Is Science Just for White People?

Sikivu Hutchinson may be best known in the atheist community for her 2011 book Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, a look at how religion has harmed the African-American community and how we can fix that.

Now, she’s back with a collection of essays, Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels (Infidel Books, 2013), a book that challenges many of the ideas that constitute American culture:

In the exclusive excerpt below, Hutchinson tackles the myth that people of color are somehow averse to fields of science:

In the mainstream imagination, science and God are united in mystery. Both are contested terrain whose authority is defined, governed, and controlled by powerful elites. Both promise transcendence, a taste of the immortal, a swipe at redemption. Religious promotion of the God concept is premised on enlightening and uplifting the sinful masses. Science illuminates the inner workings of the unknown; religion glorifies the inscrutability of the unknown and makes the sinful masses wallow in it. There is a popular African saying that the white man stole Africa’s vast riches of raw materials and left the natives his Christian religion in return. It is at its core a commentary on the science of colonialism. As one of the most heavily evangelized regions in the world, Africa’s poverty is a reflection of the dialectic between Western progress and “third world” superstition. African wealth allowed the West to innovate and build empires; evangelism kept Africa compliant, balkanized, and perpetually embroiled in internecine strife. It’s commonly accepted that the “West has dominated world politics and economics with the power of science.” Science is the linchpin of modernity, progress and, by extension, moral betterment. It’s what distinguishes the West from the technologically “primitive” and morally “backward” third world — Christian, Muslim and all points in between.

Historically, American science traditions have been portrayed as the domain of enterprising whites striding fearlessly across the global stage advancing knowledge and enlightenment. Although the right wing bellows about “our” freedoms coming directly from God — science and scientific innovation are still the U.S.’ ace in the hole. Science, military might, and the supposed moral superiority that the two confer are the engines of empire. When Christian fascists like Missouri Congressman Todd Akin rant about women’s bodies being able to “shut down” impregnation after a “legitimate rape,” they are vilified as aberrations (if it’s an election year) rather than representatives of the backwardness of white culture and white religious beliefs. When the white “natives” speak in tongues about the Earth being 6,000 years old they’re not primitives they’re patriots. Whites are not collectively stained by the taint of being anti-science or anti-modernity. Their culture is universal, timeless, rational, immortal. Hence, individual whites will never be called to account for the dangerous delusions of white evangelicals and the havoc they’ve wreaked on the lives of American women. They will never be smeared as a people besotted with superstition and paralyzed by prayer, a role that is colorfully fulfilled by the black Other. As cultural and political propaganda, cinematic scenes of praying, shouting, dancing Negroes getting a witness in church are a feel good staple of American pop culture. This cinematic shorthand gives American audiences access to the authentic rituals of African American communities. It’s also a window into what white America is not — namely backward looking and complacent, waiting for God to give it a sign. Scenes of devout black folk are the cinematic equivalent of comfort food, an artery clogging dollop of macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and chicken pot pie all rolled up into one. Thus, the pious darkies of the 1940 Lena Horne/Ethel Waters musical Cabin in the Sky are a window into an earthy wondrously mystical culture, in which the “Good Colored Boy… leaves… the Christian Good Woman to take up with the Bad Black Girl.”

The flipside of blubbering black piety is white scientific ingenuity, popularized by the mad scientist icon. Throwing propane on the church pews, the mad white scientist encapsulates the restless genius of the first world, “trespassing into the territory of gods,” flirting with apocalypse. From Frankenstein to Dr. Strangelove to the megalomaniac scientists of Marvel Comics, the conflict between dystopia and utopia have always informed depictions of white scientific ingenuity. The mad scientist might be evil or virtuous, goofy eccentric (a la Doc Brown of the 1985 film Back to the Future) or a raving Nazi-esque Strangelove. Regardless, he is a genius who generally starts out with good moral intentions and a whiz-bang invention that will transform the universe. However, when people of color are depicted “doing science” their goals are generally less ambitious. Isolated from communities of color, they are either the rare, rugged individualist (the exceptional credit-to-his-race Negro) or the white male genius’ self-effacing minion. Mastery, heroism, and world-saving nationalism are not their currency and the neutered geek Negro generally bites it long before the credits roll.

Gender and racial politics, couched in themes of masculine mastery, are always at play in the representation of science as an elite domain. Decked out in a white lab coat straight from central casting, the African American science teacher featured in Target’s 2012 “Back to School” commercial is a cartoonish reminder of the dearth of images of black scientists in American popular culture. Riffing about school supplies to the tune of Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded Me with Science, the teacher whimsically declares, “Parents, this year I’m going to teach your kids that magic does exist. It’s called science.” Unfortunately, his whimsical classroom is filled with mostly white students doing quirky lab experiments. When youth of color see scientists in mainstream film, TV or advertising, it’s usually the lone wolf, trailblazing, bulletproof-Einstein white male (or the sexualized white female variant, typically buried behind thick attitude glasses ready to be whipped off before a sex scene) peering through a microscope with furrowed brow. Mainstream representation codes heroism, scientific discovery, scientific genius, and rationality as white. This bias is also reflected in science textbooks in which the vast majority of scientists are white males or white females. Media coverage of the Mars Curiosity rover’s ecstatic, predominantly white Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) crew was yet another affirmation of this link. A few weeks after Curiosity’s successful landing on Mars, Nobel prize winning chemist Ahmed Zewail wrote that “Curiosity — the rover and the concept — is what science is all about: The quest to reveal the unknown. America’s past investment in basic science and engineering, and its skill at nurturing the quest, is what led the Mars triumph and it is what undergirds U.S. leadership in today’s world.”

The belief that African Americans and Latinos are averse to “science” because of their religiosity is a mainstay of secularist discourse. The belief that the religiosity of African Americans and Latinos inhibits their embrace of science, hindering their representation in the science field, is expressed in the following syllogism: People of color are overly religious. People of color are underrepresented in science. Hence, religiosity is the driving factor in the low levels of science achievement amongst people of color. Here, people of color are the victims of their own magical thinking. But, as I will argue, this convenient fiction is not borne out by research on African American girls’ experiences with science education.

U.S. leadership in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field remains stubbornly segregated. As an aspiring oncologist enrolled at a South Los Angeles high school not far from JPL, college-bound twelfth grader Karly Jeter’s role model is African American surgeon Ben Carson. He is the only person of color in the medical science field that she looks up to. She says that this is partly because he “made it on his own” and partly because she doesn’t know of any other examples. Karly’s desire to be an oncologist stems from being a cancer survivor herself. She describes finding a cure for cancer as her biggest passion. On the other end of the college spectrum, planetary geologist Devin Waller has a Bachelor’s in Astrophysics from UCLA and a Master’s in Geoscience from Arizona State University (ASU). As a graduate student her concentration was in planetary remote sensing on Mars. At ASU she was also a research analyst for projects involving the predecessors to Curiosity. Although they are at two different stages in the science education pipeline, these young women both represent the challenges that confront African American women in science and technology.

In her book Swimming Against the Tide: African American Girls and Science Education, Sandra Hanson explodes the myth that black girls are somehow disinterested in science due to hyper-religiosity or “culture.” Hanson found that, despite significant institutional and societal barriers, there is greater interest in science among African American girls than in other student populations. She frames this seeming paradox in historical context, stressing that “Early ideologies about natural inequalities by race influenced the work of scientists and scholars as well as the treatment of minorities in the science domain. Racism is a key feature of science in the United States and elsewhere. This has a large impact on the potential for success among minority students. Early work on science as fair has not been supported.”

Godless Americana is now available online if you’d like to read more!

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • baal

    Interesting and she’s spot on that American POC are dramatically underrepresented in labs. Having been in labs in the US, however, non-American POC are extremely common and most of the male students I met in my lab time were down right geeky, nerds or otherwise marginalized ‘sub masculine’ males (at least through highschool). I hope she’s visited a campus or two and included that in the book.

  • smrnda

    Kind of strange, I was getting the impression that a lot of people are thinking science is for Indians and Asians these days.

    This kind of reminds me of a conversation I had a while back with another software developer. I commented that I learned to program because both of my parents were engineers, and that programming just isn’t taught in school. She pointed out that with this being the case, certain fields being dominated by white people is just the norm since only affluent kids of highly educated parents get much exposure early on to the subject matter.

    All said, lots of minority kids are interested in science, but if you don’t get support or encouragement, it’s hard to stay with it and even harder to get ahead. I’d also say that sometimes science isn’t taught in a way that’s very interesting and doesn’t provide enough hands-on work that really engages students’ natural curiosity.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      it’s better stereotyped “science (or anything secular and progressive) is not for black people.

      former scientist here. yeah, i was almost always the only af-am in the lab, the meeting, the conference… for the record it was exactly the same when i switched to one of the humanities. a rather recluse one, filled with white folks. ironically, making a living studying ancient brown and black people.

      the question that needs to be asked is this: is it about “race” or class? the latter get us all so much farther. i was where i was because like so many white people, i came from an upper class family with two post graduate educated parents pulling down the big figure number, who could afford private schools for me and other stuff that made my life easier. they were secularists from urban meccas, where tolerance (to a point) was social capital.

      almost every “black” family is the same as every “white” (pink?) one. if there’s a difference in recent times about why “asian” and “indian” people are more seen in modern labs, board rooms, any place where there’s money, mobility and power, it leads to a disturbing conclusion.

      racism is, in america, mostly a term that means “white people who will do anything not to compete in any way with a black person.” is that too blunt for you (all of you, not just the commenter above)? cause truthfully, that’s what it is.

      heard during a job once, where people of almost every race BUT african american were at the table:

      white person:
      “this pretty much proves our (situation) has totally overcome racism.”

      brown person:
      “you’re so right, dood! i recall when my ggg grandfather was killing your ggg grandfather. it’s how we earned out success. i’m so glad you and i can be friends now.”

      [repeat several times with different flavors/colors]

      african american server, mostly silent: “would you like more wine with that, Sir?”

      nope, no irony in that at all.

  • DougI

    Who was ever making the argument that science is just for White people?

  • guestpest

    If science is just for white people, someone should tell Neil deGrasse Tyson. ;-)

  • cyb pauli

    “Karly Jeter’s role model is African American surgeon Ben Carson. ” How painfully depressing a single sentence can be…


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