Racial Disparities in Science and Math Education Are Hurting Black Communities

In conjunction with the global uprising against white supremacy and the ongoing murder of Black people by police, academics and educators are mobilizing to bring awareness to deep educational disparities around science and math education for Black students and other students of color — a dynamic that perpetuates structural inequalities along racial lines.

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) university departments remain disproportionately white, and that dynamic carries over into STEM-related careers in both public and private sectors. The lack of representation at school and work can be a heavy weight to bear, says Dr. Lataisia Jones, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences from Florida State University (FSU), who is now an ethics fellow at the American Society for Microbiology.

Jones began her graduate studies at FSU two months after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, and three months before 17-year-old Jordan Davis was killed by Michael Dunn in Jacksonville, Florida. Jones says being the only Black person in her department and having no one in arm’s reach to talk with about what had just happened was a very traumatic transition into her graduate studies. “At first I thought I needed to keep it to myself and just get through the program.”

While she soon found mentors in fellow Black academics like Dr. Adrienne Stephenson and Dr. Regina Knight-Mason, the shadow of racial discrimination in the halls of science followed Jones through her degree and postdoc. Once, while working in her lab, Jones was mistaken for the janitorial staff. Another time, she recalls having to put up with an Asian American colleague screaming at her over a misunderstanding about sharing a centrifuge.

Ongoing demeaning experiences is what makes being Black in STEM fields “exhausting,” says Dr. Aisha Lawrey, senior director of programs and scholarships at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. On the ride up to a lecture she once gave on the importance of diversity in curriculum design, an elevator full of older white male colleagues complained about how the event they were about to attend — the talk she was giving — was going to be a waste of time. She remained silent on the elevator and proceeded to the front of the lecture hall, where she watched the men’s jaws drop. “They didn’t even consider the fact that I would be teaching,” she says, explaining how she shared what had just happened in real time as part of her presentation. “I’m not the person bringing your coffee, I’m actually the instructor,” she told the crowd.

The struggle in STEM starts much earlier, says Shakiyla Huggins, a high school math teacher and doctoral candidate at Boise State University. Huggins was the only Black teacher at a middle school where she taught math in North Carolina. There, she became aware that a science teacher, who was white, taught an annual lesson on the cotton gin. The teacher would order bags of cotton off of Amazon and have students, the majority of whom were Black, race to the front of the room as part of the activity, to see how fast they could “pick” it. “Do you not understand how insensitive that is?” Huggins asked the other teacher.

That burden — having to teach non-Black colleagues how to not be racist and make STEM training more appealing to Black students and other students of color — takes a measurable toll. According to the journal Nature, the uncompensated time Black and other academics and educators of color are asked to spend working on budget-less “diversity” initiatives constitutes a “minority tax.” The obligations take away countless hours the faculty members might otherwise spend on research and writing, which may explain why African American scientists are 10 percent less likely than white colleagues to get research funding from the U.S. National Institute of Health. Researchers including Dr. Yasmiyn Irizarry have characterized the resulting phenomenon as “opportunity hoarding,” positing that it happens more in STEM fields than in other fields.

Lauren Chambers is a Yale University astronomy graduate who recently left a job at the Space Telescope Science Institute because of these dynamics. In a “break-up letter” she published on Medium after switching career trajectories, Chambers wrote: “Just three years out of undergrad, I have accrued countless stories of dear Black and Brown friends who have been literally abandoned by their graduate advisors; Black and Brown friends who have been yelled at by research advisors; Black and Brown friends who have faced both colorism and sexism from mentors; Black and Brown friends who have been forced to change jobs due to lies from their bosses; Black and Brown friends who have been underpaid by their advisors compared to white peers.” Ultimately, Chambers cites her reason for leaving the field as “the inability of astronomers to be respectful community members, and to acknowledge the terrestrial effects of our celestial research.”

The disproportionate underrepresentation of Black people in STEM is not only egregious, it’s deadly. The disparity is one reason behind the unequal siting of toxic waste facilities and coal-burning power plants near low-income Black and Brown communities, president of the NAACP’s environmental and climate justice program, Jacqueline Patterson, tells Truthout. “So often we have permitting processes that are designed by polluters,” she says. Uneven engagement of students of color in STEM fields leads to fewer students of color in positions with energy companies, for instance, or on city planning and zoning boards. “And that creates a pipeline to those boards that structurally omits the folks who are most impacted,” Patterson says. If a neighborhood group does decide to fight the siting of a nearby polluting project, with fewer community members trained in STEM, it can be difficult to attend a public meeting and try to “go toe-to-toe with someone who is speaking so much jargon that it makes one’s head spin,” she says.

In addition to the disparate siting of cancer- and asthma-causing plants and pipelines near Black and Brown communities, fewer Black physicians translates to poorer health outcomes for Black patients — which has been particularly devastating and laid bare amid the COVID-19 pandemic. An April 2020 study in the journal Health Equity suggests that implicit physician bias may contribute to the unequal number of African American COVID-19 patients who die from the disease, by way of an elevated use of “do not resuscitate” orders for Black patients. In Chicago, African Americans make up 29 percent of the city’s population, but 70 percent of all COVID-related deaths.

The STEM disparity is also a major loss for society, says Dr. Nathan Smith, professor of pediatrics, pharmacology and physiology at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “When we get students of color in labs and they’re not treated as human, we lose them, they go out and do something else,” Smith told attendees. “We have lost that person that could cure cancer, HIV or anything else.” Smith says it’s the responsibility of individual professors but also whole STEM departments to promote Black people to compensated positions of power, to show students of color that science can indeed offer a welcoming environment.

Institutions have the power to improve immediately, says Dr. Jones, who is also a co-organizer of a new ongoing event called “STEMing While Black” — an effort to make 18 Black STEM experts and researchers available to answer questions for up-and-coming students and professionals in STEM fields interested in anti-racist work in their departments. The event is composed of a free virtual series of panels, remote field trips and science lessons intended to support parents in delivering opportunities to help their kids keep up with science while stuck at home amid the ongoing global pandemic. The event joins other recent initiatives on social media platforms that call attention to inequity in academia under hashtags like #BlackInTheIvory, #ShutDownSTEM and #BlackInAstro. It attracted 300 registrants for its first session in June, during which Black STEMers including Stephenson, Lawrey, Huggins and Smith shared tips on how they’ve coped with and combated racism in academic programs and careers, like the importance of learning to say “no,” and practicing how to call out non-Black colleagues on microaggressions. The second session takes place on July 18.

Dr. Jones started her new job at the American Society of Microbiology amid the pandemic, in March. For the first time in her professional experience, Juneteenth was recognized as a holiday at work, coming less than a week after the organization joined thousands of other institutions across the world for a #ShutDownSTEM strike, halting research operations to call attention to inequities in STEM. “Now, having this opportunity to freely express how I feel as an employee about the fact that George Floyd was killed … is completely different than 2012 when I felt like I needed to keep it to myself,” she says.

Note: An update has been made to correctly state the racial identity of one of the colleagues mentioned by Dr. Jones.