We are in the middle of a struggle against a new coronavirus. And yet, in its midst, America’s old sins of slavery and racism have seized our attention from COVID-19. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black people by police have captured the nation’s attention. Millions are protesting and reminding us that we have so far to go in creating a truly just society.
As chemists, we are not exempt from the poisoned fruits of these historical injustices. If you are reading this column, you are likely a member of the American Chemical Society. According to 2019 data from the US Census Bureau, 13.4% of the US population is Black or African American. In comparison, chemists who identified themselves as Black represented 1.9% of ACS membership, according to the 2019 ACS salary survey. That is a significant gap, and it should not be a surprise.
For chemists who attended graduate school, how many Black classmates did you have? We didn’t have very many in my medium-sized program. These inequities are seen in the data. The 2018 Survey of Graduate Students by the National Science Foundation (NSF) indicated that just 4.5% of chemistry graduate students were Black. This very small number is reflected in graduation data as well, with the 2018 NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates indicating that 4.6% of chemistry PhD graduates who were US citizens were Black.
I find these numbers appalling and shameful. What I find more distressing is that these present graduation statistics will echo into the future of chemistry. Many of the chemistry PhD graduates of 2018 are now postdoctoral fellows, and some of them will become the faculty candidates of 2020 and 2021 and the assistant professor class of 2022 and beyond. We believe and hope that new classes of graduates will be more diverse and include more first-generation students, but will there be professors who look like them and can mentor them through those critical first few years? I regret the answer is “not many.” We know from the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE) initiative that in 2016, underrepresented minorities made up just 4.6% of new faculty at top 50 chemistry programs; 1.6% of new faculty were Black. Industrial chemistry does not come out looking better, with just 5.8% of employed chemists and material scientists being Black, according to 2018 Census Bureau data obtained by Data USA.
The list of factors contributing to the lack of Black people in the chemistry community is incredibly long, but we start addressing those factors by taking time for self-examination: Has our community done enough to attract, recruit, and promote Black chemists? Are our education, hiring, and funding processes systematically excluding them? What unconscious biases do we have in our training pipelines and our hiring committees? Are we knowingly or unknowingly promoting racist stereotypes in our speech or our literature? These are uncomfortable questions, and the answers aren’t going to be particularly comforting either.
You may be asking, “How can I help?” We can start by being humble and listening to Black chemists when they describe their struggles to establish a place in the chemistry community. In addition to listening, you can link them with crucial mentors. Most importantly, you can advocate for their careers. We all know those influential rooms where decisions about projects and careers are being made, and how important it is to have an internal champion. If you’re privileged enough to be inside those rooms, you can make sure chemists from marginalized communities are invited in, their voices are heard, and their causes are promoted.
Diversity, inclusion, and respect are core values of the American Chemical Society. Just like our country, our professional society struggles to meet those values. We cannot fully comprehend the barriers of racism and income inequality that make it difficult for Black chemists to enter, stay, and thrive in our classrooms, laboratories, and offices. But we can recognize these barriers exist both inside and out of our institutions and our society, and we should work together to knock them down. We can do it, and we must.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.