One year later, the legacy of George Floyd’s murder continues to permeate the entirety of society. The slow, barbaric nature of his public execution and its associated images and sounds captured our attention like few events have, offering a turning point for public conversations about the reach of racism.
Science and technology news, which have suffered from well-documented and long-standing gaps in representation, were invoked at various points during the past year with regards to particulars of respiratory physiology, the sickle-cell trait, the pharmacology of fentanyl, and the problems with predictive policing algorithms. And over the course of the past 12 months, STEM emerged as one of the arenas in which some of the most elaborate discussions on systemic racism, inclusion, and diversity have taken place.
These conversations evolved into a series of overlapping phases. Like the barrier between two closely related species of insect, these phases are not categories with hard boundaries.
It began days after the murder, with statements and manifestos from Black and brown STEM workers. They communicated how strongly they felt about racial justice, how these issues are close to their sense of purpose, even in their role as a statistician or software developer. Importantly, the idea is not that Black lives are valuable only if they study the multiverse or live in the Tidyverse, but the opposite: That we are not special or exceptional and that George Floyd could have been any of us.
Tech companies, universities, and scientific societies soon followed with statements of their own, signaling solidarity and an awareness that they too have a long way to go on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Across the board, the goal of this phase was to convey a broader commitment to a more equitable world and that implementing it starts with our own professions.
Phase 1 brought attention to the problem and allowed institutions of various kinds the space to communicate where they stood. This was important, both to the institutions themselves (drawing a proverbial line in their sand), and to their workers, many of whom were eager to see where their employer stood on the issues. But it created a world of symbolic gestures, full of platitudes or outright contradictions (for a non-STEM example, take the National Football League: Years after quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blacklisted after a peaceful racial justice protest, the league issued a series of apologies and new commitments to those very issues). The statements became institution-speak, even part of institutional marketing and branding. Their logic: If our employees care, so do our customers and clients, and so we’d better get with the program.
The problem, of course, is that authoring statements requires little activation energy (often little more than a Slack message to a Black employee, asking for input), and no energy at all once the statement has been issued.
Time would (and will) tell us, however, which institutions meant it and which didn’t.
In Phase 2, which took hold on the doorsteps of the summer of 2020, control shifted from institutions to individuals with a very concrete goal: to find ways to promote Black STEM scientists and tech workers. Examples include the #BlackIn[Blank] hashtag movements, such as the Black Birder movement (a reaction to a racial profiling incident that predated the Floyd murder but took on new life as the protest movement took shape) and #BlackIntheIvory, which was less about STEM specifically but was discipline-wide and articulated everyday micro and macro aggressions in academia. The logic here: Create community among those who have been historically denied a voice so that they feel welcome and seen. After all, police violence is the most tragic feature of deeply entrenched biases that run throughout many of our professions and workspaces, that suppress voices, deny access, and stymie development.
Phase 2 represented an advancement from phase 1 because it shared the stage or provided a signal boost to hundreds of scientists and tech workers (at whatever the level of training). The only evidence we need for its utility are the thousands of individuals who participated, the many thousands of digital affirmations in support of it. It was important, and people benefited from it.
The limits of phase 2 are embedded in their hashtags: They are mostly ephemeral. They serve as fleeting feel-good moments to celebrate excellent people. But they are, almost by definition, finite. And they are most limited because they are guilty of a grand conflation between visibility and influence. It is one thing to have a stage, hashtag, or other mechanism to attract eyeballs to individuals. It is something else altogether to convert that visibility into an instrument for cultural or institutional change.
Phase 3 emerged as a way to lay bare the dichotomy between visibility and influence and underscore that only resources can transform attention into impact. As the fall of 2020 arrived, new, important creations began to transcend retweets: professional networks, lecture series, free computer programming classes aimed at Black scientists, commitments to diversity training at institutions of many kinds. And while anything can be a “resource,” the one that served as the strongest quantifiable proxy was financial support.
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Financial support signifies a concrete commitment to racial justice and addresses a long-standing complaint that diversity, equity, and inclusion infrastructure is under-resourced, a reflection of it being of little interest to institutions.
If my employer emails me a statement that they wrote in support of racial justice, I’ll reply with “I appreciate that.” Retweet my #BlackinScienceWriting tweets, and I’ll DM you a thanks. Hand me $1,000, and I can organize a small research symposium for early-career Black scientists who study herpetology, or provide a small stipend for a high school student to spend a summer writing computer simulations in my laboratory. Hand me several times that, and I can hire a team of data scientists to publish a series of white papers that describe new and underappreciated challenges in diversifying professional spaces. Add several zeroes to the end of that amount, and I can start a company that may help us come up with long-term solutions.
Phase 3 encouraged us to pay Black scientists for their unacknowledged labor, hire diversity consultants to examine the status of inclusion in our workplaces, or fund new positions at a corporation or university dedicated to diversity and inclusion efforts. Nothing can happen without financial resources, and the little things that we have observed at work in phase 3 are critical.
It may be tempting to say that this is just throwing money at the problem. Take the case of Jack Dorsey, for example. We might (should, I believe) applaud the Twitter CEO for donating $10 million to an antiracist science institute. That a tech giant wants to donate millions to an antiracism outfit might be laudable in any context, but our interpretation changes when we add context: Twitter has been an active instrument in the flourishing of white nationalism for many years.
Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, and others had been aware of how their platforms were being used for white nationalist propaganda for a long time, and they could have helped to stymie the rise of organized racism long ago. That they did not before the George Floyd murder is reflective of their priorities. Consequently, it is not especially cynical to surmise that, in some cases, the sums of money donated to racial justice is intended to provide a public relations force field: “Some of my best friends are Black” has become “I donated to the Black fund.”
Of course, many who lead large institutions could care less about the well-being of their Black workers or clients. Because Jack and friends know that addressing institutional barriers requires much more than shock therapy.
Make no mistake—the resources phase is critical. When allocated correctly, resources (especially financial) provide the infrastructure necessary to address long-standing problems. That is, resources aren’t supposed to be the end of the conversation, but the beginning. Little can happen without them.
The question is, what do we do with them once we have them?
One year after George Floyd was murdered, phase 3 continues to grow in scope: New job titles are created, new hires have been greenlit, and job announcements feature impressively transparent language about commitments to antiracism and diversity. But past these important advances—and I want to emphasize that all of them are important—we now walk into uncharted territory.
The defining question of this new phase 4 is, Are we there yet? What exactly are we supposed to do, and how do we know if we’ve made progress? Have we done a good job if we hire a number of indigenous computer scientists in the next five years? Few would doubt that this is a great sign. If the enrollment of students with a self-identified disability doubles in the next two cohorts of graduate students, we should be encouraged.
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