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What is race and does it matter (in astronomy)?

In my last post I gave a peek into my understanding of racism in America, and how I teach that concept to my children. The reading list posted therein also informs much of what follows, so if you’d like references please see the end of that article. See also my introduction on the subject of race in (US) astronomy. With this post I aim to give a quick overview of some key concepts that I'll rely upon in future posts. For people wishing to comment on this, please do me, yourself and the community a favor and first read this excellent reader’s guide on discussing racism. You’ll be surprised how often the first thing that comes to your mind has been previously voiced and repeated ad nauseam elsewhere in similar forums. When in doubt, frame your comment as a question.

The 1927 AAS meeting. In one key respect it is the same now as it was then.
The first concept is that of race. This subject is covered extensively in the easy-to-read textbook Seeing White (see my Twitter challenge #BloggingWhite), as well as in numerous other books, research papers, blog posts, etc. Thus, I cannot do proper justice in the space here, but I can highlight some important aspects of race that should pique your interest as a scientists and citizen:
  1. Race has little to no biological basis. Many lines of genetic research have shown that when humans are divided into various "classical" racial categories (a process that is, itself, fraught with difficulty and ambiguity), that 85% of genetic variation occurs within racial groups, while < 7% of the variability is across racial divisions. At a genetic level, we are an order of magnitude more human than we are any specific race.
  2. While race is not a biological reality, it is very much real because we humans believe in race and act according to racial divisions. This started with the US Census, which needed to identify Black slaves in the South so they could be counted as 3/5 of a human each for congressional representation. It continued as a justification for slavery (slaves are happier when taken care of by white owners!) with the oppressive Jim Crow laws, legal segregation, as well as federal appropriation of funds, employment and military service. It also formed the primary basis of the problematic eugenics movement, and eugenics researchers produced most of the junk "science" that informs even modern conceptions of race. Race divisions continue today in the wealth gap, imprisonment disparities, school segregation, etc.
The key takeaway is: race, while not a biological reality, is a social reality with numerous and far-reaching consequences for how we live and interact in American society. Race is real, but only because we have created it, defined it, nurtured it and most importantly: used it.

These six men all have two things in common: they play in the NBA, and they are Black. Two
are first-generation mixed-race, one is from Africa while the other five are African American.
There is more genetic variation within a race than among races.
That last idea, the use of race is key. Without the concept of race, there cannot be a concept of one race being superior to another. But if society understands race to be genetic and immutable, then it's only a matter of time before one group asserts its superiority. Remember how German society united around the idea of an "Aryan race?" Remember how race has no genetic basis and is pretty much a fairy tale? Remember the consequences of the strong national belief in that superior race? This is why race matters.

Without race available as a tool for dividing up humans into categories, and as a tool for labeling one group as superior (whites) and other groups as inferior (non-whites), then one would be left only with what the founders of our country wrote, namely: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..." Without the concept of white and non-white, then it would, indeed, be self-evident, as well as scientifically evident that all people are born equal.
Look at this and tell me race doesn't matter...
However, we live in a world with limited resources. In the 17th--19th centuries, the American South saw an opportunity to gain wealth, resources and power through the trade of agricultural products, cotton being king among those products. I don't need to go into the details of what went down after Black people were labeled subhuman and pressed into forced labor to build our country. But the institution of slavery couldn't exist without the social construct of race. 

Racism is the framework that has allowed and continues to allow white people to accumulate an unfair advantage over non-white Americans, as I detailed in my previous post (and references therein). Seeing White examines this process using social constructionism. The basic idea is that race does not need to matter, but it does because it's an effective tool for appropriating power, resources and wealth for white people while leaving non-whites out of the game. Having constructed this social reality, consequences such as a wealth gap and elevated poverty rates among non-whites quite naturally follow. The construction of race/racism causes inequality which in turn results in good things for white people and bad things for non-white people.

It's worth stating this again: the construction of race leads to racist policies that disadvantage non-whites in our society, resulting in non-whites having less; less wealth, lower incomes, less availability to health care, shorter life expectancies, living near poverty, and being excluded from positions of power in our society. It's not because non-whites have inferior cultures (the so-called "culture of poverty") and choose to occupy a lower class in our society. Rather, they have been pushed into a lower class by a system that provides them with fewer opportunities and more contingencies than a white person with otherwise identical starting conditions.

Racism, sexism, homophobia. All of these are tools that allow one group to amass wealth, resources and power while denying equal access to others. I could point out numerous examples in history, but most people know about them already. And that's the problem: because those nasty things are viewed as happening in the past, we shrug them off and think, "Jeez, how stupid were those people? Silly Nazis, subjugation is for kids!" But here's the thing: There was no magical moment between the past and present during which everyone suddenly had a software update. Views have evolved, but slowly. Primarily, we are products of our past, we inherit our cultural practices and beliefs from our ancestors. 

Don't believe me? Ever hear that Americans are devout, hard-working, fiercely independent people? To whom do we usually attribute these good traits? The Puritans and Founding Fathers and all those heroes of the past, of course. All of these good things that we believe about ourselves as Americans are usually the things we venerate in our ancestors. And we act accordingly.
Behold: our moral ancestors!
But when it comes to things like racism? Bah! That's all in the past. That happened hundreds of years ago. That has nothing to do with me! Well, I'm sorry to say that unless you spent a fair fraction of your education studying these matters, you're destined to inherit the thinking of the past. Why? Because it's the default setting for our country and society.

Also kinda relevant in shaping modern American morality...
Sadly, as I see it, this inheritance is precisely what has happened and continues to occur in astronomy, both in the past and present. Astronomy is like a microcosm of America. In the US, it has a system of governance distributed among several branches, including the AAS, NSF/NOAO, NASA, etc. These organizations set policies, and distribute resources like telescope time, funding and jobs. Like resources and wealth in the US, the resources in the astronomy community are scarce and competition is fierce. And like the governing bodies in the US, a perusal of the people in charge quickly reveals a distinct lack of color. For example, the AAS council has 19 members, of which 18 are white.
The officers of the AAS Council: representative of the demographics of astronomers in 2014,
representative of the demographics of American power/leadership, but not representative
of the demographics of America. The other 9 members of the council are not pictured.
In addition to being a part of America of and subject to the same race-based rule sets that govern society in our country, Astronomy is a part of academia, which relies to a large degree on elitism. People in academia consider themselves elite thinkers, the best at what they do. Further, they perceive their system as being a meritocracy. If your identity is built on the concept of exceptionalism and if you considers one's institution to be elite among higher learning, then the temptation to believe that your characteristics are superior will be extremely strong. Particularly if everyone around you shares those characteristics. It's a self-supporting system built on sorting the elite from the non-elite.

(This is why I'm so focused on the nature of intelligence. In truth, intelligence is less genetic and much more about hard work and dedicated practice. Brilliant astrophysicists are taught/advised, mentored/trained rather than simply born. But in some of my past discussions with senior-level astronomers I have noticed the implicit assumption that certain groups of people are genetically more likely to be successful astronomers.)

When I tell (white) people I'm the first Black professor to attain tenure in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Physical Sciences at Harvard, they tend to respond with something like, "What?! In 2014?!" As if this specific time in history is so far separated from the era of segregation. In fact, this is the same country in many respects as it was in 1960, or in 1901, or in 1860. Much of the software is still installed and running just fine in the background. The primary difference is that sometime between now and the 1964 Civil Rights Act---other than the abolition of legal segregation---is that white society decided they would no longer talk about race. And having done that long enough, recently there's the belief that we are now in a post-racial society, all without having to do anything!

That would be nice. But as someone who feels the effects of race and racism every single day, let me give you my observation: We are no more in a post-racial America that we are in a post-America America. Race isn't real in any scientific sense. But it is very real in our society. Ignoring this simple fact has far-reaching consequences in society, as well as in the little subset of American society that we call astronomy. 

In my future posts I'll talk about how a mostly white sub-society such as astronomy comprises individuals who are, in the main, blind to the benefits of their whiteness. From there I'll take on the myth of meritocracy, the sad story of how affirmative action became a bad word among even liberal astronomers, how racism is a systematic/institutional problem that affects individuals on a daily basis, and eventually I'll get to solutions to the problem of racism in astronomy. 

Update: I previously wrote that I was the first Black person to attain tenure in FAS at Harvard. I meant the physical sciences, and I meant no disrespect to my Black colleagues in other schools/departments in FAS.

Anticipated Questions/Comments and Some Responses

  1. Wait, isn't race important from a medical perspective. Don't some races have different diseases than others?

    This is not as straight-forward as you may think. Take sickle cell anemia, which is known to be present at high rates in individuals of African decent. It's a Black disease, right? Well, not quite. Greek people also have this disease, as well as almost all groups from warm or especially tropical regions. This is because sickle cell is an adaptation to malaria, and is therefore regional, not racial. Diseases like hypertension are common among African American men, but not among African men. This is because hypertension is related to the added stress of living in a racist society (See Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele). Some close-knit cultures are susceptible to genetic diseases due to limited genetic variation within their groups due to, e.g., strict rules against intermarrying.
  2. But I'm color blind! I don't see race.

    Well, you live in a racist society; a society built on the existence of race and that uses race as a basis for various rule sets. Being color blind in America is like being rule-blind in a game of football. Also, I should note that this is far easier to say as a white American than as a non-white American. It's like being a billionaire and saying that money and possessions don't matter.

  3. Can't non-white people be racist against white people? Everyone can be disrespectful to anyone else.

    As I'll tackle in an upcoming post, racism and prejudice are related, but definitely are not the same thing. One can be prejudiced but not racist. Racism = prejudice + Power. A black man can hate a white man, and that's prejudice, and perhaps even bigotry. But after his moment of hatred, the black man goes back into a world in which he is less likely to be hired because of his race, and the white man goes back into a world relatively full of opportunities. The black man is more likely to end up in prison for an offense for which the white man would get probation. The key to racism is that it lies along the vector of the Power differential. Also, note that individual results may vary due to statistical fluctuations. Barak Obama is many-sigma away from the mean for Black Americans. However, even he and his family are nonetheless still subject to racism on a regular basis.
  4. Well, I'm not racist! I don't hate non-white people. I treat everyone equally.

    That's great! Perhaps you've read dozens of books on the topic of race, racism, white privilege and US history. But if you haven't done your homework, your concept of non-racism will be awfully thin. If you've done your homework, the question becomes: what are you doing to actively combat racism in your world? Being nice to everyone is...nice. But there are no passive participants in the fight against racism. This is simply because society is based on race by default. Racist rules are the default setting. If you're a white person conscious about these issues, I hope you'll join in and help rather than simply claiming to be the good-guy/gal and then stepping back to the sidelines.
  5. Didn't you run into Goodwin's Law in mentioning the Nazis?

    There are laws (legal), there are laws (scientific) and there are laws (silly memes). I'm sure Goodwin is an excellent attorney, but I missed the scientific or legal basis of his law.

    Give that my post is about race, I feel that referring to one of the most egregious cases of state-sanctioned racism is appropriate. Also, given the average American is much more familiar with Nazi Germany than they are about racial covenants, redlining, block busting, lynching and other facets of good ol' American state-sanctioned racism, I made the conscious decision to stick with what people know.
  6. I'm from [country other than America]. I don't see what the big deal is, and I'm definitely not to blame for any of this. Also, you don't talk about race/racism in other countries, such as those in which white people are the minorities.

    As a US citizen with little to no experience living in or doing astronomy in other countries, my perspective will necessarily be on the state of affairs in the US. As for not seeing the big del, while you didn't set the rules for the game, you certainly are subject to them, whether you want to admit it or not. If you are, say, Chinese, then I'm sure you've noticed how few US professors look like you, despite the large number of Chinese immigrants in our country. If you're from Europe and white, you're going to miss a lot of this because you'll get to enjoy the benefits of being on the empowered side of the equation. This is all relevant to anyone wishing to navigate academia in America, whether you were born here or not.


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