Beyond Lip Service

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Kenneth ManningIn a speech titled “Science, Edu-cation and Democracy,” delivered at the 1913 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Atlanta and published a month later in Science magazine, J. McKeen Cattell, owner and editor of Science, declared —while arguing for educational opportunities for Blacks — that “There is not a single mulatto who has done creditable scientific work.” This myth was common in the white world of science, which found it easy both to accept and perpetuate the notion that African-Americans had never done any worthwhile scientific work.

Cattell’s type of sweeping generalization about what a race has or has not done in science is rarely, if ever, heard today. The scientific community has, by and large, moved beyond such crude, unsubstantiated myths. The change of attitude first became evident in the 1920s, when research results of African-American scientists began more often to appear alongside their white counterparts in the various professional journals, as Blacks began, in greater numbers, to participate in scientific communities at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and elsewhere. World War II brought further opportunities. At Los Alamos and at the universities and research laboratories involved with the Manhattan Project, many white scientists witnessed for the first time Black scientists joining their community in closer, more integral ways. Blacks who worked together with whites on the atomic bomb included physicists Edwin R. Russell and George W. Reed, as well as the chemists Moddie D. Taylor and the brothers William J. and Lawrence H. Knox.

However, while African-Americans were clearly doing creditable scientific work, they were still not full-fledged members of the scientific community. After the war, African-Americans in science continued their tradition of working at historically Black universities, barred as they were from holding faculty positions at most white research and teaching institutions. This pattern continued through the 1950s, well beyond the legal end to segregation in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. In the early to mid-1960s, additional opportunities began to open up in science. While universities began to admit more African-Americans as undergraduates, some of whom entered scientific fields, the scientific community was mostly a passive beneficiary of these developments. Little, if any, progressive action to integrate Blacks into higher education or to bring them into the mainstream of the scientific enterprise emanated from the professional ranks of science.
Beginning in the early 1970s, American scientists and administrators attempted to increase the number of minorities in science and engineering fields, and intervention programs were initiated to further this mission.

Since the 1970s, scientific organizations, universities and learned societies have opened their membership to include more minorities. Still, the representation of African-Americans in scientific careers hovers around 2 percent. We now realize that there is no quick fix. The systematic and comprehensive development of a scientific legacy for African-Americans will require time and a concerted effort all along the educational pipeline, from preschool through graduate school. 

Universities have a special role to play in bringing Blacks into scientific fields, since these institutions serve as filters for entry into the professional world of science. In order to invigorate initiatives to build and sustain a critical mass of African-American students in science at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, more African-American science and engineering faculty need to be recruited. Since recruitment efforts for such faculty are often driven by central-office administrators with less than enthusiastic support from faculty, these efforts are frequently doomed from the start because they create tensions between faculty prerogatives and administrative goals. Because appointment, promotion, and tenure are faculty matters, an increased presence of African-Americans and other minorities in academic departments depends principally on decisions made by majority faculty. Science faculty members must, therefore, be convinced of the appropriateness and rich advantages of bringing into their fields members who are not necessarily reflections of themselves. The efforts of individual scientists, universities and professionals are essential if we are to approach the 21st century with any hope of creating a diverse scientific community. Increasing diversity will require time and commitment beyond lip service, and courage in the face of political detractors.    

Kenneth R. Manning, Ph.D., is Thomas Meloy Professor of History of Science & Biography, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The above is an edited excerpt of his 1998 essay, “Science and Opportunity.”