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The simple power of presence in even modest numbers

Shirley Jackson, the first African-American female Ph.D graduate of MIT.
She is now the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Upon arriving in Cambridge I've had the pleasure of getting to know Prof. Chris Rose, who is an engineering professor at Rutgers, currently visiting MIT as an MLK Scholar. We've been talking about diversity in the sciences, with a particular focus on increasing the footprint of what Chris refers to as "the Greater Us," referring to the small community of Black folk among the American science professoriate. Sadly, "small" in this case means epsilon-small. 

Prof. Chris Rose (Rutgers)
Even in 2013, there are only of order 10 Black professors at top-40 astronomy institutions according to this poll taken circa 2007. That's about 1% of all astronomy professors in the US, compared to the 12.6% representation of Blacks in the US population. The same order-of-magnitude discrepancy in representation persists across all science disciplines, from physics to chemistry to comp sci. Decades after the Civil Rights era, the overwhelming majority of all US science professors are white (and male). 

That's the bad news. The good news is that increasing the absolute numbers with the addition of ~10 individuals results in a 100% change in the fractional representation of the Greater Us in science in general, and  the astronomy community in particular. And such a change brings benefits that go well beyond the warm fuzzies associated with the mention of progressive concepts of "diversity." 

The practical implications are vast and important for scientific progress. For hundreds of years, since the dawn of modern science, only a small fraction of the world's population has participated in the advancement of humanity's knowledge of the Universe. If game-changers like Copernicus, Newton, Einstein and Feynman emerge at a rate of <1% from the white male population, increasing the population to include underrepresented minorities and women (not to mention people from other countries!) will greatly increase the numbers of brilliant individuals coming up with creative solutions to long-standing problems. I don't think it's unreasonable to attribute the slow progress in the understanding of, say, dark matter and dark energy to an artificially reduced talent pool. Scientific innovation cares not for humanity's arbitrary racial and socio-economic boundaries. 

National Society of Black Physicists
Increasing the footprint of the Greater Us also has a positive feedback effect that leads to even greater representation. Diversity begets diversity, as we in the astronomy community have seen among the ranks of our graduate students with the increase in the number of women over the past 20 years. The resulting geometric growth has led to huge advances in diversity/inclusion in the young field of exoplanetary science, where the Old Guard holds less sway.

Anyway, all of this was to set up a beautiful email I received from Chris Rose the other day about a profound, recent experience he had at MIT:
Hi Guys,

I was headed to my office in building 36 this evening,  and as I passed through the lobby I saw two Black men standing around engaged in conversation.  They were both academic types (one had the typical professor's soft leather briefcase and they were both around my age or a bit older...

One was about my height and between Wes' and Dave's complexion with long tight braids. The other was taller (maybe 6' 5" or more) and somewhere between Jim's and my/John/Emery's  color.  And both were clearly from the same cultural stock as everyone on this distribution  (diaspora though it is).    And they were almost certainly having a technical discussion.

Strong, tall, confident  Black MEN of our professional tribe having a comfortable chat.
And suddenly I felt at home, relaxed, engaged as I passed by on my way to a waiting elevator---though I did not know them, I'd not said a word,  and they'd not noticed me.

The feeling was kinda remarkable.

It was so remarkable that it wasn't until I reached my floor that I realized how remarkable it was.  I hit the button for the lobby. But they were gone.  I wandered around a bit, hoping to catch sight of them. No luck. But I suspect they had just come from some conference/meeting.  I know they're not faculty in my area.

So, now I'm back up in my office and obviously pondering.  The simple power of presence in even modest numbers comes to mind and what it could mean for not only our young men and women but for us too.  And what must the current environment be for someone who's been hardened by a professional lifetime of being mostly the only to react in this way?

The only thing I can take away right now is that we need to make our numbers higher. Much higher. High enough at all stages of the academic endeavor that tonight's conversation in the Lobby does not even register as I go to meet my colleagues and students, many of whom look just like those two strangers and are just as comfortably sure they have a shot at a MacArthur, a Fields or a Nobel.

Or we need to find somewhere to invent what we need.


(emphasis mine)

Personally, my hope is that that somewhere becomes Harvard sometime during my career. I'll be working hard to make it so, and I'm proud to be in a department that will support me and assist in the effort. 


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