When the noted particle theorist Alessandro Strumia gave a talk at CERN near Geneva in 2018, he raised a storm of protest by suggesting that women in his discipline were somehow less capable than men. In response, a collection of physicists who gave themselves the endearing name Particles for Justice came together to issue a statement condemning Strumia’s remarks.
Last week, members of the group (who had remained in close touch after the Strumia incident) had a virtual meeting and decided to mount a light-speed response to the current global wave of pushback against racism following the death of George Floyd. They created the hashtag #Strike4BlackLives and designated Wednesday, June 10, as a day when academics should stop all they are doing—whether it be conducting research, holding seminars or writing papers—to highlight the racism facing Black students and faculty in higher education and throughout society.
The group also aligned with another informal effort—under the hashtags #ShutDownStem and #ShutDownAcademia—that is backing the strike. More than 4,600 people have pledged to participate.
Scientific American spoke with Nausheen Shah, one of the organizers of #Strike4BlackLives. She is a theoretical particle physicist at Wayne State University who does research on the Higgs boson and dark matter.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How did #Strike4BlackLives get started?
Everything that happened during the past few weeks was distressing to say the least. And it kind of brings to a head all of the problems not just in society as a whole but also in academia, which doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The effort [was] spearheaded by Chanda [Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of physics at the University of New Hampshire] and Brian [Nord, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Chicago and an associate scientist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Ill.].
The idea was that there was a need to be doing something other than just organizing seminars and workshops and sitting in the back and saying, “Oh, yes, I attended this diversity and inclusion seminar. So, you know, I’m all done, right?’” But nothing’s really changed.
How did you feel about the response from the institutions to which you are affiliated?
We felt like the responses from our organizations and our institutions and academia were mostly silence. And I’m not picking out any one institution or anything like that. The response was that this is really bad, but what can we do? And Chanda and Brian asked how do we change this inactivity, this passivity.
What are some of the things that a STEM professional should and should not be doing on June 10?
First of all, before anything else, I should say that we are in the middle of a pandemic. And we explicitly say that anybody who is involved in COVID-19 or life-and-death situations should absolutely continue to fulfill their roles as care providers.
The rest of us, the majority of us, are not involved in that kind of thing, I would say. So let me start off talking about Black academics. The burdens of being Black—whether you are in academia, whether you’re an undergraduate student or a faculty member—entail a huge amount of emotional work that you are expected to do. For every diversity and inclusion workshop, one [Black] faculty member might be picked and told to talk to people. That person is also supposed to mentor the minority students. There are a lot of service requirements and emotional involvement, commitment and energy for which the individual is not rewarded in academia.
But if you are Black in academia, you kind of have to do it, because you’re the one who’s suffering—and that’s not fair. Black academics do a disproportionate amount of work to fight what’s going on, because they’re the ones who are affected. It’s like the victims are being asked to fix the problem. That’s not okay.
So we want to say that this is a day of rest for Black academics. They don’t need to be striving anymore. They should not have to suffer again. They should do what needs to be done, what they need to do to take care of themselves. So don’t do your usual stuff. Don’t do your academic research. Don’t read your papers. Get some applause for one day.
How should non-Black people participate?
So for the rest of us, this is a call for individual action to be actively involved in thinking about what you can do, how you can change things. Because, again, the whole thing is you have all of these diversity-inclusive seminars and workshops. And for the most part, we are passive participants.
But that’s not what you do when you attend an academic lecture. I go to a seminar in whatever I’m working on. I listen to a seminar, and then I go follow up on it. We are academics; we’re researchers; we try to find solutions to problems.
So don’t be a passive listener but think about “What can I do? How can I change this and not ask our Black colleagues, ‘What should I do?’” There are thousands of things that have been written by Black people to read.
Do these problems come up more in the physical sciences? And what can be done?
I think that it is particularly true for the physical sciences. But I think it is also prevalent in other academic disciplines. So there are more Black faculty in the humanities, but they’re not anywhere close to where they should be.
You hear this little pipeline story: Black people are not faculty because they weren’t postdocs, because they weren’t graduate students, because they weren’t undergrads, and because of high school—and we can’t do anything about it.
I should say that it’s more than just recruiting more physics students. You have to have in place safeguards—so that if you have incoming students who are Black, you give them the support they need.
As far as June 10, what about financial contributions?
Absolutely. We have resources: links [to other organizations] that we have listed on the resources page for people who feel that they need to be able to donate money. Obviously, it’s a personal question, whether you’re in a position to donate or not. We suggest that maybe you can just donate a day of salary. That’s not that much to ask. Most of us can do that.
Have there been any other shows of support by organizations that are either in the physics community or elsewhere?
ArXiv.org is very supportive, and that’s huge. [The preprint archive will be quiescent for a short period.] The [American Physical Society] has sent out a statement. And the Canadian Association of Physicists also has sent out a statement supporting us. A lot of different department chairs have done the same. I know a lot of different conferences have rescheduled their events, and seminars have been changed.