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A personal reflection on racism, anti-racism and science

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A personal reflection on racism, anti-racism and science

by Raj Pandya, Director, Thriving Earth Exchange

This is a personal reflection from me, Raj Pandya. It is not an official position of AGU or Thriving Earth Exchange, though it is influenced by the experience of working in both places and the many wonderful, insightful people I’ve met. I am grateful to my colleagues at AGU and Thriving Earth Exchange for the learning and the opportunity to share my thoughts.

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“I can’t breathe.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase. It haunts me. It’s the literal experience of far, far too many people of color: the murder of George Floyd, the choking of Eric Gardner and the legacy of lynching. There is another kind of “I can’t breathe:” some of us can’t breathe because we are in the shadows of smokestacks and freeways, or forced to use dirty cookstoves. These injustices and countless others disproportionately affect people of color because we have too long been excluded from power and denied the chance to build wealth. For me “I can’t breathe” is about the injustices of systemic racism. I feel an urgency that includes anger and I struggle to make that productive. Like many, I wonder what more I can do.

I am a scientist, and I am in a system of science, and I can try to reform that system.

I am also a person of color, something I’ve learned more about over the past five years. That means this is personal and my arguments about reforming science borrow from personal experience. I have come to believe that the personal can be a salvo against systemic racism: when we embrace personal experience, we invite our colleagues to bring their whole selves to our work. I also believe personal values—kindness, respect, responsibility—provide guidance for building equitable systems. Most of us are mostly good: millions of people around the world are saying home due to COVID-19 so that those who are most vulnerable are able to get the medical care needed.

We live goodness most clearly in our personal interactions: we are kindest to those we love. Finding ways to bring that kindness and love into our professional settings can provide the moral guidance we need to build anti-racist systems.

Here are some thoughts about how I, as a scientist and a person, can respond. And how maybe we can work together. We are not alone. Even in the geosciences there are ample calls for reform like this open letter from No Time for Silence, which I am proud AGU signed on to support.

  • Focus on justice and diversity. When I hear diversity, I most often hear the arguments that science will be better if we have more perspectives, that science will be able to reach more communities with more diversity, and that science can’t thrive if we don’t engage rapidly growing minority populations. Diversity tends to focus inward, on how having more people of color can be ‘good’ for science. Justice, on the other hand directs science outward, and asks us all to think about how science can be good for people of color. Justice asks how science can combat environmental racism or help protect those most vulnerable to climate change. Justice and Diversity together ask what science can do with people of color ask how the privilege and power that have accumulated around science can be shared with people who have historically and systematically been denied access. And still are.
  •  Learn history to transcend it. The lessons of history apply to science; we can’t overcome the past or redress injustice if we don’t know about it. Growing up in the U.S. I learned about a land of opportunity, equality and the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. I also was called camel-jockey and went to an underfunded predominantly black high school, that housed an amply-funded, predominantly white “gifted” program. I learned about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. I didn’t learn about Cudjoe, Fredrick Douglas, Nat Turner, Crazy Horse, Maria Stewart, Malcolm X, César Chávez or Russell Means. In short, I had the experience I think many people of color do—living the hypocrisy without having access to the intellectual tools and roles models to attack it.

A similar thing happened in my science classes. I learned about Ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance, but not Islamic scholars or the hub of learning in Alexandria, Africa. I learned about Benjamin Franklin but not Booker T. Washington. I learned about Natural History but not Indigenous Knowledges. I learned about the atomic energy revolution and plastics, but not about the uranium contamination on Lakota and Diné lands or about Cancer Alley in Louisiana. I learned about medical innovation but not about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or the Hepatitis Study at the Willowbrook State School for Children.

  • Attack Inequity: As an early career scientist, I imagined the objectivity of science could be a refuge from the inequities of larger society—a true meritocracy. Of course, it wasn’t—I got a prestigious post-doc partly because my advisor could afford to fund a half-year in residency at that lab first, so they could get to know me. What about the people I competed with whose advisors couldn’t do that? More recently, I attended a geoscience-related conference that moved from a predominantly white university to a historically black college and the difference in facilities was striking. One university had a state-of-the-art green building largely financed by contributions from alumni in the other university the sinks didn’t work and lab-vents were broken. We must invest more in Historically Black Universities, Tribal Colleges, and Hispanic Serving Universities.

Racism is deeply sown into in our society and the seeds of rage are currently blossoming. Science must do more than analyze the rage, join the chorus of people who bemoan current conditions or stand in solidarity. We have a responsibility and opportunity to look into our own systems and organizations and dismantle inequity. We have a responsibility and an opportunity to redress historic injustices we’ve been part of and benefitted from. We have a responsibility and opportunity to use our power and privilege to advance justice in the broader world. In all this, the better angels of our nature can guide us: our personal values and moral frameworks can provide the roadmap for dismantling racist systems and building better ones. I am hopeful we will step up to the challenge. We can’t afford to wait.

 

Kelly McCarthy editor

11 Comments

Brandon JonesJun 16, 2020 at 11:24 AM

This is awesome. Thank you for the candor and presenting some actionable items to move things beyond discussion.
Thanks for sharing, Raj.

Dale MedearisJun 16, 2020 at 11:49 AM

Thanks for sharing this Raj. I enjoyed reading it.

Carlos DengoJun 16, 2020 at 12:12 PM

Raj, Very well said, thanks for sharing this

Kevin NooneJun 16, 2020 at 12:41 PM

Thank you Raj for your wisdom, compassion, and passion for justice and equity. You and your work show us what the kind of change we need looks like. Please keep doing it.

Lisa GraumlichJun 16, 2020 at 2:57 PM

Raj –

I just forwarded your reflection to my leadership team in the College of the Environment. I appreciate so much of what you have written. Most salient for me right now is thinking clearly about the relationship between our aspirations re: diversity and justice. This will be very important as AGU launches its new strategic plan.

I’m grateful for your leadership.

Lisa

Emily JohnsonJun 16, 2020 at 4:21 PM

Thank you for sharing a part of your story, Raj. Personal impacts help drive the passion for change. Today, we have a great opportunity to use this momentum and maintain focus to make a real difference, moving forward.

John FarringtonJun 16, 2020 at 10:35 PM

Raj, The comments above have been stimulated by your statement and I echo their words. Thank you for this powerful testament and actionable advice. I was a college student during the 1960s and I was encouraged by the power of peaceful protests and the Civil Rights legislation. That progress and some progress since then was clearly necessary. However, as.I lived my life and participated in my career activities I became involved with various attempts to diversify science and promote inclusiveness, it became clear that the “necessary” was “not sufficient by any means”. We have before us a new necessary and sufficient! If we work together, that challenge can be met.

Jane Marie Allen FarmerJun 19, 2020 at 8:16 AM

I am a white woman who has been married to a man of color for 32 years. I experience and observe prejudice in action, from “both sides”. I am also a senior American who, as a teen, watched the convoys roll down the highway into Washington DC. In the 1968s. As a biologist, and human who loves people, I embrace diversity as the key to the earth’s survival.
Seeing the growth since the 1960s, I am very cautiously optimistic that current events will help direct our species toward a safer, kinder experience.
History has shown us the failure of groupthink. What concerns me is that the group focus is on actions. It is the heart that really counts. A kind and loving heart does not perpetrate unkind and hatefully actions. The real challenge is building hearts of compassion. I am not sure that is within the scope of our species.

Jane Marie Allen FarmerJun 19, 2020 at 8:32 AM

I am a white woman who has been married to a man of color for 32 years. I experience and observe prejudice in action, from “both sides”. I am also a senior American who as a teen in 1968, watched the convoys roll down the highway into Washington DC to address racial protests and rioting.

As a biologist, and human who loves people, I embrace diversity as the key to the earth’s survival. I am very cautiously optimistic that current events will help direct our species toward a safer, kinder experience.

History has shown us the failure of group-think. What concerns me is that the group focus is on actions. It is the heart that really counts. A kind and loving heart does not perpetrate unkind and hatefully actions. The real challenge is building hearts of compassion. I am not sure that is within the current abilities of our species.

Mary GlackinJul 4, 2020 at 11:29 AM

Raj – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. They are urgent and crisp. In particular, I don’t think we talk enough about diversity and justice. Adding justice to the conversation broadens in a way that we need.

Barbara AcostaJul 10, 2020 at 8:24 AM

Thank you for being a voice for justice within the science community. When folks like you speak out about your experiences as a scientist of color it is important for white people to listen with open hearts and allow in the truth, including the painful parts.

I am writing this as a white person speaking to other white people reading this. It is time to rethink the term diversity, which is usually used as a code word to mean people who are different from the “norm” group — white people. This results in othering. When we see people of color as “other” it dehumanizes them and reinforces unconscious attitudes of white superiority.

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