MIT Free Speech Alliance assembles a panel to debate whether STEM is systemically racist

The debate highlighted the complexity and ever-evolving state of the issue

The MIT Free Speech Alliance and Adam Smith Society co-sponsored a debate regarding whether there is systemic racism in STEM Nov. 2. 

Vice President of National STEM Programs at the United Negro College Fund Chad Womack and Senior Fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University Janet Riddick represented the affirmative. On the opposing side were Williams College biology professor Luana Maroja and York College of Pennsylvania rhetoric professor Erec Smith. The moderator was Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School and a past president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The debate opened with Strossen explaining to the audience why it is crucial to address matters like the debate’s resolution.

“Despite the importance of this topic, or perhaps because of its importance, some people have argued that it is an issue that should not be subject to debate; that the debate itself causes harm,” Strossen began. “Moreover, polls show that many people do not dare to discuss this topic or other topics about racial justice, for fear of being accused of causing harm.”

Womack opened by stating that “racism can function and be experienced as structural barriers that are embedded within a built environment.”

“While those barriers can be physical, those barriers are often intangible or cultural; that are just as difficult as to navigate around,” Womack explained. “Science, the ‘S’ in STEM, is not some abstraction of society, but rather an organ and function of human society, and therefore it is experienced and subject to human thought and behavior.”

Womack said that science is impacted by the human condition, which includes racism. If one were to argue STEM was not racist, it would be to divorce science from its human origin. Womack argued that the evidence for this systemic racism is seen in academia.

“When we look across the landscape—across academia—African Americans represent 2 percent, or somewhere around 2 to three percent, of tenure-track faculty,” Womack stated. He further argued that this is not because of a lack of talent, but rather because of the barriers such talent face when trying to do what they trained for.

Maroja, however, challenged Womack’s logic using Womack’s own philosophy about how racism and science are inextricably linked. “You mentioned that science includes human thought, therefore it comes with all that humans have, which includes racism,” Maroja pointed out. “So, do you consider that racism is an intrinsic part of humans?”

Maroja argued that the crux of the systemic racism debate hinges on the definition of the terms used to frame the debate. She encouraged the audience to question what terms like “STEM” and “systemic racism” truly mean.

“What do we mean by systemic racism? Systemic racism must be more than a few racists. It must be either rules codified to exclude minorities, or at least a general atmosphere of discrimination shared by others, but not codified or made explicit,” Maroja asserted.

Maroja said that science, a “toolkit of investigation,” cannot be racist because it is just a method of understanding the world. She further argued that science, a mostly Western development, cannot be racist because it was widely adopted by the world and benefited everyone.

“For instance, the way science is done in Brazil is the same as in the U.S., and I had no trouble moving science that I learned in my hometown to Cornell University,” Maroja explained. 

Riddick continued arguing for the ideas proposed by Womack, using his own career as a scientist to discuss racial injustice. Riddick believes that the discourse on race has changed from a topic leaders would converse about to a “frenzy of divisive policy.”

Riddick gave the example of Dr. Wesley Harris, a previous MIT Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who was prohibited from enrolling in an engineering degree as a black man.

“So, [Dr. Harris] majored in Physics, and the rest is history. But the one thing he went on to do was to create many more Wesley Harisses,” Riddick explained. “Many of his black PhD students went on to be leaders in engineering just like him.” Then, Riddick cautioned that this doesn’t imply that STEM is not racist, pointing out that there were also an unknown number of black scholars who were of the same caliber as Dr. Harris, but could not find an opportunity to prove themselves.

Smith challenged Riddick by asking him how events that occurred in 1960 affect 2023 black scientists now. When Smith was given the floor, he discussed the “absurdity of some of the solutions” for systemic racism.

“First: equitable math [which is] based on the anti-racist theory of Tema Okun, [which insists] that black students who don’t do well in math are failing because they are being taught the ‘white’ way,” Smith summarized. “Not the ‘right’ way—I didn’t say the ‘right’ way—I said the ‘white’ way.”

Smith further argued that such solutions extend to academia in the form of “citational justice.” He defined citational justice as a mandate where people need to make sure that the people they cite are of diverse backgrounds. If you do not cite a person of color, Smith argued that it will be considered “inherently racist.”

The debate as a whole highlighted how systemic racism in STEM is a complex, ever-evolving topic to navigate.