The Myth of "White Science"
with Sylvester Gates
Is science “white”? It’s not surprising that some (or even many) white scientists born in the early part of the twentieth century would believe that black people are inherently incapable of understanding the most complex developments in modern physics. Such attitudes were mistaken, but they were commonplace. The presence of African-descended people at all levels of every STEM field ought to have put this idea to rest. And indeed, most people recognize that a person’s race has nothing to do with their ability to reason.
So it is shocking that today, in the year 2023, the idea that there is something inherently “white” about scientific thinking has reemerged not from within the ranks of some rogue band of racist white physicists but in the attitudes of putatively anti-racist black activists. After all, their thinking goes, if black students are, on the whole, doing poorly on standard measures of scientific acumen, the problem is not that their capacities are not being thoroughly developed. The problem must be with science itself, which carries the taint of racism that was widespread in the Western world at the time. If the scientists were racist, the science must be racist. The shortcomings of reasoning like this should be obvious.
But the notion that there is something inherently “white” about modern science because it was invented by white Europeans is not only logically fallacious, it’s racist! The career of my friend the physicist Sylvester “Jim” Gates—and those of the many, many elite black scientists like him—ought to be enough to demonstrate that there is nothing inherently white about science. As he points out in the following excerpt from our recent conversation, black scientists may still encounter racism today, but there is nothing racial about science itself. The myth of “white science” is now a convenient fiction that allows so-called anti-racists to explain away lagging development in black communities. That this excuse-making is couched in ideas almost identical to the old-fashioned racism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a grim irony indeed.
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GLENN LOURY: Okay, so you're an old head. You've experienced racism or whatever. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I'm interested in your assessment of the contemporary lay of the land, since we do live in the post-racial reckoning era. We live in the era of activism and—
JIM GATES: And counter-activism. Glenn, let's lay it on the table. You know, there's activism and there's counter- or anti-activism, however you wanna phrase it.
Or they say “reaction.” Excuse me for interrupting. I think that's the word: reaction.
Action and reaction, according to Sir Isaac Newton. See, I could tell you were mathematically trained. That's a joke for those listeners who don't get it. We just pulled a joke, a funny y'all. So let me just talk about the first thing. Is there racism in science? The answer, I like to say to people who ask me that question, “Is the sun going to come up tomorrow?” Well, the answer is yes. The sun is gonna come up. And it's not something that people are comfortable talking about. When something's unpleasant, they don't want to be offensive. And because when you offend someone, they close their ears, and then there's no communication going back and forth.
Let me just give you some examples. Glenn, you mentioned I was the president of the American Physical Society in 2021. But back in the 1990s, I was the president of the National Society of Black Physicists. In fact, I'm the only living person I know who's been the president of both of these organizations. So how did the National Society of Black Physicists come about? Well, there was a physicist named William Shockley, whose name I'm sure you recognize.
Oh yeah. Stanford.
Stanford, Nobel laureate. He joined with someone in the social scientists, and they came up with this statement that African Americans are not capable of mentally processing the kinds of things that go on at the very boundaries of science. In fact, Shockley was quite explicit in this. You were going to say something?
No, I was just saying, wow. I mean, think about that for a minute. Think about that claim. African Americans are intrinsically incapable of moving to the frontier of human knowledge about the cosmos? I mean, that's a terrifying thing to have come out of the mouth of a Nobel laureate.
And he laid it out for anyone who wishes to go back and see. He was not shy about telling that story. So when that occurred he—by the way, he was a member of the American Physical Society—there were a few African Americans who were members of the organization, and they went to the leadership and they said, “You know, this is below the values of this organization, and the leadership ought to release some sort of statement.” Nothing was forthcoming.
And so this group, this small group of African American physicists said, “It's clear we must set up an organization. Not to exclude other people, not to exclude other races, but that would advocate for African Americans moving to this frontier that Shockley says we are totally incapable reaching.” And that was the birth of the National Society of Black Physicists. It's always been open to people of all races. It's never been exclusionary. It states in its mission that it exists to promote the welfare of the people of the African diaspora in the discipline of physics. It's just that simple.
So Shockley was Shockley. He was an individual person who had the views that he had, just like [James] Watson had the views that he had.
Do you think there's something systematic or systemic affecting the discipline of physics which was reflected in the fact of Shockley, in the case at hand, saying what he said.
Well, my answer is no. But this is not universally agreed upon, even by people of the African diaspora. There are people who will tell you—people of color—that science and physics are embedded in the way that Europeans think. The science is fatally flawed because it's embedded in that.
And so what I'd like to point out is several things. Yes, it is true that physics in particular is a construction of European males. It starts with Sir Isaac Newton, and it blossoms throughout the last several centuries and is the basis of our bountiful living as humans today. That's a fact. However, when you look at physics, it's also a body of thought and observations and knowledge. And in that body of knowledge, as far as I have experienced over the last 50 years, I do not see how racism is embedded in the body of this work.
Now, a lot of people will disagree with me. And I'd like to say, well, let's look at basketball. Give me the names of the African American athletes who started basketball, who invented basketball. You're grinning because you know the answer is that basketball was invented by a gentleman by the name of James Naismith, who was a European ethnic male. And that doesn't stop African Americans to moving to the forefront and achieving at the highest level. So why should I believe, because something is invented by a particular person or group of people, that that prevents other groups of human beings from excelling and reaching the very outer rims of excellence in those areas?
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Prior to the the transatlantic slave trade and colonization, Europe was in very bad shape: diseases ( bubonic plaque and syphilis) wiping out half it's population, extensive poverty and crime, stagnant mercantile economies, lack of natural resources, and debauchery (priests raping children). The southern antebellum "CRACKER CUTURE" emanated from the old cracture culture in certain parts of North England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland - high level of violence, sexual promiscuity, high illiteracy, etc. Castration was a practice among these people which was inflicted upon Black males during slavery and Jim Crow. Syphilis and smallpox from Europe wiped out indigenous people around the world. There are many extinct Indian tribes throughout the Americas. You're a played out pseudo scientific racist wanting to use this nonsense for half baked social policies. Racism is an economic relationship between groups. It doesn't take a genius to become a millionaire that can hire nerds like you.