#ShutDownSTEM initiates discussion on systemic racism in STEM and academia

Sunday, June 14, 2020 - 4:35pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

In an effort to combat systemic racism in the fields of academia, professionals in the academic and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) communities across the country participated in a #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia and #Strike4BlackLives day on June 10.

Over 5,800 members of the STEM and academic community pledged to participate in the strike. The shutdown also received support from multiple organizations such as Nature and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, among others. 

Brian Nord, one of the organizers of the strike, is a physicist at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. He wrote in a statement explaining how this movement was more than acknowledging marginalized groups in STEM. Instead, this strike is to call attention to the racial inequities Black scientists and educators face in the workplace and beyond.

“This is not about identifying with a minority or marginalized group or diversity and inclusion,” Nord wrote. “This moment is about Black people and the conditions under which we live and work. It is about how white supremacy pervades my professional spaces as well as my life outside of them.”

Tim McKay, professor of physics and astronomy and associate dean for undergraduate education in LSA, participated in the shutdown in hopes of initiating meaningful change in the STEM community. He said scientists must pay equal attention to both their innovations as well as the implications their work has on supporting racism. 

We need to acknowledge that a field which is not equitable and inclusive cannot be excellent,” McKay said. “Most scientists work hard to become deep experts in the subject matter they study. We must also work hard to understand the role of science in creating race and supporting racism, to find out when and how what we do is still causing harm, and take action to change.” 

The day opened opportunities for white and non-Black people of color to educate themselves, take responsibility in creating anti-racist actions moving forward and develop safe and healing spacies for those affected. To McKay, that starts with acknowledging the inequities and prioritizing the dismantling of racism in STEM.

“Racial inequities have been well-documented in many areas of science and engineering, including education, hiring and employment, research and publication,” McKay said. “For too long, those of us working in STEM fields have been willing to accept external explanations for these inequities. For example, we know that we graduate far too few Black physics majors. Too often, we've looked for excuses, blaming poor high school preparation or societal expectations. It's time for us all to recognize that this is our problem to fix, right now, and that we need to make solving it our priority.”

Gus Evrard, professor of physics and astronomy, also took part in the pause. Although changing cultural norms is difficult, Evrard said, he emphasized the need for physicists to continue supporting Black members in the physics community and elsewhere. 

“I felt it important that senior physicists, especially white males who have historically dominated that rank, demonstrate support for the early career Black physicists and other young people who led this effort,” Evrad said. “Culture change is typically slow, but events like the strike act as an accelerant that can galvanize collective actions across the entire field.”

Rackham student Chloe Weise, a graduate student instructor and researcher in biology, sent an email out on Tuesday evening to her students informing them of the shutdown. She said the challenge with tackling inequalities is rooted in how the STEM field is often dominated by white men.

“I think there is often an attitude, which is that particularly white men dominated STEM for so long that there is a certain level of pushback to change in that regard, and it's often accepted because people in STEM are so focused on their productivity,” Weise said. “There's a lot of opportunity for the same biases and inequalities to be passed down and passed down and passed down, and it needs to stop.”

McKay further noted the importance of continuing the discussions and actions to successfully fight racism in the STEM and academic community. He hopes #ShutDownSTEM is only the start for continued change.

“The racial inequities we see in science today have been present from the beginning of science,” McKay said. “It will not be easy to change them. But what happened with #ShutDownSTEM has never happened before. Many, many scientists set aside the day for study and action. It was endorsed by many of the most important scientific organizations around the world. One day won't make a difference, but perhaps this one day event will mark a transition so that we might look back and see #ShutDownSTEM as the beginning of an era in which science fights racism actively.”

Daily Staff Reporter Megan Shohfi contributed to this article. 

Summer News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at krizheng@umich.edu.