note: I prepared these remarks and delivered them to the July 2020 meeting of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP), which is the governing body of U.S. particle physics. You can listen to the remarks at the 4:25:38 mark here. My slides are here — but it’s just a summary of what I say at the end.
I’d like to thank Dr. Hewett for inviting me to speak at this event.
We all live and work in the wake of chattel slavery and settler colonialism . Therefore, our responses to questions about equity in particle physics need to be underpinned by a persistent engagement with this context – and what it indicates to us about the material conditions under which the lives of traditionally marginalized people are lived.
Less than 100 years after the end of chattel slavery (but not prison slavery, which continues today), in the famed 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, the majority argued that separate can never be equal.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Earl Warren highlighted they came to this conclusion because of the “intangible considerations” of equal treatment of a student’s “ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn [their] profession.” He noted that segregation based on race “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”
I’m quoting Brown v. Board to you because it temporarily imprinted on American law and society the idea (if not the practice) that the dignity of Black students mattered, and that whatever the intent of the law, even if it claimed to be equal, the separation had the impact of inequality .
The lawyer who argued Brown v. Board, Thurgood Marshall, was by 1978 the first Black associate justice of the Supreme Court when the court eviscerated the idea that impact mattered more than intent . In Regents of University of California v. Bakke, the court – over Marshall’s vigorous objections -- supported a white engineer’s argument that quotas for underrepresented minorities in academic programs were harmful to white people. To somewhat preserve affirmative action, the court argued it was valuable to the extent that it allowed white students to experience a diverse cohort. Black student dignity became, and remains in my view, secondary, again, to what serves the interests of white people.
Today, we are just only 150 years out from the end of chattel slavery in the United States, and only just yesterday did the Supreme Court affirm that treaties with Native American nations are legally binding.
It’s easy to think that 150 years was a long time ago, but my mother was born in a chattel house in Barbados, where slavery ended almost 200 years ago. Fifty-one years after my mother’s birth, I began my freshman year at Harvard College. It’s well-known among academics that Harvard is as much a networking opportunity as it is an intellectual opportunity. This was also true in the 1700s, when — as Craig Steven Wilder has documented  — the Harvard alumni network was used to trade enslaved people, including many people from Barbados. One documented owner of enslaved Barbadians was a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers — quite the name — for 50 years.
As a prospective student on a campus admissions tour, I learned the story of Harvard Hall burning down, with the only painting of John Harvard inside it. I learned almost two decades later that a “hide of Negro” also burned down with it. The wake of slavery is my debt to an institution that surely has a debt to my family. This same institution is arguably our most celebrated scientific institution in the country. Every year, it brings in millions of dollars in National Science Foundation and Department of Energy money. This money helps Harvard capitalize on slavery.
Today, likely to the surprise of my largely discouraging undergrad professors, I am an assistant professor of theoretical physics at the University of New Hampshire, which is a land grant institution. That means that land was taken mostly from plains nations like the Lakota and Anishinaabe, as well as coastal peoples in what now call Oregon, and sold at a profit to fund the start of our university . We receive considerably less Department of Energy and National Science Foundation money than Harvard does, but in the 18 months since I began my faculty position, I have successfully won grants from both. This money helps me as a descendant of slaves, but it also helps the University of New Hampshire capitalize on settler colonialism.
UNH is settled on Wabenaki lands, and Harvard is settled on Massachuseuk land.
So, we live in the wake of chattel slavery and settler colonialism. It is easy to say this has nothing to do with science or to say it’s in the past and there is nothing we can do now. And next week my group will post a paper on the timescale for axion Bose-Einstein condensate formation on the arXiv. While the paper represents work that has greatly interested me for a few years now, it was also produced under fearful conditions, and during this time, my feelings of grief about the violence of structural racism compete with science for my attention. The wake of slavery is not simply the past for me. It is not simply the past for so many other members of the Black Atlantic community. And it is not the past for those who are Indigenous to the Americas. It is not the past for my kin who are both Black and Indigenous. We live with the consequences — and as has been well-documented and become abundantly clear, we also die as a consequence: unfairly, too soon, and without being tended to properly, even when we are able to get medical care, which is not always a guarantee.
To talk about what it means to include Black scientists in particle physics requires talking about what the plan was to include in STEM Aiyana Stanley-Jones – a 7 year old who was shot by police while sleeping on her couch – and Tamir Rice – a 12 year old who was shot by police while playing at the park . It also means talking about what it means to support the survivors of these incidents, our enthusiastic students and colleagues, in the wake of these violent murders.
A forty-minute session is insufficient time to determine a response to hundreds of years of visceral, ongoing structural violence. I hope the short amount of time this topic was allotted is not a reflection of our community’s understanding of and commitment to the importance of Black, Indigenous and other people of color’s lives and working conditions.
To have the conversation that’s needed, it’s important to start by acknowledging that data indicates implicit bias trainings have dubious utility especially when explicit racism remains our most visceral problem. I believe the high energy community is struggling to fully identify its problems and solutions to them. HEPAP should bring in the experts. HEPAP should appoint a commission to study the impact of race, gender, sex, disability status, and other ascribed identities on physics and make recommendations to have long term impact. This commission should be populated by experts in history, sociology and anthropology of science with a track record of using feminist and postcolonial analyses, rather than a process of self-management by physicists with no training or track record in doing this work. Names that come to mind are scholars like Evelynn Hammonds a Black physicist turned historian of science; Sharon Traweek – who wrote a phenomenal anthropological study of particle physics ; Karen Barad – a particle theorist turned feminist theorist and foundation of quantum mechanics researcher; and Alondra Nelson, historian of science, Black history, and president of the Social Science Research Council.
Ultimately, we cannot fully attend to the needs of Black scientists and others who are marginalized until we tend to the context in which we live. Therefore, I recommend that the NSF Broader Impacts be expanded to ensure that it counts for PIs to support minoritized student and faculty demands on campus, for example, providing funding for Black student spaces, even if those resources are not directly related to the needs of scientists. A healthy community is able to support us all. Grantees should also show evidence of Broader Impact activities in grant updates and future applications.
Further, I am aware that DoE has oversight over national labs and we’ve just heard about that work, although while we heard about Title IX, we did not hear about Title VI or Title VII, which cover discrimination based on race. Further, HEPAP must think creatively about how non-national lab DoE PIs can be incentivized in the same way that they are at NSF to actively work to increase access and opportunities for traditionally marginalized groups. Finally, there is no substitute for hiring minoritized faculty and supporting us, both as scientists and as members of our home communities — and non-Black people of color are not a substitute for Black people. I want to be clear also that xenophobia is not a solution to our problems with racism.
We can never change the past, but we can make choices about how it shapes our futures.
 This phrasing is a reference to Christina Sharpe’s essential text In the Wake: On Blackness and Being.
 For a more in-depth discussion of this argument, please see my review of Jonathan Kahn’s Race on the Brain: What Implicit Bias Gets Wrong About the Struggle for Racial Justice, or even better, grab a copy of the book.
 Marshall’s anguished dissent is worth reading, both for content and form.
 See Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.
 See Land Grab University for details about UNH or your school.
 I wrote about this in What is the plan for including Tamir Rice in #STEM? An unfinished dirge.
 Traweek’s Beamtimes and Lifetimes: The World of High Energy Physicists is a must read, including and maybe especially for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
The Disordered Cosmos is coming March 9, 2021. Pre-order today.