Change relations of race and science: Black history

I have always wanted to be a scientist in a position to counter the misuse of science or science-like studies. Although I did not know of his work at the time, I wanted to be my version of Clair Patterson (Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey). For me, there were two scientific “misuses” that shaped my desire for a scientific career: The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen J. Gould, and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

Gould spoke to the biases embedded and unchecked in science. He highlighted science that tries to explain social differences among blacks and whites by offering biological explanations while ignoring socio-political conditions. The Tuskegee Study was an experiment in which African American men were deliberately kept uninformed and untreated for syphilis by medical researchers for 30 years after a cure was known. These scientific practices scared me and, by the time I was in high school, they were considered "bad science" or unethical science practices. But they weren't considered bad when they were done.  

Biological determinism and Tuskegee are both part of our scientific history. And there are still those who argue for biological determinism as a justification of our social system and status. Yet in the words of my father, LeVell Holmes, a cultural historian, “History is not so important for teaching the past as it is for allowing students to select their own viable alternatives for the future.”

I shared this scientific history in the Africana lecture series at Sonoma State University. Only five of the forty students had heard of the Tuskegee Study. I was surprised by the emotion that came up for me while sharing this history of science and race in America. I imagined this was shocking and upsetting to the students as well. I asked them if it was and they nodded slowly, somberly. We explored our sadness and anger over our history and our ability to treat black people as study objects, less than human.

“Is it possible to work with those around us to change the world?” I asked the class. A number of young black women echoed loudly, “No!” They have been learning from the world that America does not change. We are still fighting for black lives and poor lives to matter. In the current political climate, many wonder, whether anything has changed. And yet, fifty years ago, a lecture series in an integrated school being led by a lecturer such as I, an African American woman scientist, would not have existed.

I love science. It is neither pure nor vile. It is something that people do. And we can use our history to be purposeful about creating a caring, attentive, listening experience of science in America. Given our history, I experience pride and shame for our scientific accomplishments. Today I am proud of all the scientists I know who put themselves in a position to be responsive, vulnerable and caring with one another in the midst of their work. These ordinary yet challenging acts create the conditions for science to be a humane endeavor.