SPS on Racism and Protests

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SPS on Racism and Protests


Brittney Hauke, Penn State University, Deval Mehta, Columbia University, and Mikayla Cleaver, SPS Programs Coordinator

On June 1, 2020, the parent organization of SPS, the American Institute of Physics (AIP), released the following statement in solidarity with those protesting against systemic injustices endemic to our nation, not the least of which stem from racial and ethnic biases.

AIP Statement on Racism and Protests

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) stands in solidarity with the victims of police brutality, their families, and those who are protesting racism in the wake of the brutal killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others. AIP also acknowledges that these events are additional examples of a larger system of social, economic, and academic injustice that marginalizes and dehumanizes our fellow citizens.

As we, the AIP leadership and staff, witness the pain, anger, and unrest across the country, we are determined to channel our shared feelings of outrage and grief toward a renewed commitment to elevate the voices of those silenced in our community and do our part in calling out and addressing the inequities experienced by African Americans in the physical sciences.

At AIP, we will continue to do our best to expose and address injustice and discrimination within our society and the physical sciences community.

SPS echoes this statement. On June 5, 2020, the Society of Physics Students released the following statement:

The SPS National Office echoes the AIP Statement on Racism and Protests: We support our Black students, stand with those who are victims of police brutality and racism, and support those who are protesting for change. As a professional association of students, we collectively have a duty to call out injustice when we see it and be active elements of change. To the Black students of our community, we see you, we are here for you, we will listen to you, and we stand with you. Only together can we end racism in our classrooms, institutions, and community, and we commit to work toward this end.

Some of our colleagues may question why we, as physicists, should directly address issues many consider to be in the realm of politics. After all, they might argue, science is impartial and nonpolitical—it does not care for our feelings. Indeed, science governs the world without regard for our emotions, but our quest to observe and understand its workings are certainly influenced by our actions and emotions both today and throughout history and by our humanity.

The pursuit of science, by its very nature, relies on a diversity of thought as a means of generating novel ideas in research, and we would be remiss to assume that such diversity arises only as a facet of something like genius. Our experiences contribute to our ideas as well; thus science progresses further and faster through the inclusion of people from varying circumstances and backgrounds. But even this scientific argument shouldn’t be our driving factor.

In “How Long Should We Wait,” an open letter from Fermilab physicist Brian Nord to his colleagues, Nord asks,
Why is innovation the motivation to support diversity and inclusion? Is this the principle that the astronomy community wants to “uphold?” Why isn’t my humanity enough? Why isn’t my existence as the sole Black American male Principal Investigator in my major astronomical collaborations (that I know of) enough to motivate you to welcome more Black people? Where are the Black women and nonbinary people who have had to be educated and come of age under the conditions of Black life in America?

Why is productivity the motivation for supporting diversity or for maintaining a high-quality work environment? Why isn’t our humanity enough?

The Time is Now: Results of the TEAM-UP Project

In January of 2020, the AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP) released a report on a two-year study investigating the reasons for the persistent underrepresentation of African Americans in physics. The task force team of physicists, astronomers, and social scientists, many of whom are Black, conducted student surveys, department-chair surveys, and interviews with African American students, and made site visits to five high-performing physics departments.

The researchers identified two primary causes for underrepresentation: “the lack of a supportive environment for these students in many departments” and “the enormous financial challenges facing them and the programs that have consistently demonstrated the best practices in supporting their success.”

As the report highlights, African American physics students face multiple systemic barriers in their academic pursuits and otherwise. The TEAM-UP report outlines a number of research findings and as many specific recommendations for how the physics and astronomy community can address the ways in which we have failed Black physics students. We encourage all SPS students, advisors, and physics departments to read TEAM-UP and begin implementing their recommendations.

The recent wave of protests, though triggered by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of those who were meant to protect him, are at their core a response to this widespread inequality stemming from historical injustices and systemic biases. We must realize the role that scientists and academia have played in the propagation of such injustice and undo the damage that our community has done, starting with implementing the recommendations outlined in the TEAM-UP report, assessing their outcomes, and taking further steps to break down the barriers that have hindered our fellow human beings.

TEAM-UP Report and Recommendations aip.org/diversity-initiatives/team-up-task-force

SPS Chapters at Work

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill group picture from the 2019 Southeastern Section APS conference. Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SPS chapter.

To enact any real change we must both act and reflect on those actions, and we are proud to say that many SPS chapters around the country are working toward fostering a more inclusive physics community. A few have also issued public statements in light of recent events.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SPS chapter released a statement on June 8, 2020, in the wake of protests following George Floyd’s killing. In the statement they outline their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, list planned actions for the coming semesters, and provide resources about the movement to their members. They write,

"Our goal as members of this community is to educate ourselves to become effective allies and extend this education to our peers. Some actions that we all can take to create a more inclusive environment are recognizing our implicit biases and privilege, fostering a safe environment within the SPS/ViP room, calling out injustices, and being open to the tough conversations that are needed to enact change. . . . The only way to address racial injustice is to actively recognize systemic racism and work to dismantle it. We can create this change by having tough conversations, voting, signing petitions, donating, and more."

The SPS chapter at the University of Rochester in New York released a statement emphasizing their “goal of increasing diversity in physics” and developing “a more welcoming and encouraging community for [B]lack students.” The chapter plans to move their outreach events to Rochester City schools, where the students are majority Black, rather than requiring that students come to campus; this eliminates the potential barrier of transportation. Additionally, they plan to discuss the lack of diversity among students in the physics major with department leadership and work on making the physics community at their school more inclusive. Lastly, SPS at the University of Rochester states that they “ . . . recognize and embrace the fact that Black Lives Matter and similar campaigns constitute a fundamentally [B]lack led movement. Accordingly, we would like to collaborate with the [B]lack student organizations on campus.”

These SPS chapters and others are helping to create lasting change in the physics community.

Moving Forward

We would also like to feature the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP), an organization that promotes the “professional well-being of African American physicists and physics students within the international scientific community and within society at large.” They have many opportunities for students and professionals alike, offering a variety of scholarships, internships, conferences, and seminars. We encourage you to donate to the organization, purchase their merchandise, or collaborate with your local chapter to show support.

The fight against inequality does not end at the protests, nor in legislative houses. Systemic injustice will persist unless we are all actively standing against it. As such, we must all continue to educate ourselves on these issues, understand the impact that we have made and will continue to make, and amplify voices within the Black community. We encourage all SPS chapters to use the resources from this article as a starting point for your own actions moving forward. As physicists we excel at learning and changing course, so let’s get to work.

National Society for Black Physicists nsbp.org

Shut Down STEM shutdownstem.com

Particles for Justice particlesforjustice.org

Black Lives Matter, Ways You Can Help blacklivesmatters.carrd.co

AIP Statement on Racism and Protests publishing.aip.org/about/news/aip-statement-on-racism-and-protests

SPS and ΣΠΣ Statement on Diversity, Inclusion, Ethics, and Responsibility spsnational.org/about/governance/statements

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