Anti-racism in physics requires more than incremental action

Illustration of two Black researchers and scientists amidst a backdrop of strings mimicking string theory
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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The recent killings of Rayshard Brooks, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery follow a long history of state-sanctioned anti-Black violence in the United States. In the midst of the nationwide protests, thousands of physicists and other scientists joined the Strike for Black Lives on June 10 “to hit pause, to give Black academics a break and to give others an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-Black racism in academia and their local and global communities.” Participating students and researchers from UC Berkeley’s physics department organized multiple events in solidarity, including a virtual town hall and a teach-in on the history of police violence. This collective action was necessary, but not sufficient. It will take far more than a single day to transform the status quo.

Racism is not an outside force that impinges on higher education. It is endemic to academia and is propagated by academics. The Western university cannot be untangled from the racist and imperialist foundations of the European Enlightenment era. Black academics in the United States continue to face explicit bias, discrimination in hiring and recruitment, alienating campus cultures and racialized misogyny.

“I came to the academy to create platforms for change,” wrote an anonymous Black female professor for Inside Higher Ed. “Instead I found an institution where skepticism permeates discussions of inequality and willful ignorance of prejudicial rhetoric perpetuates discrimination.”

To get a baseline sense of how anti-Blackness pervades physics in particular, one can simply look at the demographics of the field. In the United States, only 4% of bachelor’s degree recipients and 2% of faculty in physics are Black. The underrepresentation is even more severe here at UC Berkeley, where only 1% of respondents in a departmental survey identified as Black.

This is not just a “pipeline” issue: White supremacy is deeply embedded in the practice and culture of physics.

“Black students have their capacity for objectivity questioned simply because (of) their standpoint on racism,” writes Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a Black assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire. “In string theory, we find an example wherein extremely speculative ideas that require abandoning the empiricist core of the scientific method and which are endorsed by white scientists are taken more seriously than the idea that Black women are competent observers of their own experiences.”

In this critical moment when many non-Black physicists are galvanized to take action, it is essential that we not try to reinvent anti-racism. We do not need to wonder what we should do to remedy the inequities in our field; we must instead follow the lead of Black academics who have already done this work.

Drawing on research by Black physicists and on the lived experiences of students of color, graduate students in UC Berkeley’s physics department developed a concrete action plan to work toward justice in our department. An accompanying letter, released on Juneteenth, calls upon department leadership to take immediate and substantive action to recruit, admit and hire more Black students, postdocs and faculty; address discrimination within the department; establish mandatory anti-racist trainings and incorporate racial justice topics into required curricula; and support Black people and other people of color in the department academically, professionally, personally and financially.

It is crucial that this work remains central to the mission of the department, rather than being relegated to a committee as a side issue. Similarly, it is essential to avoid the too-common tendency in higher education to profess a commitment to equity and inclusion as a form of self-absolution, or to offer toothless “inclusion plans” in place of real structural change. Such declarations often center the benefits to science rather than the impact on the scientists facing injustice.

“Discussions of diversity and inclusion weren’t about … acknowledging my humanity or my human rights,” recalls Prescod-Weinstein in a reflection on her experience as a doctoral candidate. “They were about the intersection of workforce concerns with national security considerations; they were about appearances; they were about educating white students; and they were about how diversity and inclusion played in the public eye.”

Finally, it is also necessary for this work to be sustained and widespread — beyond both the physics department and this campus. Those of us who are complicit in white supremacy must all confront racism within our institutions as well as within ourselves. “For Black communities, freedom fighters, and organizers, the struggle for Black lives has spanned generations,” representatives from UC Berkeley’s astronomy department recently reminded their community. “The rest of us are late.” But even if now is late, it is the only possible time to begin.

Science is part of our shared inheritance as humans, and none of us should rest until there is justice and liberation for all of us, both outside and inside of higher education.

“When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to share the beauty and gifts of a scientific understanding of the universe with the world,” writes Brian Nord, a Black physicist at Fermilab and the University of Chicago. “How many have shared my dream, but never got this close, because of the science community’s complicity through inaction?”

Disclaimer: Graham White speaks as an individual supporter and does not speak on behalf of Particles for Justice.

Graham White is a postdoctoral researcher at TRIUMF, Canada’s particle accelerator center. Ella Banyas, Madeline Bernstein, Kayla Currier, Jeske Dioquino, Mario D’Andrea, Elizabeth Donoway, Daniel Eilbott, Eleanor Hall, Katie Latimer, Vikram Nagarajan and Gregory Ottino are among the O(100) UC Berkeley graduate students who contributed to the action plan for the physics department.