Berkeley Blog, Opinion

The physics community needs to include, listen to and hire Black scientists

In the summer of 2012, as a rising senior physics major at the University of Minnesota, I participated in a 10-week NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the University of Chicago. Every day I would fabricate thin films of quantum dots, and every night I would exercise by running to and from Lake Michigan before going to bed at the residential commons that neighbored the physics research building where I worked.

Often after arriving at the lake, I would sit on the beach and marvel at the vast, shimmering water, entranced by the dazzling reflections of stars and the Moon, as physicists often are. One night I would be reminded that my freedom to enjoy the physical world is contingent and limited.

That night in the park overlooking the lake, I was aggressively approached by two police officers. One of the officers had his hand on his pistol and was yelling profanities at me; the other was muttering inaudibly. “This is how I die,” I thought to myself. One officer slammed my head onto the hood of the police cruiser and painfully handcuffed me. Heart pounding and ears ringing, I found myself staring deeply into the eyes of an onlooking white couple who were sitting on a park bench, maybe 20 feet away.

Apparently, a curfew was in effect—I was unaware because there were no posted signs—and the white couple and I were both in violation of it. Yet as I was being dehumanized and humiliated, one of the officers calmly walked to the white couple and politely asked them to leave. Before getting released, I spent 30 minutes in the small space in the back of the police cruiser, handcuffs cutting into my wrists, with no explanation of why I was being detained.

Today I have a PhD in physics from Yale University, and I’m working as a postdoctoral scholar and Ford Foundation fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. I’m a member of the Ultracold Atomic Physics Group, where I investigate ultracold atoms trapped in an optical kagome lattice, which should provide an avenue to study a rich variety of many-body quantum phenomena.

Does my Chicago experience sound like part of the backstory for a contemporary quantum physicist? Though readers may find my account disturbing and unfathomable, such violent encounters are all too common for Black people in the US. The pervasive anti-Blackness that is expressed in this violence is also expressed in ways that are less immediately life-threatening.

Anti-Blackness flows through academic spaces, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of stories shared by Black academics through outlets such as #BlackintheIvory on Twitter. (The hashtag was founded by communications researchers Joy Woods and Shardé Davis.) Since many stories are withheld due to their deeply painful nature or their likelihood of attracting retaliation, #BlackintheIvory reveals just the tip of an iceberg: Black scholars experience widespread bias and discrimination and are subjected to both interpersonal and systemic anti-Black racism.

Anti-Blackness in physics

Unfortunately, that anti-Blackness pervades the physics community as well. It is a fact that my physics experience has been negatively affected by my Blackness. I have wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember, yet during my undergraduate and graduate years, several incidents of bias and powerful isolation led me to seriously question whether I belong in physics.

As an undergraduate, I once walked into the Society of Physics Students room to find a group of students (all non-Black) laughing as a white student recounted how her grandmother called Tootsie Rolls “n*gger toes.” During an office hour for a senior-level math course, a professor disparagingly yelled at me in front of a group of students for not understanding how to obtain a certain solution.

When I sought a recommendation letter for a department scholarship, the professor I asked assumed that I had done so poorly in his physics course that he could not write me a letter. I pushed back and asked him to check the grades, and it turned out that I had received the third-highest grade out of more than 100 students. In competitions for those scholarships, I was funneled into an award for Black students (I was the only student eligible) despite outperforming a classmate who was nominated for—and won—a more prestigious and valuable award.

My experiences with bias and anti-Blackness intensified in graduate school. In 2015 I was one of roughly 25 Black men in the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Seemingly every other week there was another video of an unarmed Black American being killed by police, but very few people around me seemed to care.

With that as context, my personal experiences included being told by multiple peers in the physics department that I had gotten into Yale and won an NSF fellowship because I am Black; having my ideas ignored in peer groups but repeated by others and lauded; being denied entry to Yale buildings while other, non-Black people walked by me without being required to show identification; being handed trash at random in Yale’s Kline Biology Tower café and being told to throw it away; listening to parked car after parked car being locked as I walked by; frequently being asked whether or not I was affiliated with Yale, even when I was in a space that required Yale student status; having people constantly assume that I was a football player, some even congratulating me for how well I had done on the field; and being publicly shamed in the laboratory and group office by colleagues for not understanding concepts quickly enough. It became clear that many people could not fathom the idea that I belonged to the intellectual community at Yale.

My experiences are not unique. They demonstrate the issues that force Black students out of physics. Black physicists at all levels, undergraduate through faculty, face bias and racism that form powerful barriers to their careers and make it exceptionally difficult to persist, let alone thrive. Those who remain in the field often employ survival strategies just to cope.

As theoretical physicist S. James Gates told Science, we must have a particularly large degree of self-confidence to persist in the face of those around us who doubt our competence. Having grit is important, but should Black physicists be required to have much more grit than others? No, we should not.

graph showing the number of bachelor's degrees awarded to Blacks 1995-2017

Only about 3% of physics bachelor’s degrees in the US went to Black students in 2017, one of the lowest rates among STEM fields.

Black physicists are forced to deal with a toxic combination of persistent scrutiny and suspicion, fear of retribution for voicing our concerns, denial that bias and discrimination exist, and isolation—all while working to broaden and deepen human knowledge. And we are expected to do so with grace.

That unsupportive environment emerges both systemically and interpersonally, and it leads to the disillusionment of Black physicists at all levels. That reality for undergraduates has been documented in a comprehensive recent report from the American Institute of Physics TEAM-UP Task Force. (AIP also publishes Physics Today.) The authors partially attribute the persistent underrepresentation of Black American students in physics to the lack of a supportive environment in many physics departments.

Statistics: Just part of the story

In 2017 Black students were awarded about 3% of physics bachelor’s degrees and 2% of physics PhDs in the US, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Each year in the US, the number of white physicists awarded PhDs exceeds the number ever awarded to Black physicists. Even more striking is that fewer than 100 Black women in the US have ever received PhDs in physics. As of 2012, only 34 physics PhD–granting institutions in the US had Black American faculty. All those data are indicative of severe underrepresentation of Black people in physics.

Some faculty might say that the numbers of Black people in physics departments are low for lack of interest in the physical sciences, but that is false. The numbers are low, in part, because of forces that tend to drive us from the field. For example, a study has shown that although Black women express more interest in STEM fields when they enter college than do white women, a higher percentage of white women graduate with STEM degrees, which likely indicates the presence of experiences that impede the formation of scientific identity among Black women.

Another study has shown that racial microaggressions—everyday actions or statements that attack someone’s identity, sense of belonging, competence, or validity of concerns—can have a devastating impact on Black students’ experience and performance.

chart of physics PhDs awarded to Blacks and Hispanics, 1996-2017

The number of African Americans receiving PhDs in physics annually remained low from 1996 to 2017. Each data point is the two-year average for the classes listed on the x axis. (Graphy courtesy of AIP Statistical Research Center)

The challenges continue even after attaining a PhD. In a study published last year, researchers examining the hiring of postdoctoral candidates distributed CVs to physics faculty at eight US research-intensive universities. The CVs were identical—except for the names at the top, which indicated each applicant’s race and gender. Black postdoc applicants were rated as less competent and less hirable than white and Asian applicants, and women were rated as less competent and less hirable than men.

On a nine-point scale, Black women applicants were rated roughly three points less hirable than white and Asian men—striking evidence of compounded bias at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood. Though not covered in the study, a unique compounded bias is at play for Black scientists who also identify as LGBTQ+ or who have another underrepresented identity.

I suspect that the same bias is at play in the faculty hiring process. And even before applying for faculty positions, Black physics postdocs must endure racial stereotyping and microaggressions, just as they did while students. When I was just a few months into my postdoc position, a white student blocked my entry into the physics department and demanded to see my ID.

When Black physics postdocs do become faculty and principal investigators, we are again subjected to interpersonal and systemic anti-Blackness that makes scientific productivity and advancement to tenure ever more challenging. Although there has been little study of the direct impact of systemic bias on Black physics faculty and principal investigators, a consistent picture has emerged from studies in other fields.

Studies of the literature in economics and earth science provide evidence of citation bias against Black authors and teams partially composed of Black authors. A 2011 Science study showed that even after controlling for previous grant success, publication history, and educational background, Black bioscientists seeking National Institutes of Health grants were significantly less likely than white scientists to be awarded funding. A comprehensive examination of Black physicists’ citation and grant-success rates would be illuminating.

Concrete steps

I close with a call to action: Physics departments need to include more Black students, postdocs, and faculty. The TEAM-UP Task Force found that Black students “have the same drive, motivation, intellect, and capability to obtain physics and astronomy degrees as students of other races and ethnicities.” I know that to be true of Black physics postdocs and faculty.

For those who would view increased Black representation in physics as a return-on-investment issue, an April Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study showed that racial minorities produce scientific novelty at higher rates than white men do. Yet that kind of justification should not be necessary. As astrophysicist Jedidah Isler wrote in the New York Times, do we require white students to bring something other than their interest? Our humanity is enough to warrant increased representation in physics at all levels.

Physics departments should not drive out Black students only to later say in bewilderment that “we just can’t find the talent” and absolve themselves of responsibility for Black underrepresentation at each higher academic stage. Many departments require a restructuring to ensure that true value is placed on having Black students, staff, and faculty among their ranks.

Such a restructuring should involve establishing policies and norms that are inclusive of Black physicists, enhance their sense of belonging, and place value on their academic contributions; importantly, it must also include building a diverse department by recruiting and developing more Black graduate students, postdocs, and professors. Recruitment and development in an inclusive environment must be a package deal.

Several steps can be taken to start addressing Black physicists’ underrepresentation in academe. Here is what I think the physics community should do now:

Admit us and hire us. We should not be viewed as risks, because we are not. Admitting or hiring us is not tantamount to gambling. We have long been great scientific thinkers, and we have the same potential as anyone to become successful scholars.

Include us. Fund and cite our work. Advocate for us both publicly and behind closed doors. Nominate us. Speak our names into existence.

Educate yourselves, then listen to us. Our experiences are too often met with suspicion and denial. Scholarship in the form of peer-reviewed articles and books has provided myriad tools to understand and combat bias and racism. Non-Black people may not perceive the anti-Blackness around them, but that makes it no less real.

Do not reify the white supremacist and patriarchal framework that deems Black menand more so Black womenless capable. Stand up and use influence, power, and privilege to change department culture and climate for the better. Do not settle for being nonracist and nonsexist. Become anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-misogynoirist.

Acknowledge your own biases and work to correct them. Intent matters, but so does the unintended impact of one’s actions. Actively resist the urge to become suspicious, defensive, and angry when confronted with the idea or proof that biases have negatively affected—and continue to affect—Black physicists. Cosmologist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s insightful essay reminds us that “our discourse about minorities is fundamentally flawed if a central tenet is protecting members of the majority from feeling guilty about racism, sexism, transphobia, etc.” Hold yourself accountable and let us hold one another accountable.

This commentary appeared first on the Physics Today website.