Despite overwhelming data demonstrating that Donald Trump rode a wave of white resentment across age, gender, income and education levels into the Oval Office, there is still a strong—and wrong—chorus of people on “the left” who believe we can work with the Trump administration and that our collective energy should be spent engaging Trump voters at the expense of the safety and dignity of marginalized populations.
This move to re-center whiteness despite the data is merely liberal racism veiled as calls for unity. Not only have some activists, organizers and political pundits trumpeted this flawed logic, but it’s also being espoused by some of our nation’s scientists, who one would expect to trust the data, if nothing else.
But the turmoil that has engulfed the planning of the March for Science (M4S), which is scheduled to happen this Saturday in Washington, D.C., as well as more than 375 cities across the country, is a prime example of scientists peacocking this liberal brand of racism.
For the past three months, the scientific community, which is largely white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied and male, has been fiercely debating the political nature of the march in the face of a Trump regime, leaving scientists from marginalized backgrounds feeling ... well, further marginalized. In response, scientists who identify as women, disabled, queer, trans, people of color, etc., converged around the hashtag #MarginSci to take their racist and sexist colleagues to task.
You may be asking yourself, why are scientists marching on Washington? Scientists as a collective are generally silent on political battles—until you threaten their research funding as Trump has. Upon taking office, Trump made it crystal clear that his administration would be anti-science and could give two Erlenmeyer flasks about evidence-based policymaking. Trump swiftly put science as a public good on the chopping block with research-agency gag orders, unqualified nominees for federal appointments and proposed budget cuts to science-related federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health.
Trump’s war on science has been so egregious that it has spurred the dormant scientific community to mobilize and march on our nation’s capital. However, after numerous science-related crises, such as the Flint, Mich., water crisis and #NoDAPL, it was lost on no one that the scientific community did not stand up en masse until its own interests were on the line.
“Some [scientists] may think that racism is wrong, but [they] also have a very superficial understanding of racism. They think it’s bad to call someone the n-word. [But] they don’t care that black scientists have to worry about criminalization at their places of work, simply because of the color of their skin,” said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Ph.D., who is only the 63rd black woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics.
“[They don’t care] that we are afraid to leave our houses, that we are dealing with siblings and cousins who are under threat of incarceration or death at the hands of the state. They don’t care about the long legacy of science abusing African-American, African and Latin American/Caribbean communities. They don’t understand that for many black scientists, a March for Science [should have been] a Black Lives Matter march, too,” Prescod-Weinstein continued.
Yet despite the inaction of the scientific community prior to Trump’s war on science, many scientists and science advocates of color still tried to guide the M4S, but their voices were largely ignored.
Caleph B. Wilson, Ph.D., is the digital media manager for the National Science & Technology News Service. When he initially learned about the M4S, he eagerly signed up to volunteer and offered up his expertise on engaging elected officials, policy issues, science communication and outreach strategy to both the New York and D.C. planning committees, but Wilson said he quickly found that lead march organizers were not amenable to recommendations from scientists of color like himself and others.
“There was a faction within the M4S planning leadership that was aggressively opposed to centering diversity and inclusion,” said Wilson. “This abrasive approach resulted in the very scientists with the most organizing experience—many who participated in organizing other social or environmental-justice movements and protests—being excluded from the M4S planning.”
Since the establishment of the march, M4S organizers have sent mixed signals about the march’s intent and strategy after acquiescing to demands from white male scientists to keep the march apolitical and nonpartisan. For example, speaking with the New York Times, lead organizer Jonathan Berman, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said, “Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest.”
On its website, the march has also been referred to as a “celebration of science,” to the confusion and dismay of onlookers, particularly social justice organizers and scientists from marginalized backgrounds, who are currently living in imminent danger under Trump’s rule. Given the historical complicity of the science-industrial complex in the marginalization of certain segments of the populace, women, the disabled, LGBTQ individuals and people of color grew increasingly and rightfully critical of an M4S organizing structure that appeared ill-equipped and unwilling to actually stand up to the Trump administration in solidarity with the people most impacted by his bad policies.
Scientists, who believed that the march needed to adopt an intersectional approach to ensure it was not only inclusive but also advocated for science for all—even those on the margins—used hashtags such as #MarginSci to draw attention to the hypocrisy of the march and science at large. Although a diversity and inclusion committee was created to address these critiques, the March for Science organizing committee has repeatedly watered down any inclusive rhetoric, much to the celebration of white male scientists, who also took to the internet to harass any scientists calling for intersectionality online. Consequently, a number of scientists who wanted to push for intersectionality within the march were ignored or pushed out or stepped down from the lead organizing committee.
“[The lead organizers of the March for Science] did a poor job of shutting down the racists and sexists. If nothing else that we have learned in this political climate, it’s that racists have become emboldened, even on the left,” said Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., a visiting assistant professor of biological sciences at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.
Lee, who commonly blogs about science under the alias DNLee, has decided not to support the M4S because of what she has witnessed from the lead organizers, although she encourages other black people to decide on their own level of participation. However, she thinks that the dialogue around the march is useful for exposing the racism within the scientific community.
“The reason why this is important to talk about and deal with is because they want us—and by ‘us’ I mean folks from marginalized communities, scientists of color, queer scientists, and the rest of who’ve been relegated as not fully human or not existing,” said Lee. “They’re happy for us to physically be on the line. They’re happy for us to literally show bodies to demonstrate this overwhelming support [for the M4S], but they will not defend our issues or us. So, it’s like, ‘No, no, you want us to show up, but you won’t show up for me,’ and that’s a line in the sand [for me.]”
Racism within the academy and science-industrial complex is nothing new. However, the March for Science, through the hashtag #MarginSci, has provided front-row seats to see how scientists from underrepresented populations as well as historically discriminated communities are regarded by many scientists.
“What we are witnessing, with the resistance to diversity and inclusion and the March for Science’s fumbling their responses, is the airing of science’s ‘dirty laundry,’” said Wilson. “This battle plays out daily in hiring committees, admission reviews and in individual [laboratories]. The general public has now had a view through the window into these episodes.”
While the March for Science is set to happen this Saturday, nobody knows yet what form science advocacy and organizing will take inside and outside the scientific community. Wilson and Lee both expressed the hope that scientists and science advocates from marginalized communities become more active in putting forward science-policy briefs, advocating for specific science-policy funding allocations by Congress and state legislatures, and pushing federal and state agency leadership in order to secure a role in shaping our nation’s scientific directives.
“Our participation as decision-makers, not just as patients—we have also been very much science pioneers, not just in the past but also in the present—[is vital to the] support of our professional scientists of color,” said Lee.
“We need more of our community out there demanding basic information about their neighborhoods. When [politicians] propose policies, [they need to provide] some basic, public information about how these policies will affect our community—the ecosystem, the people—that’s basic science. We need to demand it. And not only that [our government officials] gather this requisite information, but that our community is participating in [data collection and analysis] by training and hiring research assistants and data gatherers from our neighborhoods, and hiring scientists who look like us,” Lee continued.
Shay-Akil McLean, a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who studies how inequality impacts human health, hopes that the dialogue around #MarginSci shows black people outside the scientific community that there are people in the academy and in these scientific industries who did not forget about the needs of black people. Said McLean, “There are people who are trying to get the scientific community together and recognizing our responsibility [to society.]”
McLean believes that there’s still hope for the scientific community, too, if it does the work to understand and reject the role that science has played in maintaining the status quo of white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy: “Scientists know the role that they play. For example, there is no reason that engineers should be consenting to design weapons of mass destruction and better forms of surveillance devices that [ultimately] end up being used against black people in the United States.”
“[But the problem is that researchers] do not want to be held accountable because that’s going to cost them some money, given the nature of the society that we live in,” said McLean, who also runs a political and science education website, Decolonize All the Things. “We sell death. We sell destruction. We sell corruption. We sell crisis for profit. And then we sell you everything that will save you from those things for profit. That’s how capitalism works, and a lot of scientists do not want to lose out on that. Do you want to save the scientific industry or humanity? You can’t do both.”
Marches alone will not protect the integrity of science or ensure the public well-being of Americans. If the organizers’ goal is to ensure that science remains a public good for all of us, they must be willing to take a visible stand moving forward against injustice inside and outside the scientific community, as well as make amends for the atrocities committed under the watch of scientists.
And while the March for Science has been embroiled in controversy since it was announced, its calamitous planning can and should serve as a teachable moment for scientists, who wish to reconnect with the communities they live among, study and serve as stewards of our public research dollars.
J. Ama Mantey, Ph.D., is a freelance writer, educator and researcher based in Sacramento, Calif., who likes to write about the intersection of science, policy and black folk. Follow her on Twitter.