Sunday, May 31, 2015

I am one of the "antisocial seven!"

I am a member of the "antisocial seven" who were recently labeled as troublemakers in the astronomy community. If the "social" in antisocial refers to the current culture and societal structure of astro/physics, then I am most definitely anti. I stand opposed to the deeply harmful way we, as a community of scientists, treat each other, marginalize minorities of all kinds, and in so doing stifle our full scientific and intellectual potential.

Academia and science in particular were built upon and still rest on a cartel framework, in which a minority group (namely white men) have banded together to artificially raise the value of their intellectual contributions, while excluding women and men of color, LGBTQI individuals, white women, and the physically disabled and those with cognitive disabilities (or differences). This cartel system has been hugely beneficial to white men, whose portraits adorn our hallways and buildings.

To be sure, they were given huge advantages, and many of them made the most of their starting conditions. This is not to discredit or minimize their work. But I do want to raise awareness that their opportunities were not universal, and we are far from realizing equal opportunity and social justice within the sciences, astronomy in particular.

I will push for equal opportunities. I will agitate for justice and corrections for past wrongs. I will be loud and not always polite. I am antisocial and proud of it! I now wear it as a badge of pride in my profile pic. Feel free to take it and wear it yourself. Let's tear down the current structures that serve as barriers, establish the first, true meritocracy in science, and in the process learn more about the Universe than we ever previously imagined.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

On Chilean Astronomy and Observatory Conflicts

The following guest post is brought to you by Joshua Tan, who I met on the Equity & Inclusion in Astronomy and Physics Facebook page. Joshua is a FONDECYT postdoctoral fellow at Universidad Católica in Santiago and he earned his PhD was from Columbia University last year. He works with Andreas Reisenegger and Julio Chaname. Recently, Joshua participated in a heated discussion about my recent Decolonize Astronomy essay (otherwise known to TMT supporters as the "anti-TMT" essay). One of the FB posters insisted that I write an article about similar injustices related to the GMT project and other Chilean astronomy projects. I told him that he should not feel entitled to direct my writing interests, but invited him to do the research, write a post and I'd be happy to post it to my blog. As I said in the intro to my Decolonize post, "Thus, I recognize that many will interpret what I write as simply anti-TMT. This is as unfortunate as it is inevitable. The truth is that I am pro-social justice."

While that commenter didn't take me up on my offer, Joshua did put in the work and wrote the following. Thank you Joshua!

The history of astronomy in Chile is in part tied into neo-colonialism, and the problematic character of that can be seen in certain ways in which foreign countries, international and transnational corporations, and wealthy astronomy departments in the West have taken advantage of the preferential treatments they have received from various Chilean governments. Observatories in Chile are all basically foreign-owned and operated, though Chile is a consortium member of CTIO. Connections between the academic astronomy departments in Chile and between their foreign counterparts seem to be growing, but it is important that the astronomy community acknowledge the unbalanced history that comes with this story.

Flag of the Mapuche, via Wiki Commons
Lately, an explosion of new projects and giant segmented-mirror telescopes (GSMTs; observatories that cost upwards of a billion dollars) has made Chile the focus of worldwide astronomical attention. One of these GSMTs is the Thirty Meter Telescope, and for a time Chile was in contention as a possible site, but the decision to build it in Hawaii was made with at least one consequence being that this decision is being opposed by Native Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli) and allies who see the new project and existing telescopes on Mauna Kea in part as an affront to their indigenous rights. With other GSMTs either being considered or definitely being built in Chile at various stages (ALMA, LSST, GMT, E-ELT, and CTA), a question could be asked, to what extent do Chilean sites have similar issues as the current conflict over the TMT?

The issues with indigenous rights in Chile have a long and sordid history stretching back to the invasion of the Spanish in the sixteenth century and arguably coming to a head with the Chilean Occupation of Araucanía in 1860 where the independent Mapuche people were invaded and had their lands forcibly integrated into Chile. The Mapuche people today comprise 85% of the indigenous people of Chile and the struggle for indigenous rights has resulted in a decades-long conflict known as the Mapuche conflict. This conflict is largely happening south of Santiago and is, as far as I can tell, mostly (but not completely) removed from the northern part of the country where the observatories are. Of course, borderland arguments are false consciousness colonial fantasies, but there does not appear to be any direct connection between the Mapuche conflict and the observatories. This does not mean that such concerns don't exist in the same way that the concerns of certain Kanaka Maoli over the TMT were not recognized by many in the community until recently, but there has not been a lot of work done to answer this question.

Image from the excellent film, Nostalgia for the Light, about the grim geographical connections between astronomical observatories and the gravesites some of the disappeared from Pinochet’s rule. Reproduced from the New York Times
There have been conflicts with workers and Chilean nationals and various observatory projects. One famous story involves the construction of the VLT at Paranal where a clever lawyer figured out that according to Chilean law the site was owned by a military family. He went and found the family and filed suit stating that the government had signed the land over to ESO illegally. The request was for financial remuneration -- the family and the lawyer were perfectly happy to have the observatory be built as long as the money was paid for the land rights use. The suit was either dismissed or settled.

One thing that should be acknowledged is the problematic relationship the observatories had with the military junta that took over Chile in 1973. For the most part, this coup d'etat was considered a matter of "local politics" by many of the foreign observatories who tried to make no political waves in order to keep their special statuses. It is undeniable that Pinochet used the same geographies as where the observatories are located to help cover-up his crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, being neutral in the face of evil is itself a banal form of evil (c.f. Eichmann in Jerusalem).
I would be remiss if I did not mention the seventeen-day strike of the workers on ALMA in 2013 which was resolved apparently to both the union and AURA's mutual agreement. This highlights the rather large footprint that observatories have and can have in Northern Chile where many of the consortiums act as de facto (and in some cases de jure) mining companies -- the corporations who are arguably most guilty of exacerbating worker problems and trampling on the rights of the indigenous. To the extent that these giga-observatories have a lot of resources at their disposal, it is not always possible for people who are working for justice and the rights of the people to distinguish between them.  


Telescopes, Red Stars, and Chilean Skies

Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics

Vol. 39: 1-18 (Volume publication date September 2001)

Reaching for the Stars? Astronomy and Growth in Chile

by Javiera Barandiaran

Mapuche International Link

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reader Feedback: Whither Kanake in (white) Astronomy?

Watching the way that the debate about the TMT has come into our field has angered and saddened me so much. Outward blatant racism and then deflecting and defending. I don't want to post this because I am a chicken and fairly vulnerable given my status as a postdoc (Editor's note: How sad is it that our young astronomers feel afraid to speak out on this issue? This should make clear the power dynamics at play in this debate)

But I thought the number crunching I did might be useful for those on the fence. I wanted to see how badly astronomy itself is failing Native Hawaiians. I'm not trying to get into all of the racist infrastructure that has created an underclass on Hawaii, but if we are going to argue about "well it wasn't astronomers who did it," we should be able to back that assertion with numbers. Having tried to do so, well I think the argument has no standing. At all. 

Based on my research, it looks like there are about 1400 jobs in Hawaii related to astronomy and the telescopes, meaning that 0.1% of Hawaii residents are astronomers (we could say only 50% of these astronomy-related individuals do research if we wanted to, but I'll start with the 1400 number).

In contrast, in the US, there are about 6000 astronomer jobs (0.002% of the population, or 50x smaller representation than in Hawaii). Okay, if you take the representation of Native Hawaiians amongst the US population and figure out how many astronomers you should have of Native descent, you should have about 3 nation-wide. But note that this is probably not the right determination. If you live in Hawai'i, you are already 50x more likely to be employed in an astronomy-related field. And of course, Hawai'i is where the highest concentration of Native Hawaiians live. Thus, I argue that we should focus specifically on the state of Hawai'i. 

Roughly 10% of Hawaiian residents identified on the census as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. This means that about 140 of those astronomy jobs (10% of 1400) in Hawai'i should be filled by Native Hawaiians. Are we even close to that? Can anyone name more than two native Hawiian PhD astronomers?

Not sure if this helps the debate at all, but at least to me, this was the way I could sit down and say "we as astronomers are failing Native Hawaiians. Terribly." These are the hard numbers. Because Hawaii has such an overpopulation of astronomers, one should expect that if the demographics were that being any resident of Hawaii led to the same exposure and same chances to pursue astronomy, we are off of the ideal situation by...2 orders of magnitude?!

Can you imagine how this TMT debate would be proceeding if 140 of our Hawaiian astronomers were native Hawaiians? 


Sunday, May 17, 2015

When should we stop listening to oppressed people?

On the Astronomers Facebook page, Dr. David Spiegel asks a very straightforward yet, to date, unanswered question regarding the TMT debate:
On the one hand, there are some people (whether a fractionally small minority or not), whose land was colonized and whose culture is disappearing, who think of Mauna Kea as a sacred location that should not have more ground broken on it for giant new telescopes.  
Then, there are some astronomers who say, essentially, "We really ought to listen more to these marginalized people who are objecting to the plans to build a giant new telescope." 
And finally, there are some astronomers who say, essentially, "Nope. We had a very listeny process already. The time for listening is over; the time for pouring concrete has arrived." And some high-profile astronomers who take this position have used some offensive, insensitive, and, yes, racist language in making this argument to several hundred of their closest friends. 
Am I right that the dispute among astronomers is basically between those who argue, "Let's listen more to the colonized people who are objecting to our plans to build the world's largest optical telescope on their sacred mountain, find out whether compromise solutions are available, and, if not, take a whole lot more time to figure out whether ignoring the complaints of victims of colonialism in order to build a big telescope is the right course of action," and those who are arguing, "Let's go ahead and build right now because our process already involved 7 years of listening and we'd rather build the telescope than listen more."? 
If I'm wrong in this understanding, which part of it is wrong? 
If I'm right in this understanding, can people help me understand how the latter argument makes moral and logical sense? In other words, what are the steps of moral logic that go from (A) "We've already listened a whole lot." to (B) "We should go ahead and build the telescope despite the complaints of some victims of colonialism who think that we'll be desecrating their sacred mountain by building it."?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Homework for Those Seeking to be Allies

Today's guest post is by Dr. Sarah Ballard, a Carl Sagan postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington, and soon-to-be Torres Fellow at MIT. I am very much looking forward to her return to Cambridge, where she did her PhD studies at Harvard. Sarah is one of my closest allies, and one of my few true allies. This is because she is one of my most valued and closest friends. I can always count on her to listen and give thoughtful, helpful input. I try to do the same for her. She is also a collaborator of mine in the field of exoplanetary science. One of my proudest achievements is publishing an influential publication with her last year on the statistical nature of multiplanet systems orbiting red dwarf stars. My heart swells with personal pride to see my name next to hers on a two-author paper. Sarah is multidimensional excellent, all the more so because of her academic origins as a social justice major at UC Berkeley before switching to astronomy. But make no mistake, she has the chops as an observational astronomer, and as a teacher, advisor and mentor of the next generation of astronomers. Because of her all-round excellence, she'll no doubt be joining a faculty near you very soon. 

The writer and activist Janet Mock describes the idea of an “ally” as more of an action, and less of an identity. “Ally” is something that we actively do, not something that we can ever passively be. I found this conception very helpful to hear because it posits “ally” within the context of hard work. Being an ally is hard work. It is similar to my other kinds of work (in astronomy and elsewhere) in that (1) improvement is not only facilitated by criticism from respected peers and colleagues, it relies upon this criticism, and (2) it’s characterized less by large leaps and bounds, and much more by constant and small day-to-day efforts.

I consider the ally process an integral part of my job that I simply must do in order to participate meaningfully in the astronomy community. I trained myself to allot time everyday to check arXiv, so I can train myself to be a better ally. These things are both “my work.” If it is helpful to others, I’d like to share my own process. In this particular article, I’ll focus upon my efforts to interrogate my whiteness. I reside at an intersection of many privileges, and this is only one of them. I’ve written before that I once thought I would devote myself to studying social justice, rather than astrophysics. Even though I’ve shifted careers, I’ve tried to bring that lens (newly and inexpertly formed as it was) into my current job as an astronomer. I’ll first describe my initial training, and then move on to my current strategies.

It was clear to me, even as an undergraduate, that academic STEM is very steeped in whiteness. This was evident simply from observing the races of the vast, vast majority of my professors and fellow students. My women’s honors society was one of the few places that I encountered women of color in a classroom during my years at UC Berkeley in numbers that reflected anything near the US population. My first taste of hard ally work (at age 19, my late age a huge privilege unto itself) came while I was a facilitator of a sexual violence awareness and prevention class on campus. Myself and the three other facilitators worked hard to change the curriculum to reflect the complex reality of violence against women. I learned from other women that violence against white women, while it gets the most airtime, manifests totally differently than violence against women of color (again, I emphasize that I am focusing upon race here. Violence manifests differently along other axes of identity as well). This applies to both direct and structural violence. I learned to observe the passive erasure of women of color that, when unaddressed, inexorably erodes the margins of justice movements.
The desert spreads even into carefully tended spaces. (National Geographic)
I remember sharing my frustration and sadness about the injustices we discussed in this class with an older white woman, from a generation before mine. I was overwhelmed by the inextricable links between poverty, race, gender, and violence (We had just screened Señorita Extraviada, related the disappearance of now hundreds of women in Ciudad Juarez. Please watch this excellent film if you have the chance). Her response reflected the values of that outdated movement: “can’t you make it easier by focusing just on the basics? Why include race and economics in the discussion too?” 

I think many white women from the generation preceding mine, but also many within my generation, perceive that these are things that can be meaningfully disentangled. Patricia Arquette just voiced such an opinion after the Oscars, saying that people of color had been parceled out justice, and that the time had now come for “women.” As easy as it is to dismiss a celebrity as being out-of-touch, I think that worldview is not an uncommon one among white women, even within spaces devoted to dismantling unjust practices. It’s even more salient in spaces where injustice is rarely discussed, if at all (such as academic STEM). 

I think it’s very, very probable that more people are reading this article because I am a white woman, than if a woman of color were describing the exact same reality. In this sense, the task set before me as a white woman is twofold. I need to speak up about the injustices I see perpetrated against people who look like me. And I must be just as vigilant, if not more so, about making sure I don’t visit the same oppressions on people who do not look like me.

That sounds important in theory. But what do I do in practice?
  1. Homework: I try to seek out the voices of people of color. If I waited for these voices to reach me in large numbers atop the academic ivory tower, I’d be waiting a very long time. Social media too is characterized by segregation. Furthermore, I know that it is not the job of my colleagues and friends of color to have these discussions with me. Instead, I go to the spaces (typically on the internet) where people of color are talking openly, and I listen. Twitter is a better platform than other social media: it’s demonstrably more diverse than other spaces. For example, I listen to podcasts like Black Girls Talking to hear what women very similar to me (bookish, ~30 years old, interested in culture) are talking about.

    I’ll listen while I’m cooking, or while I’m on the bus. This is embarrassing to admit, but truthful: There have been many times that I’ve become defensive while listening, believing my own lived experience to be more reflective of reality than the one I hear these four women describe. I’ll freeze with the spatula in my hand and my eyes closed, realizing that I’m doing this.

    This is my opportunity to reflect on my impulsive responses: dismissing the experiences of black women when weighed against my own. I ask myself why I feel the urge to come to the defense of a white woman being called out, why I imagine to myself that such-and-such “isn’t that big of a deal”, or why I tell myself that whatever topic being addressed “isn’t really about race.” Even in my own carefully tended landscape, the desert sand creeps in unless I do the hard work to push it back. I’m happy to share more of my own favorite podcasts, websites, and blogs with folks if they are interested. I note that I’ve already set aside time to read important work that others like John and Chanda have recommended, and will continue to do so.

  2. Another of my favorite podcasts, "Call Your Girlfriend" is cohosted by best friends Aminatou Sou and Ann Friedman. Listen to them playfully brainstorm an intersectional intro to feminism.  

  3. Real-time check in: When I am engaging in a conversation related to race, I run through a checklist in my mind.
    • Am I saying something that a person of color has just said? It is very easy for white people for slip into this toxic pattern of behavior. We’ll be heard more clearly, and even lauded, for saying the same idea that was ignored when expressed in another voice. If I’m repeating an idea that I heard a person of color express first and they are not present in this scenario, I make sure to direct others to them rather than taking ownership of the idea myself.
    • Am I responding because I feel “attacked” in some way? This lesson is important in every sphere of my life, and I bring mindfulness practices to bear here just as I do elsewhere. Responding from a place of unexamined anger is unfair to myself and unfair to others. Like every person who navigated her 20’s, I know that taking 10 deep breaths, taking a walk, etc., is a much better idea than responding impulsively in anger.
    • Am I doing something that I’ve been called out for doing before? This check-in is drawn from a history of having messed up in previous interactions and been approached and checked by friends and colleagues.
    • Am I behaving toward others the way I want to be treated when I’m trying to point out an injustice? I say this cautiously, because the ways in which I am treated unjustly differ in quality and quantity from the injustices experienced by others. But I do know how awful, frustrating, and vulnerable it feels to be speaking from my lived experience and articulating mistreatment. But it’s far, far worse to have that vulnerability met with disbelief or dismissal by others. I want to treat others the way I wish I were treated. How do I wish these critical folks had approached me?
    • Am I asking something of this person that I wouldn’t ask a person who looks like me? For example, it’s often very tempting when engaged in a conversation about racial injustice to ask for references or context. Google is my friend. For example, I never ask white women I don’t know to explain to me where they are drawing their statistics: I look it up myself!

  4. Daily observation: Just by virtue of existing in the world as a person, I bear witness to the erasure and distortion of images and experiences of people of color. I’m not going to live a hermit lifestyle, and this means I’m going to consume problematic media: the very least I can do is consume it with awareness. Often in the books I read, the magazines I see on the newsstand, the TV I watch, black and brown voices are absent or pushed to the background. In majority white spaces (which are almost always the spaces I inhabit, being a white astronomer in Seattle), media that prominently features people of color is rarely discussed in the same way as media featuring white people. I scan the images I am fed, in advertising, for example (Here’s a blatant example in Cosmopolitan). I look for complex and humanizing depictions of people of color (I do the same for depictions of women).

    These are often negative portrayals or absent altogether. I am ingesting a steady diet of garbage, just by virtue of living my life, that lacks accurate and decent portrayals of people of color. This is especially important in spaces set aside for discussions of justice. In a room reserved for women in science, are there any women of color present? And if not, rather than shrugging, I ask myself: what should I be doing differently to make this space welcoming?

I’d love to hear the practices of other folks who are trying to live “ally” as a verb! Do you have practices for checking yourself?

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"Wait, reverse racism isn't a thing?"

As a quick followup on Chanda's guest post yesterday about unintended but real consequences of the words our leaders use, allow me to make one fact abundantly clear: There is no such thing as reverse racism. If you believe in such a concept, then know that you are falling into the same category as the dude (why is it always a dude?) who writes to you about how general relativity is wrong, or that the Sun is made of iron.  

Racism is a system that supports and reinforces the belief that white people are superior to non-white people. It can be manifest through personal actions, but often more importantly it is systemic and undergirds the history and present nature of our country's society and culture. Here's one particularly useful sociological definition (see also Halley, Eshleman & Vijaya 2011):
Racism extends considerably beyond prejudiced beliefs. The essential feature of racism is not hostility or misperception, but rather the defense of a system from which advantage is derived on the basis of race. The manner in which the defense is articulated - either with hostility or subtlety - is not nearly as important as the fact that it insures the continuation of a privileged relationship. Thus it is necessary to broaden the definition of racism beyond prejudice to include sentiments that in their consequence, if not in their intent, support the racial status quo (source).
I like this definition because it is functional rather than theoretical; it's based on research rather than off-the-cuff opinion or personal motto. Racism is best seen and identified by looking for its consequences. For example, a University can claim to support diversity, but if it's faculty is only ~1% Black outside of the African American Studies department, the we can clearly see that it actually supports---passively and/or actively---racist mechanisms and policies. After all, race has no biological basis (Lewontin 1972; Barbujani et al. 1997; Sussman 2012). The number of Black individuals talented enough to be on your University's faculty should be equal to their representation in the population. Their underrepresentation must therefore be the result of a program of active exclusion rather than the result a meritocratic selection process.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Oops, you did racism a favor

This is a guest post by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, my astro/physics colleague and one of my social justice instructors. Chanda is intelligent and insightful, and an important voice in the astro/physics community. Here is another essay by her in which she states obvious, but too-often ignored truths and breaks down for folks why defensiveness is the wrong response to being called a racist. In the past she has bravely and honestly brought my mistakes to my attention, yet I have too often been defensive, deflective, whiney, and generally acted like a male, cis-gendered-straight-privileged child on many occasions. I've don this while calling on others to stop doing the same to me when I attempt to call attention to racist acts in my life. I have been wrong. My oppression in one area does not excuse me for using my privilege to oppress in other areas. Chanda has always been there to help me on my path, just as I'm sure she is accountable to people in her circles. Astronomers, physicists, readers: Listen up when Chanda speaks, especially when she spits hot fire, as she does below. Do not take her for some conjurer of cheap tricks. Below I am reposting her original post, which is here. See also her essay on "Let Physics Be the Dream It Used to Be."

A few weeks ago, an email with racist language targeting Native Hawaiians in it was widely circulated by two very prominent members of the astronomy community. After public and private outcry, they both offered apologies of sorts, although in neither case was the apology to the people who were the victims of the offensive language.

Several of us came together to write a statement about the use of offensive and racist language in sociopolitical discourse within the astronomy community, with the hope that our professional society, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) would endorse and publish the statement as a message to all members, racial minorities especially, that AAS was against racism.

Some 50+ emails later, the President of AAS Meg Urry published a letter about the incident. The letter had some strengths. It had some weaknesses. Its most significant weakness was essentially suggesting that making general statements about “senior white astronomers” was equally harmful as racism toward minorities.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Diamonds in the Rough

Every Black astro/physicist is a diamond in the rough. By making it to wherever they are in their careers, they are stronger than you can imagine. Many of them are the descendants of a long line of survivors, dating back to the cramped, death-filled hold of a slave ship. Many are the children of women and men who spent their lives in the newly-founded United States with their humanities systematically stripped, somehow holding together families despite forceful separation, distance and death. Others are the descendants of the survivors of the ongoing European and now American and increasingly Chinese colonial project around the African continent. They somehow kept the flame burning despite centuries of hopelessness, with no end in sight, with misery following misery, day after day.

How my ancestors came to America.
Today, we are stereotyped as being shiftless, lazy and not interested in education. Yet my ancestors, the slaves owned by white Americans, pursued education despite the threat of punishment by torture and death. They taught themselves and their children to read, huddled beneath blankets late at night by candlelight, dodging slave patrols (the precursors to our modern police force). They created culture, music, mythology and religion under the watchful eye of their masters. They had to steal their humanity if they were to be human. My ancestors did. That's why I'm here today.

Plantation overseer punishes a slave in Brazil, 1834.
Those Black slaves who were left alive in the South, when the slaves were "freed," were set adrift in enemy territory, with nothing but a shirt on their back, if that. They walked miles carrying their babies, they wandered roadless forests in search of their husbands, wives and children with no certainty that they were still alive.

When our ancestors finally managed to eke out a living, barely avoiding starvation as share croppers and seasonal laborers, they lived every day knowing that it could all be stripped away. Their children grew up "free" in a system of state-sanctioned terrorism known as Jim Crow. My grandfather knew never to make eye contact with a white man or woman. He knew how to step off of the sidewalk when white people approached. He accepted that a white man could mete out corporal punishment to his children on a public street, and all he could do was stand aside, staring at the ground. He knew that his life and his family were at stake as he walked outside in a "free" country. A lynch mob was always just minutes away from his home should he dare to act like an American.

My grandmother raised nine children in a house built by her eldest sons out of scrap wood. She taught her kids how to read, how to do math, despite only ever attaining a third-grade education. She pulled the family through lean times. Before she passed away, she told me stories of waking up to find the flour for breakfast eaten and defiled by rats. She fought through tuberculosis, losing a lung while leaving her family in the hands of my eldest aunt. She returned to them and stressed the importance of education, like her ancestors did before her.

White America: These are your forefathers and foremothers. If you claim
Jefferson, Washington or Betsy Ross, you must claim these upstanding
citizens of your country, too. These events were often attended by the
local police, and convictions were extremely rare, making lynching a
de facto legal American institution. 
My father pursued an education in a university that constantly reminded him of his inferiority. He faced discrimination at every turn. Yet he became the class president and graduated with honors. He found a job, then another, and then moved to find another in St. Louis. The house he purchased, the first house owned in my family's history, lost 50% of its value when white people fled our neighborhood, six miles from Ferguson, in the 90's as Black families like ours moved in. He lost the rest of its value in the 2008 housing crisis. The suburban neighborhood I grew up in is today derided as the "ghetto" or the "hood" by white acquaintances of mine who still live in the St. Louis area.

Ta-Nehisi Coates detailed the recent history of housing discrimination after WWII that denied opportunities for Black people to build wealth by excluding them from FHA and GI Bill home loans, ownership of houses in "white neighborhoods," and the legal con game of "contract buying." All the while, white Americans purchased homes and built wealth. They used those homes to take out loans to send their children to school. The wealth they accumulated allowed them to lend or give money to their children to buy homes of their own. Those children carefully avoided Black neighborhoods and kept Black people out of white neighborhoods, right up to this day. Today there is a nearly 20-to-1 wealth gap between Blacks and whites. 

There is a mythology among white America that there was a time after slavery when Black people had all the opportunity in the world and yet somehow squandered it, leaving them in poverty today. But this is historically false. There has been no sustained period in our history when Black people were ever given a chance, and certainly no time in history when we were able to benefit from the fruits of our forced labor. There is a new documentary about Nazi Germany seemingly every week on the History channel. But when was the last documentary about slavery, or Jim Crow, or Rosa Parks' 40-year struggle for housing rights, or the Civil Rights movement beyond standard clips from MLK's "I have a dream?" America has not faced down its history. But I know my history, both Black and white. 
Our lives, stolen then, and stolen now. LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERSS
From what I've learned, I know America does not deserve us. Astronomy and physics do not deserve us. But Black astro/physicists love doing what we do. We do it better than most while working harder than most, for far less than most. We do it, always with a fraction of our brains processing cues from an environment that is allergic to us, dealing with the scars left by messages telling us that we are lesser. We face discrimination to this day, with daily reminders that we are not worth as much as white people. When we speak out against our pain, our pain is denied by our white peers and leaders. We learn our craft from professors who look nothing like us, who know nothing about us, who tend to spend as little time with us as possible. Yet we press on in their labs and classrooms. We are the daughters and sons of some of the strongest people and most determined survivors in American history. 

But we are not full citizens in our own country, where we have lived longer than most of our white colleagues who judge us as lesser. Our colleagues explain within earshot, "We'd welcome them to our graduate program, if only we could find one good enough." With all due respect (and very little is due), we do not accept your standards of "good enough." Your standards of one-dimensional excellence are anathema to us. You will know nothing of true excellence until you are ready for the jazz we bring

Make sure you bear all of this in mind the next time a Black person's application comes across your committee's desk:

We are all diamonds in the rough.


Thanks, as always, to my colleague and social justice mentor, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and to my brother in the fight against racism, Michael Martin. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

James Baldwin on American Mythology

One day I'll be able to say it as clearly and eloquently as Baldwin. Until then, I'll read and imitate until I can do him and his lessons to me proper justice.

“The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world's most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.” 

― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Comments and Responses to Decolonizing Astronomy

Alex Sapchik writes:
I thought that from the natural science point of view, rectifying injustice done to past generations is simply impossible for thermodynamic reasons alone. You would basically be trying to force a complex, inherently unstable system back into its equilibrium. The cost would be prohibitive. Even now-disadvantaged groups of people would be WORSE off after that, not better. 
And historic experience confirms this. Every attempt to redistribute wealth or power in order to correct past injustice (e.g. communism, expropriation of white land in Africa) ended up in a disaster. On the other side, in the post-MLK USA and in Nelson Mandela's South Africa a point was made NOT to introduce reverse discrimination - and these countries are doing relatively well. 
And why are you only blaming whites for the plight of African-Americans? Slaves were captured by other BLACK people in Africa, then sold abroad to whites. The African nation of Gabon once prospered on slave trade, and is still one of the richest countries on the continent. 
Maybe it's the other way round - the willingness of BLACK people to enslave their countrymen and sell for a profit resulted in the shameful period of slavery in the USA? After all, Chinese and Irish didn't sell their fellow citizens as slaves - and so there were no slaves of that origin. 
In slave trade, the seller is as deplorable as the buyer. And the sellers were black. 

Wow, where to start? I think I'll start by pointing out how Alex reaches for scientific explanations for the injustices of this country, as if to say, "It was inevitable. This is the way the world works." I'm going to set aside the problems of applying thermodynamic arguments to human behavior since it doesn't really warrant a response. Instead, I argue that Alex is defending the status quo by pointing out the cost is prohibitive. 

Following this argument to it's logical end is rather scary for anyone who does not benefit from the system that Alex defends. This is especially true if were to rewind the clock 50 years and make the same argument. "These civil rights activists need to understand that trying to force a complex, inherently unstable system back into its equilibrium. The cost of allowing Black people to vote, receive an equal education, and not be lynched would be prohibitive." Rewind the clock 150 years and Alex again pops up to tell the slaves, "The cost of freeing you would be prohibitive. Because thermodynamics."

Your arguments about "reverse discrimination" are as silly as they are sad. You are like a CFO who takes over a company and presents their financial situation while ignoring their debts and losses. "It wouldn't be fair to pay back our debtors," your argument to the CEO goes, "because that would take money away from our shareholders." 

Now, onto his argument that BLACK people are responsible for slavery. The people who sold my ancestors into slavery were Africans, from a broad range of countries and tribes. What they did was wrong, to be sure. But I do not live in their country. I am a descendant of Black slaves in this country. The people who hold power today in my country are the descendants of the people instituted a system of complete dehumanization, the deliberate destruction of families, the deaths of millions, and the torture and terrorizing of millions more. I am a Black American. I am subject to the systematic racism in this country

Finally, even a child can understand that someone else's wrongs do not make your sins forgiven. Go back and read your words out loud. Better yet, read your words to an auditorium in Baltimore filled with Black children. Listen to yourself, man! Your lack of basic empathy robs you of your humanity. What this system has done to you is ugly. My heart aches for you, and part of the reason I fight is to free people like you from the need to trade your humanity for privilege. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Decolonizing Astronomy: Or Why Debt Should Enter Your Net-Worth Calculation

As disclosure, I recently moved from a Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) partner institution (Caltech) to a Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) institution that is in indirect competition with the TMT (Harvard). Also, while I was at Caltech, I rarely hesitated to express my ambivalence about the TMT project. Thus, I recognize that many will interpret what I write as simply anti-TMT. This is as unfortunate as it is inevitable. The truth is that I am pro-social justice. Anyone who has followed this blog or my Twitter feed over the past year should be able to understand that I am not expressing any new viewpoints herein. Indeed, my only inconsistency would be in not speaking out for fear of reprisal. I have been inspired by the Twitter feeds of @siouxpernova@IBJIYONGI and @DNLee5, which have been compiled on Storify here and here, by @docfreeride and @elakdawalla, respectively. Chanda has also written a beautiful and poignant essay here. If they can speak up, then surely as a tenured professor, I can speak up as well. 

Downtown St. Louis via
My mother recently told me about a time when I was eight or nine years old, riding in the car with her as she drove through inner-city St. Louis. I was staring out the window and I asked her, "Mom, why are there so many Black people in this part of the city?" 

My Mom answered, "Well, this is where they can afford to live." 

"But why are they all so poor?"

"Because there are no jobs here, and white people won't hire them in other parts of town."

To be honest, I don't remember this conversation. But as my Mom recently remarked after telling me the story, "I think that conversation planted a seed in your mind. You were always so quiet, but I knew there was a lot going on in your head. Your sister was the vocal one back then, but now here you are, the social justice activist!" 

It did, indeed, plant a seed in my mind. I was also very fortunate to have a mother, who despite being white, was and is very much aware of the mechanisms of racial injustice, and she was willing to be honest about them with her young son. I guess having her parents disown her because she decided to love and marry a Black man taught her a thing or two about social justice.

Nearly twenty years after that conversation with my mother, I moved to Hawaiʻi as a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Astronomy. I moved there with my wife and my two-year-old son, and upon arrival we quickly learned one important fact of living in Hawaiʻi: it is expensive. Not Berkeley expensive. Not Pasadena expensive. It's a special kind of expensive that results in a gallon of milk going for \$7 and a box of Cheerios running about \$6. Since my fellowship didn't have a cost-of-living adjustment, and since we were raising one child and my wife pregnant with another, I decided to search for a supplemental source of income. (We were also denied pre-natal insurance because Hawaii was one of five states without a mandate for such coverage, and so my wife's pregnancy was deemed a "preexisting condition," forcing us to pay for the birth of my second child out of pocket. But that's a story for another day.)

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Analogy for when the police kill an American citizen