Quirks & Quarks

Feb 27: Black in science special

The legacy of racism in science and how Black Scientists are moving the dial

The legacy of racism in science and how Black scientists are moving the dial

(CBC, Ben Shannon)

This week's special edition of CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks looks at the history and future of Black people in science. 

We delve into the history of biased and false "race science" that for hundreds of years was used to justify slavery, exploitation and exclusion.  

This has left a terrible legacy in systemic racism that in the past and present has, on one hand, led to misunderstanding and mistreatment of Black people by the scientific and medical community, and on the other has created obstacles for talented Black researchers that prevented them from fully participating in the scientific process.

We also talk to Black researchers about how they're working to increase recognition for the contributions of Black scientists, and use that profile to build more opportunities and representation across all disciplines of science.

Along the way we identify and honour historical Black scientists who overcame the obstacles to make significant but often unrecognized contributions to science.

These articles were prepared as companions to our Black in science radio special:


TRANSCRIPT

BOB MCDONALD

Hi, I'm Bob McDonald, welcome to a special edition of Quirks & Quarks.

Today's program is about race and science.  And they have a long history together.  

Let's go back to the age of enlightenment, starting in the 17th century, when modern science was born. 

In Europe, science began to challenge religion as the primary way to explain how the world works -- turning to reason and evidence, rather than revelation

The enlightenment, and this newfound science, revealed much about the universe and our world. But it also firmly established and reinforced ideas that were durable, harmful and wrong.

Like the concept of race.

It was during the enlightenment that the idea of race as we know it today was conjured - the hierarchy of human beings.  

This concept - and the flawed evidence that supported it - haunts us still. 

Angela Saini:   The fact that people chose skin colour as a way of dividing people is as arbitrary as any other way of dividing us up.

Today, we're going look at the way science has been misused to justify racism, and by extension, centuries of slavery, segregation, and the mistreatment of generations of people. 

Barrington Walker: So that relationship between Blackness and racial inferiority, which becomes forged in the context of slavery, continues on now.

And how a movement sparked by a racist incident could help be a turning point for change.

Ashley Walker:  People often tell us that we have to separate being Black and and scientists and we cannot, you know, this is who we are.

If we want to actually put an end to racism, we have to talk about it, and acknowledge it. It's not a comfortable conversation to have, and it's not one I feel I should lead, so I hope you'll listen, and learn, along with me. 

We're calling this program Black in science: The legacy of racism in science and how Black Scientists are moving the dial

Here's CBC senior science reporter Nicole Mortillaro.

PART 1

NICOLE MORTILLARO

I remember as a kid, when I saw the first images of Saturn sent back by the Voyager probe. My mind was blown. And, to this day, I still get that feeling when I look out at the Universe.

It's why I love science so much. It's that power of discovery. I'm in awe of the world around me as I try to better understand it. 

It's a shame, though, that science doesn't quite love me back in the same way.

You see, I'm half Guyanese, and half Italian. 

And that means until recently, because of the colour of my skin, many scientists would consider me biologically inferior to white people.

Centuries of bad science supported the idea that being Black was to barely be human.

It was Carl Linnaeus, one of the most influential scientists of his time, who formally established the idea of race hierarchies.

Linnaeus was the father of taxonomy. He created the conventions for the naming of living organisms that we still use today --  Kingdom, genus, family, species.

And as he was classifying plants and animals, he classified humans, too.

He listed White Europeans as the superior beings, at the top of the racial hierarchy. 

"Vigorous, muscular. Flowing blond hair. Blue eyes. Very smart, inventive. Ruled by law," he wrote in 1735. 

Asian people were labelled as: "Melancholy, stern. Strict, haughty, greedy. Ruled by opinion."

He labelled Indigenous people as "Ill-tempered, impassive. Thick straight Black hair; wide nostrils; harsh face; stubborn, contented, free. Ruled by custom."

And then, at the bottom, my ancestors. The "Africanus" people, according to him, were "Sluggish, lazy. Black kinky hair. Silky skin. Flat nose. Thick lips. Crafty, slow, careless. Ruled by caprice."

It sounds ridiculous now, but this was considered to be groundbreaking science at the time.

Anglea Saini explored this history and the scientific idea of "race" in her book Superior: The Return of Race Science.

ANGELA SAINI

I think many of us imagine that it's been around forever. We've always thought about people in this way, but actually the racial categories that we use in the modern world. And by that I mean the very broad kind of colour-coded categories like Black, white, brown, haven't really been used for more than a few hundred years. 

So they were developed around the same time that modern Western science developed. And that was no accident because it was a European naturalists as they were classifying the natural world that also started classifying human beings. The fact that they landed on skin colour as a kind of way of classifying people is as arbitrary as any other thing they could have chosen, because, of course, there is no natural dividing line between the human species. We are very, very similar genetically. 

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Why was it so important to classify people, as you say? 

AS

Well, it wasn't necessarily important. In fact, it never really needed to be done. But it was part of what they were doing anyway in terms of drawing up taxonomies of the natural world. So when they were categorizing plants and animals in order to understand them better, they looked at humans and thought maybe we can do the same with us. 

And this wasn't particularly scientific in the beginning. To a large extent, it reflected the kind of political realities of the time. There was this idea that colour reflected deep down qualities, and that you could explain why certain regions of the world were more successful at that point in time than others based on these racial qualities that people had. So because at that point in time, the west happened to be doing well economically in no small part down to slavery, of course, and colonialism. But the fact that it happened to be doing well, kind of fed into this belief, that Western Europeans, white people are at the top of this hierarchy and everybody else is kind of slotted in below 

NM

So there were some strange scientific studies done at this time to justify this classification. Can you take me through that? 

AS

The kind of genre of race, science, pseudoscientific as it is, emerged very slowly. But by the 19th century, when this colour coded system had really set in, it really embedded itself inside the way that Western scientists were thinking about human difference. Then you get very strange experiments happening. So you get people, for example, US physicians exploring the possibility that Black people have thicker skin than white people, that they have denser bones. There were certainly assumptions around intellectual superiority that certain races were smarter than others. And, you know, this wasn't just informed by the politics. It also informed the politics of the time. 

So it was used, these pseudoscientific ideas about human difference, were used to justify slavery and colonialism, to justify the mistreatment of other people under this assumption that they were fundamentally different to begin with, you know, that that they weren't up to the same level of modernity and humanness as other groups. 

NICOLE MORTILLARO

It's no coincidence that the rise of race science came at the same time as the rise of industrial Black slavery. European societies that wanted to justify colonialism and slavery were all too happy to support science that excused the exploitation of others. 

And it's probably also no coincidence that North America was where some of the most influential race science was pursued. 

It is, after, all, where slavery persisted more profitably and longer than anywhere else.

The most influential work probably came from Samuel George Morton, an American doctor and anatomist. 

He examined hundreds of human skulls he'd collected, and noted what he believed to be differences between people from around the world.

His studies concluded that Caucasians had the biggest brains, Indigenous peoples were in the middle and once again, Africans ranked lowest, with the smallest brains. And, Morton suggested, this directly corresponded with their intellectual capacity.

Samuel George Morton excerpt:

"The head is long and narrow, the forehead low, the cheekbones prominent, the jaws protruding, and the chin small. In disposition the Negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity." 

NICOLE MORTILLARO

In 1839, Morton published a book entitled Crania Americana. This became one of the first works of American science that gained real traction amongst European researchers. It was prominently placed in some of the world's most distinguished libraries, and was endorsed by prominent scientists like Charles Darwin. 

Let me be clear - this is bad science. There is no correlation between race and brain size. Or for that matter between brain size and intelligence or temperament. Morton's work has been debunked by multiple scientists in the years since.

But these ideas spread around the world, and somehow still have influence today. 

BARRINGTON WALKER

So that relationship between Blackness and racial inferiority, which becomes forged in the context of slavery, continues on in the era of freedom. And continues on, continues on now."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

That's Dr. Barrington Walker, professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University. He studies how things like slavery, colonialism, and segregation were legitimized in the eyes of the law in Canada. 

And at the turn of the century, this bad science had a lot to do with it.

BARRINGTON WALKER 

So if you look at the immigration acts of the early 20th century, it's quite clear that they're being influenced by scientific racism and social Darwinism and hereditary ideas about race.  Right? That their genetic qualities proved a threat to white Canada.  

But you see a pivot then towards a more pronounced drive towards exclusion.  So you see preferences for folks from Europe, from Western Europe, and then sort of descending for more than in order of preference from there. You're also finding during this time dating back a little bit before to the turn of the century, is that the eugenics movement is also gaining popularity in Canada, too. 

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Eugenics, for those who need a reminder, is the notion that you could improve the human species by selectively breeding those with preferred traits. 

It was an ideology notoriously endorsed by the Nazis, but it was also quite influential in Canadian and American politics up until World War 2. 

BARRINGTON WALKER 

The ways in which the government selects who is deemed suitable for admission to the country is based on these ideas of racial preference, racial purity and racial hierarchy. So in that way, the government does legitimize these ideas.

NICOLE MORTILLARO

The Canadian government also promoted pseudoscience arguing that Canada was just too cold for Black people. 

BARRINGTON WALKER 

So that was one of the arguments that was put forward in the bill that would have been passed into law, is that for reasons of climactic unsuitability, Black people wouldn't make viable candidates for immigration to Canada, they're unfit for life in Canada and unsuitable for Canadian citizenship.

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Now look, I don't like the cold, but science has proven that it's not race that determines how well you tolerate frigid temperatures, as much as things like body fat content and your metabolism. 

And, we shouldn't give the idea that scientific racism is a problem of the past. This is Canadian psychologist Dr. Phillippe Rushton in the 1980s:

PHILLIPE RUSHTON

"I have observed that the order in which the races currently score on tests of intelligence or on measures of educational achievement, that is Oriental's higher than Caucasians and  Caucasians higher than Blacks is matched by the same rank order on over 60 other psychological, behavioral and physiological measures."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Rushton taught psychology at Western University in London Ontario, and he taught this pseudo-science to his students for decades.

Here's an interview that Notisha Massaquoi, one of his former students gave to CBC's London Morning radio show last year, about her experience in one of his classes:

NOTISHA MASSAQUOI

"So little things like positive stereotypes such as Asian people are extremely bright. But then it started escalating in subsequent classes to things like Black children develop much faster than white babies because they have to be able to become more independent because their families can't parent appropriately or take care of them…  And he then turned to the class and said there is some variation except if you are Black. If you are Black, you are genetically inferior and intellectually inferior to all other races."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

For centuries - and up to the modern era - race science has reinforced racial hierarchies, and justified discrimination.  

It's made a huge mark on how our societies were formed - from how our neighbourhoods were shaped, to who got the best land, and where infrastructure was built. It affected things like education, policing, and banking. 

Its legacy is the explicit and systemic racism that has such a huge impact on our day to day lives.

And that is how, as Angela Saini says, you see race becoming very much real, not biologically, but socially, and politically.

ANGELA SAINI

There are individuals often on the very margins of academia, but sometimes within the mainstream who are deeply wedded to this idea that racial inequality, as we see it in the world, is not a product of social and historical or political factors, but is really a reflection of deep down differences between us, that some countries are poor because the people in those countries are just genetically weaker than people in other countries, or that there are racial disparities in countries like the UK or the US or Canada, not because of the history of slavery or colonialism or anything to do with that, or structural racism.  But just because people are different deep down. You know, it's the lazy person's way of interpreting history.

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Ok, so what do we know now about race, and what it actually means? 

AS

Well, I think it's obvious when you look at the history of race science that it was never biological, it was never biological to begin with. You know, like I said, these classifications were always arbitrary and they could have been drawn anywhere. The fact that people chose skin colour as a way of dividing people is as arbitrary as any other way of dividing us up. We are, we know now quite unequivocally, one of the most homogeneous species on Earth genetically. So every other primate shows more genetic diversity than humans do. We are more genetically similar than chimpanzees are to each other. So this idea that there are any kind of natural dividing lines or that there are Black genes or white genes just isn't true. There is no gene that exists in all the members of one so-called race, and not in any other. 

But that doesn't mean that these racial categories that we use socially don't have any meaning. Of course they do. And in fact, they have so much meaning in the way that we treat each other and think about each other, and think about ourselves, that they have a visceral impact on how we live, on our bodies, and on our minds and what we think we're capable of, what we think other people are capable of. So much so that if you look at the U.S., for instance, there is a life expectancy gap between Black Americans and white Americans, quite a large one of a few years. 

And the reason for that is how people are treated. It's because of the history and the social fact of race that has led to these, what look like biological differences in the real world, but really are the product of social factors. 

NM

What, if we go back to the issue of race as a societal construct. What does that mean for people like myself who are of mixed race? 

AS

Well, you know, in many countries, in multicultural countries, one of the one of the biggest categories or fastest growing categories is that mixed race category. And as that increases, as it becomes more relevant, you know, these categories start to break down very quickly.   

And they will continue to do that. That is part of what it means to be human. There are no natural subdivisions. So the more we try to embed ourselves within natural subdivisions, the more we will become uncomfortable with it because they just don't exist. 

Our identities, our racial identities in that sense don't really belong to us. They belong to those observing us. And as much as we might want to feel that they are fixed within us, in reality, they have a meaning that is always changing and malleable depending on the politics of the place and the time. And that is to be expected. In fact, perhaps we should embrace that. You know, that is part of what identity is. It's something to be worn lightly. 

NICOLE MORTILLARO  

Angela Saini is a journalist and the author of Superior, the return of Race Science. 

This dehumanization of Black people also served as a major obstacle to keep us from practicing science. During this episode we're going to feature some notable Black scientists who have made huge contributions in their field, despite being pushed to the margins, refused jobs, and denied proper credit. 

Narrator:

Charles Henry Turner was a biologist, neurologist, and psychologist who was a pioneer in animal cognition studies.   

He was one of the first African Americans to earn a PhD from the University of Chicago, and in 1892, was the first Black scientist to be published in the prestigious journal, Science. He was an incredibly productive student, publishing over 30 scientific papers by the time he got his doctorate. But, despite his achievements, he couldn't find work as a researcher or academic due to racial barriers, and ended up teaching at an all-Black high school instead.

Even without access to lab facilities or research materials, he pursued his science at an impressive pace. He made groundbreaking discoveries in the field of animal behavior, which went against the prevailing ideas of the time that suggested animals were not capable of complex cognition. 

Among his many discoveries, he was the first to prove that insects have the capacity to hear, that they can learn by trial and error, and showed how bees use olfactory and visual cues to find nectar. 

PART 2

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Race science has contributed to and shaped modern racism - particularly anti-Black racism - which has so scarred Black lives and distorted and damaged modern society. 

And we are just starting to use *good* science to quantify by how much. 

A quick scan of some of the most recent scientific studies shows an overwhelming amount of concerning news.

Like one, which shows that the urban areas in which many Black people live have less biodiversity and poorer air quality because cities don't invest in parks and plant fewer trees in these neighborhoods. And this in turn intensifies the impacts of climate change.

Another study, by the Investment Bank Citigroup suggests that racism has cost the US economy more than $16 trillion dollars over the past 20 years, largely by stunting educational and economic opportunities for Black people.

But I want to talk about health. Because all of this inequality has taken a huge toll on the health and well being of Black people - something that has become even more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic.

(various news clips of COVID-19 coverage)

As Angela Saini mentioned earlier, there is a life expectancy gap between Black and white Americans, and COVID-19 has only made it worse. Life expectancy of the Black population in the US has dropped 2.7 years since the pandemic began, which means that Black people now die, on average, 6 years sooner than white people.

One person who knows these realities all too well is Dr. Roberta Timothy. She's a researcher at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health and she studies the health effects of systemic racism on Black and Indigenous communities.

Dr. Timothy, welcome to our program!

ROBERTA TIMOTHY

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Now, how has this history of scientific racism affected the health of Black people today?

RT

Science is intrinsically linked with the anti Black racism that impacts Black folks' lives. So the notion of science as objective and fair and rational versus irrational is not actually correct.

We know that Black women are overrepresented in the national rates for most significant chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular disease, HIV AIDS, lupus and hypertension. The diabetes rates, for example, doubled among Black women from 6% to 12%. between 2001 and 2012, Black women also experienced the most drastic increase in rates of high blood pressure across any ethnic group in Canada increasing from 20% to 27%. over this time period. 

We also know that one in seven people are living with HIV in Canada. 15% is African and Black population. And we know that there was a study in researchers at McGill University in 2015, found that Black women in Canada have substantially higher rates of premature birth than white women, and this resembles the disparities in the United States. 

So these are just some examples of the impact. And now we're in COVID-19. And we know that this has intensified for Black communities.

NM

Wow, so okay, take me through this. How did we get here? What causes these differences in health care?

Well, I think that you know, the number one thing is our histories and herstories of racism, how we have been treated, what services we had access to. If there's a situation they're not getting health treatment. That has to do with years and years of mistrust within the system that has violated them, right. So it's a system that has not created equal access and a system that when people go to appointments, you know, have been they've been treated harshly and harmed and folks are not, they're not wanting to go based on safety. They don't feel safe within our healthcare system, and our health care system doesn't cater to Black folks also. 

NM

Okay, so you talk about this distrust, where does it come from?  

RT

So I'll give you a couple examples. James Marion Sims, he's known as the father of quote, unquote, modern gynecology. His research was conducted on enslaved Black women without anesthesia, and some were operated on up to 30 times. So these women, these enslaved women, their bodies were used as medical test subjects, and slave children were also used. And we have to remember the context. This is during slavery, right and at the same time, in 1851, there was a diagnosis developed called Drapetomania, which was a conjectural mental illness, quote, unquote, developed by American physician Samuel A. Cartwright, who  hypothesized the illness, this is an illness that causes enslaved Africans to flee captivity. 

And, you know, I mean, and this is the legacy of what we're seeing today. This directly relates to the notion of Black people and pain, and in medicine, and the studies that say that, you know, many medical professionals do not believe or give the same amount of pain relief for Black folks, this is really huge. So if people are not thinking or feeling that Black folks feel pain, the same as white folks, and not giving not giving relief is also this notion of not being human, right, not not being biologically the same and being biologically different than others.  But this is something that now trickles down to the actual practice in our medical systems. 

Another study I can give you is the radiation of Black cancer patients, that it was a 1960 study until 1971 was  Dr. Eugene Saenger, a radiologist at the University of Cincinnati. And he led an experiment exposing 88 cancer patients, so exposing 88 cancer patients, poor and mostly Black, to whole body radiation.

You know, this is like, this is not only a cruel and painful thing to have happen to somebody, you know, but these patients were already dealing with chronic illness. Right. So on top of that, a report done in 1972 indicated, as many as a quarter of these patients died of radiation poisoning, so they were killed by this experiment. 

NM

Now, talking about these experimentations, how does that make you feel? When you hear about this?

RT

I feel a lot of pain, I also feel anger. To me, the anger makes me act. I didn't plan to do any research on COVID-19. Obviously, I was doing other things on Black health. Yet we have to do this work, because it's about life and death for our community members.

NM

So yes. So you mentioned that you're doing a study related to COVID-19? Um, can you tell me about that? What are you looking at? 

RT

So basically in March, you know, we noticed the numbers were increasing. And people were hearing different things about folks, you know, who are being hospitalized locally and globally. So, you know, we're transnational, Black people are transnational, we have folks everywhere. And decided that I was going to do this research project. And I'm looking at, you know, how folks are impacted. So, people who are working in you know, as essential workers in the medical field, you know, working groceries, TTC, nurses, doctors, students, children, people are working in childcare. What's the impact of COVID-19 based on anti-Black racism and other intersectional violence? What interventions are working within the community. What other things can we do?

NM

So, you know, I know it's still somewhat early but what are you seeing so far, when it comes to the Covid 19 pandemic?

The mental health impact of this in our community is really, really critical. There's not enough resources for mental health. 

Also, I would say, you know, vaccine mistrust or distrust. So far, this is preliminary, folks are saying, you know, we don't want to be the first one in line to get that, you know, vaccine, we don't trust it. And we don't trust that you will actually take care of us. 

So that's some, those are some of the things that I'm finding in the, in this study. And again, also looking at the, as I said earlier, the impact of folks not going into the hospital, So what does that mean in the long run for Black people and their well being and and and basically life and death?

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Dr. Roberta Timothy is a professor in the Social and Behavioural Sciences Division of the Dalla Lana School of public health at the University of Toronto.

Narrator:

Dr. Sophia B. Jones dedicated her career to fighting for health equity for Black people.

Born in Chatham, Ontario in 1857, Jones was fascinated by science, and wanted to study medicine from a young age. But she was denied access to full medical training at the University of Toronto because she was a woman. So she applied to, and was accepted by, the University of Michigan, which had just started admitting women a few years earlier. In 1885, she became the first Black woman to graduate from the school, and then became the first Black faculty member at Atlanta's Spelman College, where she organized the first training program for nurses in the American South. 

During her long career, she practised medicine in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Kansas City, spearheading many public health programs, and pushing for health equity for Black Americans. She published the restrospective article "Fifty Years of Negro Public Health" in 1913, which looked at systemic barriers to health care for Black people.

NICOLE MORTILLARO

It's great to be able to present these profiles of unrecognized Black scientists. And we should let you know we've got more on our web site that we recommend you look for.

But we need to look at why they're unrecognized.  Why aren't there more Black faces in science?

MAYDIANNE ANDRADE

"At every level, Black people are underrepresented, even more so in science, technology, engineering and math than in other fields. And that does a few things. It means that you can't necessarily see people like you doing the work, so you're not sure if you're welcome there. And to be honest, it means that our colleagues who are not Black, their impressions of what is possible for Black people, is going to be shaped more potentially by stereotype than by actual interactions with people who identify as Black."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

That's biologist Dr. Maydianne Andrade. When you don't see anyone who looks like you in the room, this leads to imposter syndrome -- the feeling that you shouldn't be there - that you don't belong. Here's planetary astrochemist Ashley Walker:

ASHLEY WALKER

"There are times where I felt like I was not good enough. There were times where I felt like, I could not succeed that maybe this isn't the right choice for me. There were times where I felt lesser than then what I am as a scientist."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

And that's entirely aside from how other people treat you. Here's data scientist Dr. Tyrone Grandison.

TYRONE GRANDISON

"I've had other people in the room, where I'm presenting it, like asked me to go run coffees for them, for them. I've had people mistaking me for the chauffeur, or the help.

And it also like, makes you feel angry, who are these people to make these assumptions? And like, why is this place so messed up?"

NICOLE MORTILLARO

It's important to remember, though, that Black people are, of course, and always have been scientifically-minded.  

CHANDA PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN

"I am part of a long line of people who used empirical evidence to understand the world around them."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

That's Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist who was recently recognized by Essence Magazine as one of 15 Black Women Who are Paving the Way in STEM and Breaking Barriers. 

CHANDA PRESCOD-WEINSTEIN

"So we often talk about Black people as if we're all just arriving in science. But Black people have been doing scientific type things, I think, for centuries. And for my enslaved ancestors running a plantation took expertise. And it was enslaved people who were doing a lot of the day to day management, on a plantation. So agriculturalists, midwives, engineers who were building things even if they couldn't read or write and couldn't calculate by paper, which I have a hard time doing math in my head. So that's actually pretty impressive."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

And even though more Black scientists like Dr. Prescod-Weinstein are getting opportunities in the science world, that doesn't mean it's an even playing field.  Structural racism is not just a barrier to entry - it's an entire system. Dr. Roberta Timothy still faces many barriers when it comes to doing her work.

ROBERTA TIMOTHY

"I can give you one example. Okay, CIHR, right, they had a call for rapid COVID Research, I know, five different Black-led research groups that applied for this funding, no one got it.

Now, this was in May, when we knew that there was a disproportionate, you know, numbers of Black folks who are getting COVID-19, and yet our research was not funded. So I say that, I say that to say that we are often not funded, Black researchers, particularly when you're doing research that challenges or wants to dismantle anti-Black racism. 

And that, of course, then limits our ability to do major interventions, right, major programs, Major supports."

(Sounds of people protesting)

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Last spring, of course, was a difficult time for Black people. In May, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.  It triggered months of protests and resistance.  

But at the same time, and in parallel, Black scientists were having their own distinct racial reckoning. Triggered by this event on the same day George Floyd was killed.

(sound up of Christian Cooper saying: "Please don't come close to me." Amy Cooper: Then I'm calling the cops!" "Please call the cops!")

Christian Cooper just wanted to look at some birds in Central Park.

But a white woman named Amy Cooper - no relation - had different ideas.

(sound up: "I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life!")

This video, showing Ms Cooper calling the police on Mr. Cooper just because he asked her to put her dog on a leash, went viral immediately after it was posted.

It's undeniably an incident that was motivated by racism. 

(sound up: "There is an African American man, I am in Central Park. He is recording me and threatening myself and my dog! Please send the cops immediately!")

Scientists like Astrochemist Ashley Walker watched, appalled but unsurprised.

ASHLEY WALKER

"I was mortified. I was definitely mortified. Because I mean, that could be any one of us just minding our business, and it can happen to us, and that's what typically happens, we're always minding our business. And so we were tired of being targeted, and we want to show that our Black lives do matter."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

A group of Black naturalists decided that they wanted to do something to support Mr. Cooper. 

Building off the success of previous social media movements like #BlackAndSTEM, they launched the hashtag #BlackBirdersWeek. During that week, Black people from around the globe took part by posting and sharing images from the field and talking about their work. 

Then, came a number of other weeks -- #BlackinChem, #BlackinNeuro, #BlackinPhysics, #BlackinScienceCommunications. 

Ms Walker founded #BlackinAstro, and it also took off.

ASHLEY WALKER

"When #BlackinAstro kicked off, it was amazing. And I was really, really excited about it. I'd seen how, you know, the, the impact, and the togetherness of Black scientists who are passionate about their science, but also passionate about our communities, because you know, people often tell us that we we have to separate being Black and and scientists and we cannot, we can't separate being a Black scientist. Because this is who we are."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

For all of the scientists that we've spoken to about the large number of Black in "Science" weeks, the reaction was universal - that by simply seeing people who look like them represented in their fields, it helped to make them feel more strongly that they belonged.

EMILY CHOY

"I participated in a few, Black in marine science, Black in physiology, and Black mammologists week. And I mean, it was just a very it was just an amazing week where I got to know other people that look like me."

This is Dr. Emily Choy, a biologist. By simply introducing herself on twitter, not only was she able to meet countless other Black scientists, but that visibility also got her opportunities she's never had before.

EMILY CHOY
"So I basically said Hi, my name is Emily, I did this thread. And it was actually retweeted over a thousand times,. I was contacted by the marine mammal podcast from the Marine Mammal Society, and I got the opportunity to do a podcast with them. On Halloween, I actually have a little girl who dressed up as me, for Halloween. I mean, that's why I think it's so important to have this representation for youth so people can have role models  and see themselves in them."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

By Black scientists just being visible, it means that kids grow up knowing that becoming a scientist is an option for them.

(sound up of a child saying "I see the moon! I see the moon in space!")

Narrator

Dr. Percy Lavon Julian was a chemist who discovered innovative and cost-effective ways to synthesize steroids. 

He was born in 1899 in Alabama, when Black people were only allowed to receive the equivalent of an 8th grade education. Despite this, Dr. Julian was accepted to DePauw University in Indiana, where he took high school courses alongside his university courses to catch up. 

And even though he graduated as valedictorian in 1920, he couldn't find work, and was blocked from getting his PhD in the US. And after getting his doctorate in Europe, he still struggled to find work at home. Eventually he became a research associate back at DePauw. This is where he became the first researcher to synthesize the drug physostigmine, a difficult technical accomplishment. 

After proving his skills as a chemist, he was finally able to land a job as director of research at Chicago's Glidden Company. 

Over the next 17 years, he was awarded over 100 chemical patents, including for a fire-retardant foam that saved many lives during World War 2. But his biggest contributions were to biomedical research. By figuring out how to synthesize important medicinal compounds from plants, he helped make steroids like cortisone and birth control pills significantly more affordable to mass-produce.

PART 3

NICOLE MORTILLARO

The system won't magically correct itself, it's going to take work. 

So let's look to the future. What can be done to make science - and society - a more equitable place for all?

To discuss this, I'm joined by Dr. Maydianne Andrade. She's a professor of biological sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and the president of the Canadian Black Scientists Network.

Hello, and thanks for joining us!

MAYDIANNE ANDRADE

Thank you for inviting me.

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Okay, first off, do you think it's even possible to make science an equitable place?

MA

I do think it's possible. I think it is a path, as opposed to a one time only effort, and it's something that will have to require constant thought, and work. It isn't something that we can sort of do one and done. It requires a change in our mindset, a change in the way we think about what we're doing, and also recognition that, in fact, social norms and conventions, expectations and stereotypes do actually affect scientists and do actually affect our science. That's a very hard thing for scientists to accept, but it is true.

NM

Alright, now, what do you think are the key things that we need to do to make science a better place for Black people?

MA

So there's two pieces to making science more equitable. And these are things that will benefit Black people, but also people from other underrepresented groups. One piece is around policy. And to be honest, a lot of the policies are already in place to require equitable behavior. But I think what we've seen over decades of having those policies in place, but not really a change in representation, is that the policy needs to be a bit more ambitious, and assertive, and data driven. It's ironic as a scientist that I'm saying, Why aren't the people in science looking at the data and using the data? Because they're not. 

And then on the flip side, is culture change. Culture change is what affects whether or not policy actually has an effect on the ground.  

And the truth is that we know from our history, the history of science, that in fact, just like everyone else, we are influenced by social conventions and by stereotypes. So even though we do our best to be impartial, it's not entirely possible to do so unless you're aware of what's actually the structure in which you're making your decisions.

NM 

Now, you've recently launched this Canadian Black scientists network, how do you hope that that will help? 

MA

The Canadian Black scientists network is aimed at doing things across several different levels. So on the one hand, for those of us already in science, it's providing connection and community that allow us to talk through, discuss, and strategize about how to change the challenges that we experience.  But more actively, we want to engage with the next generation of scientists. Our long term goals are to have a robust national level set of engagements with Black youth, not just   in terms of them seeing that we, as Black people have succeeded  in the sciences, but engaging and supporting their enjoyment of and recognition of the potential of being in science. We want to engage with institutions with which they are interacting, to help them see the barriers that exist for Black youth currently going into science. And then we want to have visibility in terms of our interaction with policy makers. 

We need to address this at multiple levels, culture change, but also policy that has teeth and policy that is data driven. So all of those things we're hoping to accomplish. Not Not Not a lot, just, just everything.

NM 

Yeah, exactly. I mean, your experience must have also shaped this, as well. 

MA

Sure. It's funny, I'll, I was on Quarks and Quarks, and was described as an activist, a scientist and an activist. And I have to say, it took me a while to sort of digest that. And I realized that I am an activist. And the reason I'm an activist now is that science and the university has made me so. Starting out, I would not have imagined this path for myself, I just wanted to do my science, just like white folks, just like folks who aren't Black. But after you spend decades, and you don't see change, and you send your 18 year old daughter who identifies as Black off to university, and you still haven't seen change, and you watch your 13 year old son growing up, and you look around and see the other young people, something has to change. And I'm tired of waiting. So that has shaped some of what I'm doing. 

NM  

Yes. Like, sometimes it's tiring being the only, you know, person in the room. Right. I get it.

MA

Yeah, in fact, I could say one other thing briefly. Although it's good, I guess. I mean, so I've talked to colleagues about this. And many of us are now in academic administrative roles of various types. And a lot of us got into it, because we wanted to have a positive effect. And many of our universities really are engaging. But it's still the case that we can go through a whole day of meetings. And the only time we see other faces like ours at the table, is when the meeting is about equity, diversity and inclusion. And that's just not right. Right, everyone needs to engage with these issues. 

NM  

Absolutely. So now, how do you think having more Black representation in science can help undo the harm of racism in society as a whole?

MA

I think for better or for worse, and maybe even more so now, during and post pandemic, people look to scientists, as authority figures in a variety of different ways. 

If you look at a particular group of people, like scientists who have all this authority, and knowledge, they're the ones at the front of the classroom. They're the ones who are giving the briefings about the pandemic. And you never see people of a particular group there. You never see Black people, you start to think there's a deficit in those people, that means that they can never be at the front of the room. So we need that to flip. We need that to change.

When we see all sorts of different professions in which the representation of people in those professions reflects the people we see on the streets in Canada, then we know that we've reached sort of a milestone, right, where people are moving into these different areas as a function of their abilities and interests, not as a function of their ability to wriggle through a filter that that is designed to keep them out. 

NM  

Yeah. So now, we've recently seen a sort of reckoning of racism in science. What are you hoping to see happen in the years to come?

MA

What I hope is that an understanding of how bias can affect us as individuals, whether we're scientists or not, just becomes something that people accept. 

So one of the challenges with talking about bias is that people think you're accusing them of something, they think you're accusing them of being a racist, in this case, an anti-Black racist. And that's not necessarily the accusation. Sure, there's some people like that. But really, the vast majority of people are just using common mental shortcuts, but those mental shortcuts are informed by stereotypes. And what we need to do is to make people feel comfortable in acknowledging that okay, well, maybe I did make that mental shortcut, but it has a negative impact on others. And I'm going to restructure how I make decisions to make sure I don't make those shortcuts.

NM  

We often hear people who say, Oh, I don't see color. I don't see race. And they think that's helpful. But it really isn't. Can you explain why that might not be the case? 

MA

Yeah. So I think in Canada, I don't see race, in the past, was a way of saying I'm not racist. Right. I think that's what people are really trying to say when they say that I don't treat you any differently because you're Black, say. The problem is that we know you see race, unless you're actually, are unable to see which, and then it's fair. Because my skin color is different from the person saying it to me usually. And I know they can see that because I can see that. I'm not ashamed or worried about being Black. The issues are not my race. The issues are racism and by saying I don't see color, I don't notice you're Black. It's like denying that I am having a social experience that depends on that. Because I am. 

It's denying the experience is what it feels like when you're a Black person, and someone says they don't see race, they don't notice you're Black. I'm proud to be Black. That's who I am. Right. And I want to know that if someone treats me differently, because I'm Black, that you will see that too. 

NM  

Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for joining us.

MA

Thank you for inviting me. 

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Dr. Maydianne Andrade is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and the president of the Canadian Black Scientists Network.

Here's the thing - ultimately, science is better when people of all backgrounds participate. Not just Black people, but people of all races, people from the LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities.

On one level, this is a moral imperative. It's just ethically wrong that science excludes people. Then there's the waste of talent and potential. 

But you also get bad and less inclusive results. Diversity in research and decision making helps ensure that the needs and concerns of everyone are addressed. 

Beyond that, evidence shows that diverse teams are more innovative, come up with better solutions, and make more intuitive leaps. You get better answers when people come at questions from different mindsets. 

And this covers all facets of science - from biology, to chemistry -- even technology. Here's data scientist Dr. Tyrone Grandison again:

TYRONE GRANDISON

"So when you talk about the fact that hand sanitizers can't recognize dark skin, or the fact that up until a few years ago, most image recognition software, you know, were identifying Black people as monkeys. Like, that's not a fault of the tech, that's the fault of the training data that people are actually using. It's the fact that the people that are building these systems didn't think of, does this actually make sense outside of my little bubble. I mean, the fact that, you know, everything in the context around the technology itself that's being built, is filled with bias and prejudice. Like you have to find ways to at every single point, eliminate or reduce the impact of all of that."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

The experts, and evidence, is clear. The solution is, in large part, representation. We need policies to make sure that there is diversity from the top down. And that can't be just a token. Black people need to be involved in decision making, too.

We also need to make sure that people of all races and identities can admit and identify their biases. Only then can we work to undo their effects on our decision making.

But what's really important is that we talk about this - all of us, not just the people being affected by racism - and that we continue to talk about it, and not shy away from these uncomfortable conversations.  Here's Dr. Barrington Walker:

BARRINGTON WALKER

"It is my hope that this conversation will continue and throughout the years to come and that this isn't just kind of a transitory moment or a blip or an anomaly and that this is really the beginning of some substantive change for some badly needed conversations that we need to have."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

Because only then will true change come, for the better. Here's Dr. Roberta Timothy:

ROBERTA TIMOTHY

"What I see right now in the environment, what I see coming up, even in terms of the new Black hires, and there's more programs, trying to support Black folks and Black kids in science. And I think that it's inevitable that we will decolonize science because we're not going to stop is what I'm trying to say. We're not going to stop talking about the violence in science, and we're not going to stop trying to change it." 

NICOLE MORTILLARO

And for the last word, Ashley Walker. So is the future a positive one for Black scientists?

ASHLEY WALKER

"Of course! It's always a positive one. I know we can do it."

NICOLE MORTILLARO

I'm Nicole Mortillaro. This special edition of Quirks & Quarks was produced by me and Amanda Buckiewicz. Our senior producer is Jim Lebans. 

Thanks to the people who spoke with us for this special: Angela Saini, Barrington Walker, Roberta Timothy, Chawnda Prescod-Weinstein, Tyrone Grandison, Ashley Walker, Emily Choy, and Maydianne Andrade. For a transcript of this episode, more hidden figures of science, or just more information, check out our website, cbc.ca/quirks.

Thanks for listening. Let's keep the conversation going. 

Corrections

  • In an earlier version of this story, Phillipe Rushton was identified as teaching philosophy at Western University. In fact, his discipline was actually psychology.
    Mar 01, 2021 4:31 PM ET

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