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Showing posts from 2015

Diversity as the replacement for justice: A brief history

This article from The Nation provides some valuable historical context for US society's shift away from social justice to "diversity" as the rationale for affirmative action by intentionally ignoring the reality of systemic racism (h/t Adam Jacobs). Here's an excerpt:  The Bakke ruling shifted the rationale for affirmative action from reparation for past discrimination to promoting diversity. This, in essence, made the discourse about affirmative action race-neutral, in that it now ignores one of the key reasons for why we need to give an edge to minorities. Today the University of Texas, Austin, when  defending the consideration of race and ethnicity in admission decisions, cannot say that this practice is needed because of persistent racial inequality; because minority students do not have the same life chances as white students; because there is extensive racial discrimination in the labor and housing markets; because students who study in poor high schools have …

Say it with me: All people are created equal

I've written this before, but it bears repeating: Abigail Fisher is not suing the University of Texas for denying to recognize the benefits of diversity by not admitting her. She's claiming that it was fundamentally unfair—unjust—for her to be denied admission. Her evidence and reasoning aside, the fundamental issue here is not diversity, but justice. 
As a result, any response to her claim and the resulting discussion needs to focus on the issue of justice, not diversity. 

Affirmative action programs weren't implemented following the Civil Rights Act (and limited cases, before the Act!) in order to bring diversity to white institutions. They were designed to bring a semblance of fairness to a badly rigged game by identifying those who were long on the losing end (non-white people), and giving them the same advantages enjoyed by the winning team (white people).

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the push-back against affirmative action was immediate, well organized, and hi…

What's all this about colorblind racism?

I've been writing quite a bit about "colorblind" attitudes about race and racism (posts 1, 2, 3 and 4). This focus is more than a simple hobby horse. Rather, it has emerged from my attempts to have discussions about race with people in real life and on social media. I kept running into situations that feel an awful lot like the arguments between atheists and religious people. If you've ever been a part of, or witness to such a conversation, you've probably noticed how the people on either side make no progress and only tend to harden their own beliefs.

More reactions to SCOTUS racism

There are many voices among #BlackandSTEM pushing back against Scalia's and Roberts' overt and covert forms of racism.

From Urban Scientist at Scientific American (Dr. Danielle Lee): That’s what makes Roberts and Scalia words so worrisome. They legitimize and codify black participation in academia as inherently lower quality. They presume white is the default in science and minority participation is a distraction, a poor fit, unnecessary. It’s these presumptions - The Presumption of MisMatch, The Presumption of Intellectual Inferiority that feed into the poorest most often rolled out excuse for lack of diversity and inclusion in academia and the STEM workforce: We don't want to sacrifice quality for Diversity. Yeah. Tell me again how these systems don’t work to exclude. Here's a series of Tweets from Dr. Jedidah Isler. An excerpt:

Students benefit from individualized instruction that capitalizes on their abilities. REGARDLESS of race. That's how edu works #Blackan…

The subtle yet real racism of the Supreme Court

Judge Roberts, a member of the highest court in the land, which is currently hearing the sad story of mediocre college aspirant Abigail Fischer, recently asked, "What unique ­perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?" 
Did you catch the white supremacy in this question? If not, don't feel bad because it's subtly hidden beneath the cloaking field of colorblind racism. (As for Scalia's ign'nt-ass statements, I'm not even...)
Try rephrasing the question: "What unique perspective does a white student bring to a physics classroom?" The answer is, of course, absolutely nothing! Why? Because race isn't biological, and is therefore not deterministic of cognitive abilities. Did you perhaps forget that you knew that when considering Roberts' question? If so, again, it's understandable. Our society and culture condition all of us to forget basic facts …

Let's be clear about freedom of speech

Despite what many people are saying about student protests at universities across the nation, as Kat Blaque points out below: "freedom of speech is not freedom from the repercussions of your speech...Unless the government is knocking on your door, dragging you from your computer, and tossing you into a prison cell, your freedom of speech is not being violated." 
So when Erica Christakis inserted herself into a campus-wide conversation about whether students should wear black/red face as Halloween costumes—subject matter that she admitted and demonstrated that she was ignorant about—she was illustrating how free speech works: she was free to make her ignorant, ungraceful comments. When she received pushback and criticism for making said comments, her freedom to say offensive stuff was still not in jeopardy. Hell, she was free to set up a blog and call it "In defense of blackface" if she wanted to. However, if people subsequently questioned her ability to do her job…

Continued: Why Colorblindness Needs the No-Racism Axiom

I came up with the title for my last post before I started writing the text. When I finished writing I ended on a different point than the one I had set out to make. I concluded with a description of how "colorblindness" becomes racism. And while the reason that the No-Racism (false) axiom is necessary can be inferred from what I wrote, I never explicitly described why a denial of systemic racism is necessary for colorblindness.
Now that I've established "colorblindness" as racism, I can circle back make my original point. First, I'll note that racism is not accidental nor is it random in its occurrence. Rather, racism has always been used for the purpose of benefitting one racial group at the expense of another through the use of unequal access to political, legal and socioeconomic power. In our country, the group with the power to subjugate is and has always been white. The aim of racism is to maintain this supremacy of the white race at the expense of n…

Why "Colorblindness" Needs the No-Racism Axiom

In my last post I highlighted the No-Racism "Axiom" of modern "colorblindness." The axiom states that "systemic racism is not a thing," and upon this axiom proponents of colorblindness build a worldview in which the racial ills of our world can be cured by individuals making the decision not to engage in interpersonal racism, or recognizing that race even matters in the world. "I don't see color, I only see people," the colorblind individual asserts.

Colorblind people generally know that race has no biological basis. Perhaps they've read The Myth of Race or The Mismeasure of Man. Since science has proven race irrelevant, colorblindness seems to be an obvious and proper response. This is seemingly in line not only with a general sense of morality and personal goodness, but it also appears to echo the famous line from Martin Luther King Jr's I Have A Dream speech in which he envisions a day when "[people] will not be judged by th…

The Yale Protests and the No-Racism Axiom

Yale is one of several universities in the US currently being forced to deal with racism on its campus. Sadly, it is also one of several universities completely ill-equipped to do so, due to an apparent willful ignorance of its history, and also because of the effects of modern "colorblindness." I've written about this before in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but it's important to take a look at it now that Yale's and Mizzou's race problems are out in the open.
The Protection of Certain Speech
If you'd like to get a clear view of how modern racism in the US works, just read the various think pieces, op-eds and blog posts about the protests at Yale. Take for instance this one by a free-speech advocate in the Washington Post, who writes  Readers may not realize that Halloween has become a season of campus controversy. For years, college administrators have been issuing stern warnings to students not to wear “offensive” costumes. I’d always …

What a just response to oppression can look like

Guest post by Sarah Ballard
“What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” – Audre Lorde
I’m writing this piece to say things women of color have already said, and better than I could have. Pleaseread their work. 
Our community has suffered a traumatic upheaval this month. I won’t attempt to link to even a representative sample of the articles, think pieces, and anti-harassment policy documents that circulated among astronomers. Trusted colleagues and friends urged folks to care for themselves. The groundswell gave rise to a “widespread ripple of PTSD (or something close to it) through women in the field,” as Lucianne Walkowicz put it. I saw other male astronomers I deeply esteem publicly grappling with feelings of complicity. Every day brought fresh distress as the extent of harassment, and the secrecy and protection of it, became apparent at every level within our academic institutions. 
Colleagues had urged me to pr…

A Data-Driven Solution to the Stellar "Mass Mess"

Guest post by Dr. Luan Ghezzi. Luan was a postdoctoral researcher in the Harvard Exolab from 2013-2015, funded by CAPES under the Brazilian federal program Science Without Borders. This past summer he returned home to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to continue his research into the physical properties of stars as measured from high-resolution spectroscopy. In addition to doing research at the Harvard CfA, he was also a research advisor in the 2015 Banneker Institute. 
The detection of the first extrasolar planet around a solar-type star intrigued astronomers all around the world. The newly discovered system had a planet with almost half the mass of Jupiter orbiting its star at approximately 12% the average distance between Mercury and the Sun, a configuration that is radically different from the one we observe in our own Solar System. In the following twenty years, almost 2000 other extrasolar planets were discovered and confirmed, and nearly 4000 candidates await further confirmation/validat…

Close Friends of Hot Jupiters: The WASP-47 system

Guest post by Juliette Becker and Andrew Vanderburg
Ever since a mechanical failure caused the end of the original Kepler mission in 2013, the Kepler spacecraft has been conducting a survey of new stars, searching for planets across the ecliptic plane in its new K2 mission. The K2 dataset is a goldmine of fascinating science results. One such result is the recent discovery of two new planets in the WASP-47 system.
Until a few months ago, everyone knew that hot Jupiter planets don’t have “friends”, or nearby small planets in close orbits to the host star. These other planets had been searched for extensively, through radial velocity measurements, analysis of the transit times of the hot Jupiters, and even through transits by Kepler during its original mission. All of these searches turned up nothing.
This all changed one day last July, when Hans Martin Schwengeler, a citizen scientist who enjoys poring over Kepler and K2 data searching for new transiting planets by eye, came across the t…

Guest post: We must unseat Research as the sole god king of our field

This is a guest post submitted by Betsy Mills, a postdoc at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Socorro, NM. FYI, I welcome guest posts that promote social justice and advance the conversations we badly need in our field of science, and in our greater society. However, I will retain sole discretion over the content of this blog, so not all submissions of guest posts will be published. Have something you'd like to share here? Send me a proposal, outline or full draft! Y'all know how to reach me. 
I am supposed to be writing job applications right now. But it is difficult when I am having such a complicated relationship with the field in which I am trying to get permanent employment. It is not just a feeling of having lesser value as a woman in this field, seeing how poorly my female peers have been treated and disrespected for decades at Berkeley.  And I am not feeling conflicted wondering how much of this really happened (I sadly believe it all) or what sanction…

Open Letter RE: The Berkeley Boycott

The following was just forwarded to me via email. I can see this as nothing other than a man bravely and correctly leveraging his privilege to force much-needed and long-overdue changes in a very broken system. This is how you ally. No badges, no cookies. Just direct action. 
Dear recent recipients of NASA's prize fellowships (Einstein/Hubble/Sagan),
I have written a letter requesting a boycott of UC Berkeley's open faculty position in response to UCB's complete refusal to remove Geoff Marcy for at least a decade of repeated (and admitted) sexual harassment and assault. You can read the full text of the letter at this address:
Until UCB acts, I think it is in the best interest of all postdocs to refuse considering a position at their university. I believe that together we can convince them to make the right choice and to remo…

On Sexual Harassment and Our Culture of Denial

Sexual harassers, their apologists, the silence of their colleagues, and those who doubt their victims all work together to strengthen systemic/institutional sexism. These are not independent phenomena, but interworking pieces of a powerful machinery that systematically devalues women and their work, and artificially inflates the value of men and their intellectual contributions. You don't even have to think to get caught up in it. That's the nature of systemic *isms. Doing nothing enforces them. Only by consciously working against them can their effects be mitigated.
The toxic cycle of abuse, fear, denial and silence around sexual harassment in academia is described in detail by Janet Stemwedel (@DocFreeride) in her excellent (as usual) Forbes piece about the Marcy scandal. 
h/t Renée for this very illustrative cartoon:

The Long Con

Hiding in Plain Sight

ESPN has a series of sports documentaries called 30 For 30. One of my favorites is called Broke which is about how professional athletes often make tens of millions of dollars in their careers yet retire with nothing. One of the major "leaks" turns out to be con artists, who lure athletes into elaborate real estate schemes or business ventures. This naturally raises the question: In a tightly-knit social structure that is a sports team, how can con artists operate so effectively and extensively? The answer is quite simple: very few people taken in by con artists ever tell anyone what happened. Thus, con artists can operate out in the open with little fear of consequences because they are shielded by the collective silence of their victims.
I can empathize with this. I've lost money in two different con schemes. One was when I was in college, and I received a phone call that I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to the Bahamas. All I needed to do was p…

Thoughts, Take 2: On The Struggle

This is the second part of a haphazardly organized series of responses to Ta-Nahesi Coates' book Between the World and Me. The first part can be found here

I was recently at a discussion about racism held in one of Harvard's dorms, Currier House, as part of their Currier Conversation series. As the honored guest and moderator of the discussion, I decided to have the participants break into groups of 2-4 and define some seemingly simple words before we had a proper dialog:
Race Racism Power Social Justice
After the audience discussed for 5-10 minutes, I had them speak out about their definitions, thoughts and questions while I recorded their responses on a large paper pad mounted on a tripod. The self-selected group of attendees were well versed in the notions of race as a social construct; racism as the melding of prejudice and power; power as the ability of a social group to shape the choices and outcomes of other groups; and social justice as the simple notion that every h…

The good Samaritan

30 ...A certain Black woman went down from Jerusalem to Baltimore, and fell among the local police, who stripped her of her clothing, beat her, and departed, leaving her half dead. 31 Now the woman's family cried #BlackLivesMatter. By chance a certain Twitter egg came along that road. And when he saw her, he passed by on the other side saying #AllLivesMatter. 32 Likewise a Facebook "friend," when she arrived at the place, came and looked, and said #AllLivesMatter! 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed came by where she was. And when he saw her he had compassion saying, "The struggle is too real. It ain't right, it ain't fair, and I will stand by you, my sister, because #BlackLivesMatter!

Countdown to the NBA Season: Steph Curry and Black Excellence

The Johnson household's favorite NBA player is Steph Curry. Second place is pretty far back there. To us, Curry is emblematic of the values of our family: excellence through dedicated practice, being polite in victory yet accepting your brilliance, being humble in evaluating areas of self-improvement. Oh, and of course #BlackExcellence.
Curry plays the point guard like few other players at that position, either in the past or present. Sure, he does what point guards should do: pass and protect the ball. He can pass the ball in ways that take you back to Magic and the Lakers of the late 80's, or Pistol Pete Marovich of another era. He can handle the ball as well or better than anyone I've ever seen play the game. The ball is an extension of his arm and hand, and it follows his commands like a yoyo on a string.

Activity Based Learning

Lectures are literally medieval. The format is also inherently unfair:
[A] growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population. We can do better. #ABLConnect at Harvard helps educators develop activity-based methods of teaching more effectively. It's not a fad. It's research-based, it's effective, and it's fun. It's also one of the many reasons I left Caltech to join the faculty at Harvard. It is truly refreshing to be at an institution that is serious about teaching innovation. Not just in words, but in resources and actions. Our students and our science depend on it. 

On Trump: When you gotta take a clown seriously

My good friend Jorge Moreno​ recently said, "White privilege is being able to say, nonchalantly, that Trump has no chance of becoming president." It was a very consciousness-raising comment for me to hear, and definitely one that has stuck. If you "look" like you belong in this country, then Trump's racist, xenophobic vitriol sounds as nasty as it is, but it doesn't really sink home when there's no risk of his policies becoming reality, thereby threatening your livelihood and life. 
White privilege is being able to say, nonchalantly, that Trump has no chance of becoming president. #jorgeramos#nopersonisillegal — Jorge Moreno (@astroboy_moreno) August 26, 2015
Yes, Trump is a clown. But an uncomfortably large fraction of white Americans not only enjoy watching his clown show, but would be willing to have him lead our country (48% of white Americans view him favorably). This simple statistic should be screaming one obvious message to all of us, and it…

Sunday Music break

Guest post by Erin

Huge shout-out to NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts for bringing these into my life:

Oddisee's music and lyrics have been the soundtrack for life in Casa Juanson for the past few months. Leon Bridges (from TX!) joined him on my playlist last night and I foresee his timeless voice will be there the for a minute.

Guest post by Elisabeth Newton: The Impostor Cycle

Elisabeth Newtonis a sixth-year graduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for astrophysics. Her research focus is on developing methods of measuring the physical properties of low-mass stars as a member of the MEarth team. 
The players:  Awesome Grad Student - a talented senior grad student who experiences imposter thoughts Superb Young Grad Student - another talented astronomer-in-training, perhaps in their second year,  who is struggling with imposter syndrome Nice Faculty Member - a respected person in their profession
The scene: The awkward moment after a talk when everyone is hanging around. Awesome Graduate Student has just delivered a great talk on their research.

And, action!Awesome Grad Student (AGS) expresses their relief to Superb Young Grad Student: “I’m so glad that’s over, I wasn’t prepared at all! I was finishing my slides up until the last minute!” **

“Don’t worry about it, that was an awesome talk, AGS!” Superb Young Grad Student says, trying to reassure AGS, but th…

Why is he so angry?

Guest post by Erin

This is the question family and friends ask me with regards to John: "Why is he so angry lately?" Real talk: I have been known to ask this question myself.  The truth of the matter is that he's not an angry person; like the rest of us he is sometimes unhappy, discouraged and or deeply saddened by current events in the world around him.  In his world, as a Black man, he is too often confronted with the systematic devaluing of Black lives, particularly by law enforcement and the underrepresentation of people of color in his field of study.  But what well-meaning white folks are sensing as anger is really something else.

To answer the question of "Why is John so angry?" I'm compelled to ask "Why do you assume he is angry?" A number of people have told me it has to do with his use of the term "white people" when addressing...white people. It's understandable that this rubs us white folks the wrong way for a few reasons…

Quote MLK fully or don't quote him at all

I keep running into white people who cherry pick quotes about non-violence from MLK or twist his words into admonishments to Black people. White people: please stop doing this. There are thousands of famous white Americans to quote if you'd like to talk down to Black people. If you feel the need to use an historical figure to bolster white supremacy, why not pick a quote or two from Jefferson, Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, or even Abe Lincoln. But MLK was a radical who had few words of kindness for white people of his time, particularly the white liberals and moderates. 

To give you a sense for what I'm getting at, allow me to quote the real MLK, from his book Where Do We Go From Here?On the need for white empathy [I]f the present chasm of hostility, fear and distrust is to be bridged, the white man must begin to walk in the pathways of his black brothers and feel some of the pain and hurt that throb without letup in their daily lives.  This is what we're getting at with…