Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Minorities in the Sciences: Fully Welcome?

As I wrote previously, us whites (or, in my case, almost-white) have a burden of responsibility to make the world better for all races—we have to work for good, not merely not be evil.

Academia, and in particular science, prides itself for being progressive in all ways. In particular, we proclaim ourselves (I am a botany professor) to not be racist. And, compared to many other areas of society (government, business, religion) we are correct. But it is not quite so simple. Here are three examples that show that work remains to include all races in the scientific enterprise.

First example. I heard an interview on the radio. A black ornithology student (he studies birds) said that he had been confronted by white groups because he was looking in the trees with binoculars. Of course, that’s what ornithologists do. (Embarrassingly but not surprisingly, this example came from my state of Oklahoma.) Right away, you see the problem. White people seeing blacks looking through binoculars might assume they are up to some criminal activity. Do ornithologists need to carry ID cards saying that they are ornithologists, and be prepared to show those cards to whoever comes along and confronts them? Or is it that black, not white, ornithologists need to do this? See the fascinating article in Orion magazine.

Second example. A couple of decades ago, I was one of the faculty judges of student presentations at the national meeting of the Botanical Society of America. I watched several undergraduate student presentations, and kept numerical scores on each. By keeping numerical scores, the other judges and I did the best we could to avoid bias. When our judging committee met, it was clear from our scores and our overall impressions that the best paper was one that had been presented by a black female. She got the prize and we were all happy. I hope she went on to a great career. However, one prominent botanist, at a major university, was quite upset. He told the chair of our judging committee how upset he was. The chair did not tell us about it until just before the awards banquet, by which time it could not influence our decision. The racist was a prominent enough botanist that, had he known who I was and that I was still a junior professor, he might have talked trash about me and held my career back, had he chosen to.

Third example. This same prominent botanist mentioned above had a brilliant mixed-race undergraduate student who later entered the same graduate program that I was in, with the same advisor, and who went on to a distinguished career. This unnamed senior botanist told my advisor that this student was just fine, the only problem was that he was black.

Incidentally, the Botanical Society link above includes Black Botanist Week.

Racial prejudice persists against scientists of color, both from the general public and among scientists. The main difference is that us scientists (at least, botanists, about whom I know) are doing our best to solve the problem.

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