…As the timer for the race to the Moon kept ticking, another major event was unfolding during this period of the 20th century. The civil rights movement had picked up momentum and had started to stir the inequitable, racist status quo of the time. Martin Luther King Jr. was spreading a powerful message of a dream where racial justice was a reality. Much like the dreamers who kept envisioning a landing on the Moon, Dr. King walked on unchartered territory to see his dream (and that of many Americans) come true. However, the steps he had to take wouldn’t lead him into a path as much as a battle field. One that many would have to fight through with tears, bruises, loss, and a determined yet liberating peace of mind to one day see a “… nation that will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed… that all men are created equal”.
Yes, all humans are created equal. We share our humanity, our life experiences. Our horrors and passions. The love we feel for those we care about and the pain that breaks us when they are no longer with us. Our curiosity about the world and the universe of which it’s a part of. From our hopes and dreams down to the electrons, neutrons, and protons that make up the atoms of our existence. We share an evolutionary history that takes us back to our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) and beyond. As Carl Sagan said:
“Some racists still reject the plain testimony written in the DNA that all the races are not only human but nearly indistinguishable…”
Personally, this never ceases to amaze me. How at the very core of each living (and even non-living) entity we are all connected for “we are made of starstuff”. It means that we have more in common than we care to admit. It means that in spite of the social constructs we have decided to build around race, we naturally share far more than what we believe sets us apart.
In late February of this year, we saw a titan of the space era leave this world. The brilliant African American NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson died at age 101, leaving behind a space institution that, without her, would not be where it is today. Her life was drawn to the public eye by the Academy Award nominated film “Hidden Figures”. Many agree that the film does a good job at representing the African American reality of the 1960s (with its usual hints of Hollywood flare) with a particular focus on the Black female workers at NASA (at the time called “human-“ or “Colored-computers”) who undoubtedly helped win the space race. While the movie is great (and having not yet read the book on which it is based), I recommend that everyone read Johnson’s autobiography “Reaching for the Moon”. You don’t just learn about her early life and all the events that led her to NASA, but the crude violent reality and fear imbued struggle that she and millions of others had to face.
“I was Colored. I was female” she said, “but I was good at what I did”. This determination to do the best job she could no doubt came from a sense of purpose which she described all NASA employees possessed, as well as from her ceaseless curiosity. This, along with her work ethic famously earned her the trust of not just her entire White male engineering team, but of astronaut John Glenn who refused to go into orbit unless Johnson verified his flight calculations. But in light of the racial-socio-political reality of the time, this attitude also came with great bravery. In her own way, Johnson questioned the status quo both as a woman and as an African American. Refusing to be reduced to society’s expectations about her skin colour and gender, she always applied what her father instilled upon her as a little girl:
“You are no better than anyone else, and nobody else is better than you.”
Johnson’s many accomplishments, from her work on airplane generated wake turbulence and space flight trajectory calculations for the lunar program, to her later involvement in the Space Shuttle Program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and even a mission to Mars are beyond impressive. This earned her one of the highest honors in the US, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Equally impressive was her constant involvement in promoting women and underrepresented minorities in STEM. Johnson understood and valued the incalculable power of representation.
There are so many more Johnson quotes I want to include in this article that are bold, inspirational, and worthy of mention. However, in the end I decided that this is the one I believe I should share:
“…Colored people never knew when the next incident of racial violence would strike. That fear hung over us like the fear of the Russians hovered over everyone else.”
This refers back to the 1950s when Johnson was in her thirties. I ask you, how much has this really changed? Switch the word “Russians” for “COVID-19” and this could very well be the testament of a Black person today. This quote is horrifyingly timeless and resonates with the following words by Dr. King in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. 1963:
“…quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”
Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis (who recently passed away in mid-July from pancreatic cancer) often described his participation in the pacifist rebellion against the establishment that lay at the cornerstone of the civil rights movement. He would walk into a café patiently and calmly waiting to be served, only to be beaten out of the locale and later incarcerated by the police. He referred to this as “good trouble” and paradoxically pointed out how being taken by the police left him with an uttermost sense of freedom. But that’s just it! Black people today aren’t booking Airbnbs, walking into coffee shops, or strolling down the street to send a message. They are just trying to live their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations, and being shot at for it.
Racism in the US is systemic and permeates through every sector including healthcare, employment, and even education. Just follow #BlackInTheIvory and you will read the heartbreaking truth of undergraduates, graduate students, post-docs, and even professors who have suffered discrimination in their places of study and work. Of all places, education and research institutions, which represent society’s beacons of knowledge, are infested with racism. From microaggressions (under-representation, bias, tokenism, belittling by peers and mentors, stereotyping, cultural appropriation) to full blown racial violence, the worse of it all has been the general turning-a-blind-eye attitude. Diversity and inclusion has often been seen as a topic not worthy of serious discussion in academia (and many other places) or if anything, a way to gain extra points on grant applications. Only recently has the conversation gained the attention it merits after George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, one that includes not just African Americans but also Latinos, Native Americans, Middle Eastern people, and (especially now with the current pandemic) Asians. This is not to say that every white and privileged person in the US is a racist bigot, but showing your anti-racism is just as important as not being racist. Much like you would show and express your support against cancer, we need to become unapologetically anti-racist. Like former US President Barack Obama said at John Lewis’ eulogy:
“If we want our children to grow up in a democracy, not just with elections, but a true democracy. A representative democracy. A big-hearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation then we’re going to have to be a bit more like John… Like John we’ve gotta keep getting into that good trouble.”
On July 30th 2020, NASA launched its Perseverance Rover to the Red Planet. Perseverance is the most technologically advanced mission ever sent to Mars. Its instruments are set to measure a wide array of parameters mainly to determine if there are any remaining signs of ancient life on the planet. Moreover, the data it collects will also be used to help optimize the design for a future human mission to Mars! This entire endeavor is part of an international collaborative effort, comprised of three main missions, the first of which is Perseverance. As we persevere in our quest to become an interplanetary species it is imperative, our duty in fact, that we ask ourselves – What kind of society are we living in currently? How did we get here? What do we want for ourselves and as a whole in the future? And what can we do now to see our vision for a future civilization through?
This is why it’s important to have these difficult conversations. Why better, more proportionate representation is needed. It’s hypocritical that a movie like “Hidden Figures” which speaks to the real struggles of African American women in science was so critically acclaimed, and yet we have done nothing to remedy the problems so clearly represented in the movie. In 39 years, only 22 Black women have earned their PhD in Astronomy and Planetary Sciences. In Physics and Physics related fields, only 100 Black women have earned their PhD in the span of 47 years. The systemic racism that permeates the nation has actively, through the course of history, enforced these patterns as the norm. How can we celebrate the great accomplishments of people like Katherine Johnson if we don’t reflect on the lessons we should learn from to effect change? Instead of tokenizing her life, we need to commit ourselves to making science and education more equitable. So that rather than celebrating the accomplishments of the very few who make it, we can see graduation ceremonies at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels reach all of these underrepresented communities. A few very easy steps to help us get closer to this reality of equitable, anti-racist science include:
1) Reflecting on one’s privilege and biases to better understand the disadvantages of others.
2) Listening to Black scientists and students about what they need rather than assuming you understand their reality and therefore “know” what they need.
3) After listening, be proactive. Ask how you can help and then follow through with it.
4) Be inclusive! Make the workspace a shared space where everyone is and feels welcome. You can’t expect to preach diversity without being inclusive. This is one of the reasons why many Black students drop out of graduate school.
5) Acknowledge the work of Black scientists!
This is also why up and coming fields like intersectional environmentalism are crucial. As I mentioned earlier, Black communities are often the ones who get the shortest end of the stick in almost every sector. This is even more evident during times of crisis. For example, in the health sector, the data already shows that these communities have been the most affected during the current pandemic. Why? Because systemic racism has forced these communities to live in situations where they develop a higher rate of chronic health problems like diabetes, making them more susceptible to the coronavirus. Another example is that of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. An assessment of the damage caused by the hurricane showed that most of the impact had been felt in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Moreover, relief aid was given higher priority in less affected, predominantly White areas. As environmental and racial activist Leah Thomas puts it:
“The systems of oppression that have led to the deaths of so many Black people were the same systems that perpetuated environmental injustice.”
Racial justice is an important issue in its own right. Putting it in the context of space does not deter from its relevance here and now. On the contrary, it adds an extra level of dialogue to it. It goes back to the common question of “why invest in space when there are so many unresolved and more pressing issues down here?”. In this regard, I believe Katherine Johnson said it best:
“Sometimes when people ask me, “What good does it do us to go to space?” In return I often ask them, “Well, what good does it do you to stay home?”.”
There are numerous inventions that we use today that have been either the by-product or direct result of space travel. These include water purification systems, CAT scans, portable computers, freeze dried food, artificial limbs, camera phones, and baby formula, amongst many others. But the most powerful of all discoveries from our space travel history (from the Apollo missions to Voyager, Hubble, and now with Perseverance) has been our collective sense of awe and grand insignificance. Our exploration of the universe has lit up a newly found cosmic perspective inside us. This world view therefore sets the stage for us to really ask ourselves what we can do to make this and future worlds a better place scientifically and humanistically (for they both go hand in hand). We have to start somewhere. The place is planet Earth. The time is now.
“We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.”
– John Lewis
full article in PLASMA 6