The intersection of science and racism

UTM Biology Graduate Students’ Society

We’re usually fairly inclined to believe that the scientific method is a completely unbiased and fully objective means of looking at the world, and that the work of scientists such as ourselves is largely apolitical, standing worlds apart from racism and other forms of hatred. But by virtue of who traditionally wields influence and who can participate, science is merely a reflection of broader systems of inequity that underpin our society. Academia is just another complex intersection of power dynamics, systems of oppression, and deeply rooted inequality. At some scale, and perhaps at many, we are part of, and responsible for, diverse communities, many of which are both underrepresented and marginalized. Science has been used throughout history to justify prejudice and to perpetuate discrimination -- it is, after all, conducted by human beings, who bring to the table their own biases -- and the reality of scientific racism is that is is still very much with us. Between phrenology, the eugenics movements of the 20th century, and how schizophrenia diagnoses were used to effectively incarcerate Black activists and protesters during the Civil Rights movement, science has its own legacy of racism and intolerance to confront.

It’s tempting to dismiss the above examples, and scientific racism in general, as the product of a bygone era: “surely we’re better than that now,” or “this wouldn’t happen today.” But scientific racism is alive and well: in the population genetics world, for example, there are still instances of fraudsters looking for “population differences in intelligence” using atrociously shoddy science, for one. James Watson, whose claim to fame involved stealing the work of Rosalind Franklin and who publicly espouses racism, misogyny, and other reprehensible views, was toasted at a genomics meeting in 2018 on the occasion of his 90th birthday. Ronald A. Fisher, one of the evolutionary biology greats and one who still has a prize named after him, was himself a eugenicist and believed in innate intellectual differences between humans. There is no way to divest the science done by a person, no matter how significant, from their personal views and motivations.

As scientists, we are uniquely positioned to understand and communicate the flaws and fallacies inherent in ‘scientifically justified’ hatred, while our own work and how we choose to conduct it has direct bearings on the science of tomorrow. We can take this opportunity to educate ourselves on the often dark histories of our various subfields and get a better sense of what we’re up against here, with the aim of preventing hatred and prejudice from co-opting science for their own horrible aims.

Lastly, it’s important to reflect on the ways in which racism and other forms of discrimination affect the various ways in which we participate science and which govern who we see as our peers and our mentors and who we do not. For field-based researchers, various minorities may feel unsafe in certain situations, and it’s important to be mindful of both the privilege that many of us enjoy in not having to consider such possibilities or in developing fieldwork plans for a diverse team of researchers. For those who work with natural history collections, consider how those collections were created and how historical narratives of natural history may exclude or degenerate others. For molecular-based researchers, we noted above how genetics is one of the traditional pillars of science-based racism and eugenics. For those with an eye toward medicine, the current pandemic has unveiled deeply entrenched inequities in the quality of and the access to healthcare, not to mention the dark history of medical advancement by experimentation on non-white communities. And for those studying the effects of urbanization and development on our planet, at any scale, be it the city, the continent, or the globe, environmental racism remains a pervasive scourge. In one way or another, anti-Blackness, racism, and discrimination have, and continue to, influence the work that we do.

Each of us has experienced some degree of success by virtue of being in academia, and it is important to reflect on what resources, opportunities, and privileges enabled us to both recognize and to pursue our passions. Regardless of what career each of us intends to pursue, it is incumbent on us to demystify and to decolonize science and to break down barriers that limit access and participation by underrepresented communities. We must be proactive in striving for lasting change, not simply reactive to current events, so that we are able to respond to crises such as these, which are unfortunately still all too common, and to advance meaningful initiatives for a more equitable society.

Some recommended reading:

  • Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini (link)
  • How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford (link)
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (link)
  • How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (link)
  • The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease by Jonathan Metzl (link)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (link)

(Although many of us happily use Amazon on a regular basis to buy more or less everything that we need, Amazon has a long history of collaborating with police forces on security technology that enables racial profiling and facial recognition software that has a proven track record of erroneously identifying minorities and women. So we recommend against using Amazon as your vendor to buy anti-racism materials when possible! Please consider patronizing locally-owned bookstores and especially Black-owned ones -- Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton is one.)