Diversity (in Science) is Essential


One of the frustrating things about growing up (or old) is watching your society seemingly forget lessons you thought it had already learned (like the one about judging a whole group by the actions of a few members of it) and reopen debates that once seemed close to consensus, like the desirability (and even possibility) of effectively addressing racial inequality.

Take Fisher vs. The University of Texas, a case currently in front of the Supreme Court. The Fisher decision, expected next year, may topple the legal framework for affirmative action in college admissions policies. You may have heard that the court-appointed troll, Justice Antonin Scalia, recently made comments about black people and higher education that made the audience audibly gasp. Essentially, Scalia suggested that “separate-but-equal,” the legal concept that allowed the segregation of everything from colleges to drinking fountains, might actually be a good idea after all. Yep, he was suggesting overturning Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark ruling that began the end of legalized segregation and was the legal cornerstone of the Civil Rights era. Our moment is uniquely ugly indeed.

To be fair to Scalia, he’s simply challenging, with characteristically weak filtering from his frontal lobe, the opinion of millions of Americans (mostly white) who have decided he’s right. As This American Life recently reported in a two-episode series that everyone should listen to, actual active desegregation efforts in public schools ended a long time ago, and our schools are as separate and unequal as ever. And this despite the knowledge that desegregation is one of the single-most powerful ways to redistribute opportunity to those who are undeniably, clearly, born with fewer chances to reach their potential.

Separate is unequal, not because it has to be (we don’t apply the argument to gendered bathrooms, for example) but because in practice, in a society already strikingly divided by color and class, it almost certainly is. White kids and black kids go to different schools because by and large our communities remain segregated and economically disparate. Which group of kids is more likely to go to schools with bars on the windows and no working bathrooms?

When discussing Fisher, Chief Justice John Roberts posed a line of questioning just as troubling (but more clever) than his friend the troll. “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation.”

A group of 2,200 physicists answered him in an impassioned open letter to the court. In part, they said that what minority students bring to the table is incredible determination (evidenced by them being there at all), a useful characteristic for any scientist operating in a country as anti-intellectual and anti-science as the US.

Thomas Levenson, responding in a great essay in the Atlantic, argued that science could not be completely separated from culture, nor the scientist from her upbringing. Levenson’s core idea, that a person’s story matters, even in physics, is particularly important to me as an outreach astronomer. For me, story is the thing that makes the discoveries of science come alive. As I argued in this post, it is story that can communicate science to others, and bring them to it. Story is what makes science a living process, not just a collection of facts and formulae.

When I read Justice Robert’s comments, I immediately thought about one of the most powerful stories I ever encountered: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I read it in my twenties, as a Peace Corps volunteer, and it forever changed my understanding of race and racism, and what it means to live life in the service of truth and justice. It was one of the touchstone texts of my social and political consciousness, and it drives my work in science outreach to this day.

All throughout his story, Malcolm X laments the human potential squandered by the structures of racism. From the high school guidance counselor who told him as a young man that of course blacks could not be lawyers (but everyone like’s your woodworking, Malcolm, so why not be a carpenter?) to the numbers runner he worked with in the criminal underworld who had a brilliant grasp of numbers, and who could have been a great mathematician. Brilliance can occur anywhere, and Malcolm saw it many times in his life, and in almost every case that brilliance was stifled by a system that left precious few options open for black people. When reflecting back on the many talented people whose only option for upward mobility was crime, Malcolm wrote:

“Many times since, I have thought it, and what it really meant. In one sense, we were huddled in there, bonded together in seeking security and warmth and comfort from each other, and we didn’t know it. All of us, who might have probed space, or cured cancer, or built industries, were, instead, black victims of the white man’s American social system.”

Malcolm’s grief and anger over the palpable waste of potential has stayed with me ever since I first read it, and I think about it often. When I got involved in astronomy outreach, it was Brother Malcolm’s whisper in my ear, reminding me that everyone should be able to gaze upon the universe, and wonder, and learn its secrets. So I took my telescope to the local bar, and not the upscale one. And I take it to every corner of my city, which is tiny by city standards but as diverse (in broad strokes) as any larger American urban area. I’d like to give all 13,000 of its residents the chance to look through a telescope. Like the apostles, I am fishing, but for minds, not souls. Is there a Steven Hawking in one of Geneva’s housing projects? There could be. What I know for sure is that there are hundreds of young people whose horizon of possibilities are narrower than mine ever was, because they are black.

To me, science is the greatest human invention, a way of systematically knowing reality, of uncovering the hidden truths of the distant past and the far future, and the quiet beauty of the world around us. To me, it’s a human right to access that knowledge, and to be invited to be part of its creation. It’s ethically wrong to keep people out of it. It’s also stupid, and possibly dangerous for our future.

My fear on this winter solstice of 2015 is that we’re moving in the wrong direction, back to the fatalistic racism of separate-but-equal when we should moving towards desegregation at a massive scale, starting with our public schools, which were designed (in part) as part of a promise to provide equal access to knowledge and opportunity. If we did that then affirmative action in higher education would succeed too, as it was intentioned: our universities would be flooded with people of all colors, and our civilization would be renewed with energy and creativity.

That’s why it matters, Justice Roberts.


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