Thoughts on #ShutDownSTEM day

Colleagues who thought that #ShutDownSTEM had nothing to do with mathematics will have been surprised to read this on Wednesday morning in place of their usual list of prepublications:

arXiv will not mail a daily announcement on the evening of Tuesday, June 9, 2020. Submissions received at or after 14:00 ET Monday, June 8 and before 14:00 ET Wednesday, June, 10 will be announced at 20:00 ET Wednesday, June 10.
 We also encourage authors to pause their submissions on Wednesday, June 10 to participate in the #strike4blacklives.

We encourage arXiv readers to use the time they would normally spend reading the daily announcement or submitting an article to instead read about and discuss racism and how they will work in their own local and professional communities to address it. If you choose to participate, please consider tagging @arXiv on Twitter to let us know what you are doing.

When I first posted a link to the #ShutDownSTEM website I never expected the call would be adopted by the staff at arXiv, much less by the AAAS, Nature, the American Physical Society, the MIT School of Science, and laboratories and universities around the world.  That a political program that is potentially so destabilizing to the status quo could attain mainstream status in the space of a few days is practically unprecedented in my experience.  At the same time, it strongly suggests that people in positions of authority believe its destabilizing potential can be kept under control.

The concise explanation of the purpose of the day-long hiatus at particlesforjustice.org hints at its inherent radicality:

as physicists, we believe an academic strike is urgently needed: to hit pause, to give Black academics a break and to give others an opportunity to reflect on their own complicity in anti-Black racism in academia and their local and global communities. This #strike4blacklives is in dialogue with a call from colleagues in astronomy to #shutdownSTEM and #shutdownacademia for at least the day of June 10.

Complicity in anti-Black racism?  That’s strong language!  To help understand what is meant here by that challenging word, here is Charles Blow of the New York Times, a more effective writer than most activist scientists.

We must make ourselves comfortable with the notion that for the privileged, equality will feel like oppression, and that things — legacy power, wealth accumulation, cultural influence — will not be advantaged by whiteness.…

How will our white allies respond when this summer has passed? How will they respond when civil rights gets personal and it’s about them and not just punishing the white man who pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck? How will they respond when true equality threatens their privilege, when it actually starts to cost them something?

He is talking about true equality in our departments, dear colleagues.  Mathematics has seen a few public initiatives in support of the #ShutDown — check out the top line at researchseminars.org, for example

Untitled

or this announcement of the postponement of a trinational seminar, these announcements from MSRI and the MIT and Duke mathematics departments,

MSRIMIT

Dukemore extended and apparently permanent announcements at Stanford and Barnard, and finally this image that greets today’s visitors to the AMS:

AMS screen capture

So I am spending Wednesday writing down my thoughts about structural obstacles to change in the profession.

Meritocracy

From the Strike4BlackLives page at particlesforjustice.org:

We must confront the institutional barriers to justice for Black people in academia and beyond, challenge the notion of the meritocracy whereby “objective and neutral” criteria infused with systemic racism are used to exclude Black people from physics and other academic disciplines, and rebuild our institutions and collaborations in a way that is just and equitable.

Chapter 2 of MWA is devoted to the way something I call charisma structures not only the profession’s functioning in practice but its very self-image as a coherent activity, and suggests that the profession’s value system is inseparable from the existence of a hierarchy that to all intents and purposes is consensual among practicing mathematicians.  This does not — necessarily — mean that mathematics would collapse if the hierarchy were disturbed, but it does mean that eliminating systemic racism from mathematics, insofar as it exists as a recognizable phenomenon, will require a painstaking (and frankly tedious) examination of how meritocracy works in mathematics.

I guess I know something about that.  I have taken part in departmental hiring decisions on two continents and was involved in several national committees for promotions and honors in France, and on the committee choosing candidates for grants at the European level.  I was once the editor-in-chief of a journal and continue to be on the editorial boards of several journals.   My files for the last year alone include 26 reference letters for positions or promotions or honors, about half at the request of the candidates and half at the request of their institutions.  And so on and so forth.  The only reference I have ever seen to race in connection with any of these activities has come in my membership in my department’s Diversity Hiring Committee (more on “diversity” below) and in sentences like

We especially encourage participation from junior
mathematicians, women, under-represented minorities,
and mathematicians from primarily undergraduate
institutions.

that are among the few “systemic” features of the process of including or excluding colleagues from professional activities in the United States and a few other English-speaking countries.

So, although I have no doubt that some senior colleagues harbor characteristically racist ideas, there is no blatant conspiracy to keep Black mathematicians out of the profession.  Nevertheless, the number of African-American colleagues in visible positions in mathematics has hardly changed over the course of my career — the New York Times estimated in 2019 that there are “only perhaps a dozen black mathematicians among nearly 2,000 tenured faculty members in the nation’s top 50 math departments” — not even 1%.   Fixing that gross imbalance is the modest challenge the #ShutDownSTEM action addresses to “non-Black” mathematicians.  The much more modest challenge I set myself for today is to analyze some of the stages of the creation of that imbalance in which mathematical gatekeepers like myself can intervene directly.

After thinking it over, however, and reading Louis Menand’s subtle New Yorker article on meritocracy, I decided to postpone this analysis to a future post.  Changing the structure of the decision process would require nothing less than a social revolution, albeit one on a much smaller scale than the one required to transform the so-called pipeline that leads through life in a profoundly racist society to the stage at which mathematical gatekeepers can become cognizant of the problem.  Fortunately for this discussion, people like Bernie Sanders have done much to take the sting out of the notion of “revolution,” so most readers will not immediately have images of guillotines and the Battleship Potemkin when they read that word.  Nevertheless, reviewing these decision processes has lost some of its urgency in view of the hiring freeze decided by at least 396 colleges and universities, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  And the larger question of the dependence of mathematics on the existence of a consensual hierarchy; the reasons for placing “objective and neutral” in scare quotes in the above quotation; and the extent to which the decision process leads to an unquestionably racist outcome because it is based on criteria that are “infused with racism”:  these are questions that call for a book-length analysis.  For now I just want to urge my fellow gatekeepers to acknowledge the seriousness of the questions, and to resist the temptation to dismiss them with superficial answers.

But I do want to include Corey Robin’s concise metaphor for what passes for meritocracy in higher education in the US (but not only in the US):

This is the song of culture in our society. The bass line is wealth and profit; the melody is diversity and opportunity.

 

Taking action

In view of the problematic history of “diversity” as a juridical category in the United States, I’m pleased to see that the initiators of #Strike4BlackLives do not share the illusions of some of our colleagues with regard to diversity statements and diversity training.

Importantly, we are not calling for more diversity and inclusion talks and seminars. We are not asking people to sit through another training about implicit bias. We are calling for every member of the community to commit to taking actions that will change the material circumstances of how Black lives are lived — to work toward ending the white supremacy that not only snuffs out Black physicist dreams but destroys whole Black lives. In calling for a strike, we call on people who are not Black to spend a day undertaking discussion and action that furthers this work, while providing Black scientists with a day of rest.

Even with the best of intentions, commitment to diversity as codified in the jurisprudence initiated by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell will not go far to remedy the pathological scarcity of Black mathematicians, much less to overcome the systemic and frankly criminal racism at the origin of the uprisings of the past few weeks.  Commitment to “taking actions” is clearly necessary.

But where to start?  Fortunately, a group of geoscientists has proposed a very helpful list of 15 classes of actions on a petition that at the time of writing has already been signed by more than 14000 people.  I am surprised to learn that the American Geophysical Union claims 62000 members, so maybe everyone who signed is actually a geoscientist; and a number of the actions suggested (like the ones about fieldwork, or the reference to mining and fossil fuels) don’t transpose naturally to mathematics.  But some of them do, and the others can serve as a stimulus to our imagination.  For example, Points 1 and 3:

  1.  Post anti-racism statements publicly and accessibly, and incorporate anti-racism into codes of ethics.

   3. Identify ways each society and organization has previously failed Black,         Indigenous, and Latinx People and other minoritized groups both structurally and individually.

would be too obvious to mention if more institutions had taken the initiatives listed at the beginning of this post.   The AMS has been acting on Point 14:

14. Publish annual, data-rich reports of the self-reported, intersectional demographics of members, including demographic data about who is getting awards and who is engaged in leadership in the organization.

for well over a decade — and I would be able to provide a link to the data if the AMS website were not shut down today! — but it’s less clear that departments (like mine) have been studying the data systematically and drawing conclusions.   On the other hand, I can well imagine that implementing Point 9:

9.  Address issues of workplace culture that are active threats to safety, wellbeing, and careers, and acknowledge, address, and promote the safety and success of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other minoritized geoscientists and students who have been historically marginalized in education and the workplace.

would make colleagues extremely uncomfortable, especially in departments (like mine) where North American colleagues of any race are in the minority (and I say this on the basis of my experience in France, where it took me years to understand “workplace culture”).

(Cautious) optimism

Now that (some) colleagues are paying attention, I actually think that the proportion of Black colleagues will increase significantly, and it won’t take as long as the 27 years that elapsed between the Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Do the Right Thing and the Best Picture award for Moonlight.  For reasons already discussed here, young mathematicians are much more sensitive to questions of political injustice than (most of) their senior colleagues, and I anticipate that the situation described in a private message from a scientist at one of the major research institutions involved in #ShutDownSTEM

The strike was endorsed by the Graduate Student Council, and is close to being endorsed by the [NAME REDACTED] Postdoctoral Association; this has given trainees a sense of safety in numbers.  Trainees have organized their labs and communicated with PIs together, which has helped get whole labs on board.  Grad students and postdocs have also organized together to send joint statements of support to their Departments as a whole.  A few [NAME REDACTED] faculty pledged to participate early on.

will be reproduced by the future decision makers in mathematics departments (assuming there will be mathematics departments in the future).   Attitudes and practices will improve, structural obstacles will be removed, and initiatives like the Math Alliance will help to solve the pipeline problem.

I’m less convinced that getting racism in mathematics under control will have much of an effect on the problems that led to the current uprising.  Research mathematics, like Hollywood, is a compact and prosperous institution and can expand its demographic base — it has done so repeatedly over the course of the past century — without calling into question its dependence on existing power relations in the larger society.

At this point I was planning to insert some text from Adriana Salerno’s post on the AMS inclusion/exclusion blog, and to add some of my own thoughts on how training in financial mathematics has contributed to the problems highlighted in this book by Keanga Yamahtta-Taylor.  But the blog is shut down for the day, like the rest of the AMS website, so this will have to wait.

UPDATE:  Some more statements from Columbia:  The Department of Astronomy  has a statement that ends with these thoughts:

Society is facing an inflection point, fueling new awareness. We recognize the need for sustained actions that lead to real change. These may build on on-going efforts or may involve new initiatives and resources. They must also be derived from the exchange of ideas within our academic community of faculty, students and staff.

We commit to not only taking this moment to reflect and learn but also to using the momentum of the present to make concrete plans for the future.

The Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology has uploaded a diversity statement to its home page that does not explicitly refer to ShutDownSTEM.  The Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which includes the Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, sent a long statement to faculty and students at the school, including this commitment to practical action:

At the school level, we will begin by coordinating our current programs and actions into a more cohesive and visible effort, from K-12 outreach on through student and faculty recruitment and mentoring. This will enable further expansion of these initiatives and greater participation of our community in these impactful endeavors. This will also provide a clearer framework and foundation for us to build out these programs, identify gaps, and outline needed actions. I will be inviting your active participation in these efforts.
Other departments and schools may have sent similar messages to their members.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on #ShutDownSTEM day

  1. voloch

    The hyperlink under “396 colleges and universities” goes to a statement from the Stanford math dept that doesn’t say anything about hiring freezes.

    Like

    Reply

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