Do #blacklivesmatter in STEM?

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Do STEM fields care about black/brown lives? As scientists, do we talk about racism, sexism, homophobia at all? Or are we invisible, even in academia?

I recently wrote about the Pulse shootings in Orlando, FL, and how the attack on the LGBT community tore me apart. I spent a lot of days mourning over the injustices that I experience as a gay Hispanic woman. Even more, I spent a lot of time expecting my university to make a statement, a comment, to say anything at all. Instead, I was left wanting, as no one ever said a word. To date, no one has directly addressed the LGBT community regarding the shootings and its implications.

If academia didn’t care about a mass shooting, why would they care about the murder of just 1 person? If no one cared about predominantly gay, Hispanic men at Pulse, why would anyone care about just one black man in Louisiana?

The truth is that it is hard to mourn the death of Alton Sterling if you refuse to acknowledge that racism, even in STEM, is an issue. The black community has been discriminated against since the genesis of the United States, and the recent list of names proves it: Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner… etc. Not only are black/brown people discriminated against in the general population, but we are constantly being bleached out in academia. We see it all the time. We are acknowledged for what we can accomplish despite being a minority, despite our lack of whiteness. A perfect example is Larissa Martinez, an undocumented student who was also her high school valedictorian. Her academic success is magnified because she is 1) a woman, 2) Hispanic, and 3) undocumented. Indirectly, America is telling us that if you are either of those 3 things, then the assumption is that you will fail. Without the textbooks and laboratory coats to camouflage our ethnicity, we look and act just like those that are murdered by the police everyday.

It’s natural to get angry and respond with that anger. But as a scientist, I am now called to analyze critically, think logically, and assess the big picture. Luckily, I recently met someone who taught me about the bigger picture. Last year, I gave an oral presentation at the NEURAL conference and befriended a PhD candidate on the plane ride home. He is a mixed black-brown man, with long, natural hair. We shared our experiences with racism in academia, and he shared that other people often assume he is studying on an athletic scholarship, because he is a black/brown man in academia. The assumption then, would be that black/brown men can only get an education if they physically work for it, pushing themselves to excellence in athletics. When he noticed how angry I was becoming at the reality of racism in research, he reminded me of something very important. Often, we are the only minorities that other academics will meet. Other than me, they will not know of anyone gay, Hispanic, etc. Although unintentionally, we have now become the spokespeople for our communities. I’m proud to say that he received a very prestigious NRSA award, and is truly exemplary.

So, what is the big picture? Do #blacklivesmatter in STEM?

The clip above is a timeline of the 346 black people that have died in the US in 2015 due to the police. How many of those black people were involved in STEM? Were any students, or aspiring to be future STEM leaders? Or were some denied the privilege of science for being black/brown?

Data from 2015 alone confirm that black people are 3 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. Not only were fewer than 1 in 3 black people suspected of a violent crime, it turns out that the level of crime did not make it more or less likely for police to kill people. So what is the common denominator? How come we’re just now realizing about this disparity?

Young black/brown men, white police officers, but most importantly camera recordings.

Black/brown people have always been wrongly massacred, but now we have camera phones to record it. Despite the recordings and hard evidence, white police officers are not suffering the consequences of those killings. As shown here, 97% of cases from 2015 did not result in an officer being charged with a crime. Is this new? How are they getting away with this? Historically, the federal government has already set a precedent, systemically killing black men and getting away with it.

In 1932, the federal government began a study to better understand syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is curable if treated early. To study the disease, the federal government involved 600 black men, 399 with syphilis, 201 without.

The researchers did not tell these black men about their STD, nor did they give them proper treatment. Although penicillin became the drug of choice to treat syphilis in 1947, it was not offered to these black men.

Instead, they were enticed by free meals, medical exams, and guarantees that burial stipends would be paid to their survivors after their deaths. It was initially planned to last 6 months, but in fact lasted 40 years. The notes from the study are, in short, disgusting:

“Perhaps here, in conjunction with tuberculosis, will be the end of the negro problem. Disease will accomplish what man cannot do.”

Over 80 years later, and our government is still trying to get rid of the “negro problem”. In regards to STEM, our scientists and researchers are still choosing to remain silent. To be honest, I think that they will always make that choice. The silent majority will continue to comfortably sit back in the ivory tower of academia because it is easy. And the discriminated minority has traditionally remained silent, out of fear of being disliked. Being loud. Being ghetto. Being discounted for lack of whiteness.

Maybe it’s time to be disliked.

As a minority in STEM, I urge other STEM researchers to carefully consider racism in research. Maybe it isn’t affecting you or your lab now, but it will one day. Voice your protest via contacting congress, via promoting the Hispanic/Native American voice in science, via recruiting minorities into your graduate programs, via hiring HBCU graduates, and by mentoring those who need it most. Even more, I urge other minorities in STEM to embrace being non-white in a white-dominated field, to exercise your right to be black/brown/LGBT/etc. You might be the only minority that other academics will ever meet in STEM, & you might inspire others to care about black/brown lives.