Harvard Scientists #Strike4BlackLives

Academia’s reckoning with anti-black racism

An illustrated poster for the June 10, 2020 #ShutDownStem academic strike for Black Lives Matter, showing people of different races, genders, and abilities organizing for racial justice

On Wednesday, thousands of scientists around the globe—including at Harvard—paused research, meetings, and classes to take part in a daylong work-stoppage supporting the continued demonstrations that have emerged worldwide after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis late last month. Organized by a pair of American astrophysicists and coordinated around the social media hashtags #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownSTEM, and #ShutDownAcademia, the event came together in a matter of days, under the name “Shut Down STEM to Strike for Black Lives.” It was intended not as a day off, but as an opportunity for academics in science and technology—especially those who are not black—to engage with the wider movement in serious and concrete ways: by learning about the history of anti-black racism and police brutality, attending a demonstration, or meeting with colleagues to plan actions in their own departments.

Organizers also asked participants to reflect on the roles their own institutions and universities have played in systemic racism. “Our responsibility starts with our role in society,” read an explanatory statement on the shutdown initiative’s website. “In academia, our thoughts and words turn into new ways of knowing. Our research papers turn into media releases, books and legislation that reinforce anti-Black narratives. In STEM, we create technologies that affect every part of our society and are routinely weaponized against Black people.”

That reflection was a critical component. Wednesday’s call to action unmistakably echoed a hashtag that began trending earlier this month: #BlackInTheIvory. In a rolling catalog of Tweets, black students and former students, professors, and researchers have been recounting their experiences with racism in institutions of higher learning, including some at Harvard.

In a series of Tweets on Tuesday, professor of astronomy David Charbonneau took a hard look at his own department: “The Harvard Department of Astronomy has graduated 425 PhDs since 1925,” he wrote. “One of those was awarded to a Black scientist. So that’s 0.24 %, a profoundly racist history.” He added that a few years ago, he and others at the department “asked the experts how we could improve our admissions process to identify the most promising astronomers,” including black students. The result, Charbonneau noted, has been a modest but real improvement: among the 50 current Ph.D. students, nine are black. “Because (1) they were more meritorious than other applicants, and (2) we as a department decided to stop using a racist process to decide who gets to pursue astronomy.” Charbonneau added, “Once we can travel again, I would be happy to visit any department and discuss our admissions process. These conversations can take years but change is possible. And it is essential if we want to identify the best scientists to answer the deepest questions about the Universe.” (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in fall 2018, the last year for which data are available, 6 percent of Harvard’s entire student body was black or African American; the numbers are not differentiated between graduate students and undergraduates. The College’s admissions office reported that in fall 2019, 14.3 percent of students admitted to the Class of 2023 were black or African American.) 

The University’s 2020 annual report on faculty development and diversity charts a similar course. In 1999, 11 percent of Harvard’s tenured and tenure-track faculty members were minorities. By 2019, that figure had risen to 24 percent. But the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty who identified as black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, Native American, or two or more races—categorized collectively as underrepresented minorities—added up to only 10 percent in 2019. And the number of tenured and tenure-track faculty in the sciences and engineering has remained low and mostly stagnant. In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, for instance, there were 11 underrepresented minorities among the life and physical sciences faculty in fall 2019, the same number as 10 years earlier. In engineering, there were four in 2019; in 2010 there were two. 

In light of the current protests and data like these, many science and technology faculty and staff members at Harvard participated in Wednesday’s shutdown. On social media, numerous divisions and departments announced plans to take part in the event, including biomedical sciences, human evolutionary biology, the Center for Population and Development Studies, Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard University Information Technology, and Harvard Dataverse. “We have to step up and do the work to eradicate anti-Black racism not just today or tomorrow or when it's convenient,” read a Tweet from the chemistry department’s official Twitter feed. “We pledge to educate ourselves, identify concrete action, and act.”  Visitors to the Harvard Herbaria and Libraries website were greeted with a notice at the top of the page: “Our databases will not be accessible on June 10 in solidarity with the national day of action.” 

Michelle Williams, dean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, sent out a statement to the school’s affiliates: “I encourage everyone in our community to observe the model of #ShutDownSTEM this Wednesday,” she wrote. “I endorse the opportunity to forgo ‘business as usual’ and instead to take the time for self-reflection, reading, reaching out to one another, and engaging in constructive demonstration or other peaceful activities.” She added that “The School is working on a clear action plan for how we can do better, and our Office of Diversity and Inclusion will be sending additional communications in the coming days about ways we can come together to become a more inclusive and supportive community.”

In a letter to the Harvard Medical School (HMS) and School of Dental Medicine community, dean of the faculty of medicine George Q. Daley also pledged to take specific action and asked people to take part in Wednesday’s shutdown. “I am in active discussions with members of my leadership team about implementing an anti-racism agenda at HMS,” he wrote. Linking to a list of anti-racism resources—books, articles, videos, and organizations—Daley asked readers to pause at noon to spend eight minutes and 46 seconds—the amount of time a police officer kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck—“in quiet reflection.”  

Harvard Women in Technology + Allies, a campus-wide group promoting diversity and inclusivity, sponsored a lunchtime Zoom discussion on Wednesday that drew more than 200 participants. It was aimed not only at providing resources and ideas for action, but also at creating space for conversation and questions about racism that can often go undiscussed in the workplace. After a brief introduction of the concept, they dispersed into small breakout groups to talk about concrete actions and resources for “fighting anti-Blackness” (“What have been your barriers in committing to this?” asked one discussion slide). Co-organizer Anisha Asundi, a research fellow in the Women in Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, encouraged participants, especially those who were white or non-black people of color, to open themselves up to difficult or uncomfortable conversations. “I know it’s hard,” she said.

“It's important to us to keep this issue on the radar,” said co-organizer Donna Tremonte in an interview afterward, “and keep it on people's minds and thoughts, so that they don't go back to that kind of lazy norm of, ‘We're all good here.’ I've heard people sometimes say, ‘Well, you know, in our team we just focus on the work. We're blind to the differences between people and just focus on the work.’ But that's a very privileged statement to be able to make.” Tremonte, an information technology staff member at the Kennedy School, said HarvardWIT+ launched a diversity and inclusion task force in 2017, which focuses in part on racial diversity. “Our members had been asking for that,” she said. “People really want this kind of information.”

Speaking after the Zoom event, Asundi said, “It’s important to educate yourself on the history of anti-blackness in STEM, and to think about what actions you can do within your workplace, whether it's in hiring or whether it's addressing microaggressions, or whether it's standing in solidarity in other ways. And then, to ask, ‘How are we creating healing spaces for black folks?’ So, how are we recognizing that this issue is greater than just Harvard and greater than just our workplace? This is a lived daily reality for black folks in our community.”  

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

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