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

Charles D. Brown II, postdoctoral scholar in physics | August 24, 2020

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.

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

  1. Thanks for sharing. Your observations and writing are powerful. As an alumna and Director of Strategic Inclusion and Partnerships for Cal Alumni-ae of Los Angeles, I plan to advocate for your calls to action in many ways.

  2. Physics should and must be open to everyone.

    =================

    “All my life through, the new sights of nature made me rejoice like a child. We should not allow it to be believed that scientific progress can be reduced merely to mechanisms, machines and gearings, even though such machinery also has its beauty. But there is, in science, a spirit of adventure and if I see anything vital around me, it is precisely that spirit of adventure which guides me in my journey.”

    Marie Curie was prohibited from higher education in her native Poland. She then moved to Paris in 1891 for studying physics and chemistry. She went on to become the only person in the world to have won the Nobel Prizes in both sciences.

    ==============

    “There are street artists, street musicians and even street actors. But there are no street physicists because in physics, you can’t just make stuff up and presume that it is a proper account of nature. At the end of the day, you have to answer to nature.
    Since everyone has nature to answer to, your creativity is simply discovering something about the physical world that somebody else would have eventually discovered exactly the same way. They might have come through a different path, but they would have landed in the same place.”

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist, cosmologist, planetary scientist, author, and science communicator.

    =============================
    “It must be a strange world not being a scientist, going through life not knowing, or maybe not caring, about where the air came from, and where the stars at night came from, or how far they are from us. I want to know.”

    Michio Kaku is a Japanese-American theoretical physicist and futurist best known for his popular science books. Kaku was recognized as one of the pioneers of the string theory when he authored the first papers describing the string theory in a field form.

    ==================
    “Two things are infinite:  The universe and human stupidity;
    and I’m not sure about the universe!”

    Albert Einstein

  3. P.S. By coincidence, I just ran across another cultural failure by Berkeley Powers That Be had been posted by Michael Eisen: “Berkeley’s handling of sexual harassment is a disgrace” in 2016.

    Attacks against people of color and women appear to be out of control, Berkeley Powers That Be never seem to learn, and since this is 2020, maybe they don’t want to learn.
    A paramount root cause of all this was documented in President Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    “Gravely” indeed, no wonder global warming, violence, inequalities and pandemics are out of control, it appears that both academic and political leaders don’t really give a damn about protecting the future of the human race as long as they can get away with enriching themselves with corruption today.

    I can only hope and pray that someone and/or some group will prove me wrong by making the right things today to protect the future of the human race, with the greatest sense of urgency before time runs out.

  4. Keep focused on your projects Charles, it is imperative to maintain your studies.
    I share your feelings of being treated differently, all I have to say is ignorance
    comes in every color, shape, size, and from every direction.
    What’s important is the content of your heart, the way you view yourself, and the
    way you treat other people even when they are unfair and try to dominate you.

    Our society is unfair & rigged. Those are the ugly facts.

  5. The Academic society are just anti-young. Anything new, or radical is summarily dismissed. And yes, you were steered to a scholarship that only you are qualified for. Must be nice to get an award based on race. Sorry pal, the simple fact that Black Americans rarely go into the stem fields, particularly physics, has everything to do with the numbers. Degrees aren’t “awarded” by the way, they are earned. You can’t be awarded a degree in physics if you don’t study physics. Sadly, your experience has be skewed by the truth. You were the only black guy there. And as a result, you looked for, and found, what you perceived as prevalent racism. Sure, there are instances, and those stuck with you, amplified and overshadowing all the “normal” you received as well. As a white man, I have been exposed to plenty of racism from the black community, having grown up in SW Detroit. I don’t run with that and declare all blacks racists, and the root of all my struggles. despite “instances” throughout my life I could fixate on (4 stolen cars in 3 years, cuffed and tossed in a squad as a “white boy that doesn’t belong down here” by black cops, etc.) There a small percentage of the population that are ignorant when it comes to race and creed, across all groups. You paint over details with a very wide brush, and that is a disservice to everyone. I didn’t see anything in your “efforts” to make change where it’s needed. AT HOME, IN THE SCHOOLS. Are you out there encouraging young minds to take up STEM tracks? Talking to parents why Math and Physics can lead their children to greater options in adulthood? No, you’re our here saying white people aren’t doing enough.

    • Why the anonymity?

      1. The literature, as well as my article (check the Physics Today piece for all the references) powerfully address and refute most of what you say in your comment, so I won’t do that here. Regarding the award part of your comment: check out Prof Tyrone Haye’s recent open letter to his department (can be found via Google). He nicely address what you should be thinking about regarding one’s meeting of metrics and being set up to not be competitive based on established metrics.

      2. A quick Google search of me would show you that over the last decade I’ve done engaging outreach in the form of talks to – and hands-on scientific demos with – thousands of parents and children. It’s clear that you didn’t even attempt to express a true or accurate description of the work that I do. Like much of your comment, your last four “sentences” are just plain false.

      However you are right that outreach and education are crucially important. It’s just that what I wrote about and empowering youth/families are both important.

  6. Charles, congratulations on your excellent achievements and I most seriously regret the statement:
    “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.”

    Most tragically today, political and intellectual leaders keep failing to meet the challenges of change, especially not fast enough from so many out of control threats to our civilization like global warming, violence, inequalities and pandemics. And, worse yet, we keep failing to produce an acceptable quality of life for our newest and all future generations as long as our politicians and academics fail to produce solutions to our gravest threats with the greatest sense of urgency. Considering current events, this seems to be the most impossible of dreams.

    Psychologist Jean Piaget concluded “The goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing new things.” Let us hope and pray that we achieve this goal at a much higher level than ever before, by overcoming the challenges of change that are overwhelming us today, with the greatest sense of urgency since global warming destruction is proving that we are rapidly running out of time.

    I wish you the best, maybe you are the right person, in the right place to provide leadership to change the culture at UC so we can survive.

  7. Congratulations on your accomplishments in the study of physics.

    While you speak out the repulsion force that discourages participation, there is also using existing organizations to deal with the attraction force of the issue, i.e. getting more Black students interested in the study of science, e.g.,
    National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) https://www.nsbp.org
    American Association of Physics Teachers https://www.aapt.org

  8. Thank you for this very moving and disturbing piece. Thank you for your courage and commitment to the field that you love so much. As a minority faculty woman of color At another Bay Area university and a UCB alumni of three degrees, I relate to some of your experiences. I agree with your steps of action completely.

  9. This experience is familiar in technology fields like aerospace engineering and I am sure other intellectuals across academia or industry can relate unfortunately. I have patents in UAS and in my dissertation phase of my doctorate yet I have faced similar challenges in my engineering career. This is sad yet odly therapeutic to read a shared experience.

  10. As a postdoc in STEM I know that this career path is hard. So hard that I question what I am doing every single day. And as a white male, I know that this difficulty arises even after countless systemic biases have worked in my favor. I think I would have been crushed by this career being any more challenging than it already is. The additional constant scrutiny and challenges you and others have experienced due to racial bias breaks my heart. Thank you for this piece. I will hold myself and others accountable.

  11. Thank you for you essay. We still have a long, long way to go and I hope the university hears you and take action.

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