities — for example, isolation, anxiety, discrimination, harassment and even assault — represent safety threats that can be assessed and addressed in a similar way to other hazards present in a chemical lab. As with chemical risks, proactive approaches in research and teaching labs would therefore work to eliminate risks related to identity threats, establish learning norms that build on students’ cultural identities, communicate trust and confidence in their ability to take intellectual risk and to make discoveries, and provide them with the right support to explore their ideas and feel validated within their research.
I’ve already spent too much time on this paper, but it’s an extreme example of how Social Justice ideology is worming its way into science classes, to the extent of suggesting that we adopt “other ways of knowing” and abandoning the “Eurocentric model”. The paper is designed not to improve the teaching of chemistry but to improve equity, and doesn’t belong in a chemistry journal. But of course how could Nature Chemistry refuse it? As one colleague wrote, “I wonder what would happen if chemists started writing papers about the need to use the scientific method in education, and published them in top educational journals.”
I will quote two other colleagues’ reactions to this paper. The first one is terse:
“They are relentless. They just won’t stop till there is nothing left. And when we speak up about the invasion of ideology into science, some people say that we are exaggerating.”
“To me, the core of the issue is this statement:
‘[Black students] also reported feeling hypervisible when it comes to performance indicators, as if they have to represent their entire race or ethnic group, proving that their people are capable of success.’
The solution to this problem is simple: judge everyone by the same standard. The reason that some minorities feel as if they have to prove their ability is that, in many cases, members of the minority group are often given a “boost” in qualifications. Justice Thomas made this point in the recent case, and Thomas Sowell stated that his qualifications were questioned more after Bakke than before it. In fact, many people are now asking whether Justice Thomas received a boost from affirmative action in his admission to Yale Law, despite his finishing in the top 2% of his undergraduate class at Holy Cross.
The problem can’t be solved by piling on more affirmative action, but rather by judging everyone on their own merits, as many have argued persuasively. We can (and should) help the problem by broadening recruiting and improving the preparation level of underrepresented groups, but everyone has to be judged by the same standards, or those who benefit will feel the need to prove that they didn’t need the judgement boost.