The Myth of Diversity and Inclusion in Science

June 1, 2021
Two people look at computerUS Army/army.mil
Dante J. O’Hara
Materials engineer

“Diversity and inclusion” has become a slogan for corporations and institutions to hide the exploitation of their workers by putting Black and brown faces into high leadership positions. As a Black worker in science, this weaponization of “diversity and inclusion” without a substantial systemic change about the global systems of oppression is problematic. 

What does this have to do with scientific research? The US scientific research enterprise is completely intertwined with US global hegemony. The materials that universities purchase, the missions of national laboratories, the grants that scientists write and who funds us (and how), and the equipment that institutions use is all a result of US imperial policy. These policies and practices need to be challenged at every step by the researchers and scientists themselves. The expansion of nuclear weaponry, expansion of US military bases in “strategic” locations throughout the world that are wealthy in resources, imperial economic restrictions causing hunger and death throughout the Global South, and military coups to maintain US military dominance and hegemony throughout the world in order to keep weapons manufacturers and other US companies extremely profitable are made possible through the continued (super)exploitation of Black, indigenous, and scientists of color. 

Scientists are conditioned through diversity initiatives to become complacent with US imperial policy. 

The Diversity Racket”, as Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein so eloquently put it in her article from 2015, is defined by the employment of the corporate-diversity framework as a means to tokenize Black and brown folks. Institutions that cause harm through racist and class exploitative policy avoid making substantive policy changes using “diversity and inclusion” as a shield. Emeritus Professor Angela Y. Davis offered a similar analysis in 2014: 

It is often assumed that diversity is equivalent to the end of racism […] we sought to name the process of moving toward justice and it seems that when the word diversity entered into the frame, it kind of colonized everything else […] sometimes it means to integrate different looking people into a process that remains the same! […] don’t reorganize the exploitative caricature of capitalist production, just make sure that more Black people, more women, and more Latinos can actually profit from that exploitation.

Angela Y. Davis

Furthermore, in Race for Profit, Princeton University professor Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor traces a historical process in which anti-Black exploitation and exclusion shaped the terms upon which those folks (including other people of color) were included on a predatory basis. Diversity and (predatory) inclusion creates a process where Black and Latinx scientists can become leaders within weapons manufacturing companies, leaders within the fossil industry, leaders within the national security apparatus and position themselves as part of the “misleadership” class of folks who have no interest in the liberation of racially and nationally oppressed people. This class of misleaders send the message that younger scientists and engineers “can be like them” and walk on the backs of other workers to advance. Scientists need to struggle against this trap and publicly challenge the influence of monopolists and misleaders. 

There is also the monopolization of scientific research by “non-profit” publishing arms like Elsevier, Science, Nature, Physical Review, etc. and “non-profit” minoritized organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) that reinforce this dynamic. For example, Elsevier makes huge profits off of publishing fees which has led to much criticism from the scientific community and relinquishing of contracts with academic institutions like the University of California in 2019. The same goes for the other major journals mentioned, who combine large publishing fees for open access (yes, scientists need to pay to make their research available to the public), un-democratic selection processes for editorial boards, and lack of representation of research performed by Black and Latinx scientists. Instead of addressing the issues above and being held accountable, they opted to publish a few front page op-eds during the 2020 summer of rebellion which were included in Physics Today, Science and Nature. For NSBE and SWE, US militarism and monopolism dominates their conferences and conventions. A majority of workshops and career fair booths are overwhelmingly representatives of the likes of Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, etc. We should not be putting people through this imperial pipeline. 

Science professionals need to support union organizing and organize into unions themselves. 

Black and Latinx workers remain the most exploited workers within the country with the highest unemployment rates, the largest wage gaps between their white counterparts, and also receive poorer benefits. Science and engineering fields also suffer from these wage gaps. These workers, specifically youth, also suffer from larger sums of student debt with the majority of it held by Black women, which contributes to the lack of access to wealth and resources to live comfortably. Furthermore, academic technicians, lecturers and post-doctoral researchers are extremely underpaid and overworked in order to qualify for tenure-track faculty positions. These workers need good-paying jobs and need to hold leadership within their respective workplaces to make some progress toward closing wage gaps; though, this approach is not enough. 

The intensification of the Cold War and an increase in anti-Communist reaction in the US post World War II led to a fracture in labor militancy and unity among the labor movement. Union membership has declined and wages have stagnated since the 1970s and further austerity has been forced upon the working class. During the same period, “public-private” partnerships became more prominent and scientific researchers at universities looked to private industry for research funding. Where does the majority of this money come from? The military-industrial complex. There has been minimal struggle against this relationship between scientific research and the profiteering of weapons monopolists. Science professionals need to begin organizing into more militant organizations and create independent institutions to fight against this continued entanglement between war profiteers and academic institutions. 

The mainstream scientific enterprise in the United States is for profit and not for human needs. Budget cutting and austerity measures enacted in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan forced scientists to find corporate funders for their research and survival and created a “university-corporate entanglement,” noted by scholar Clifford D. Connor in his book Tragedy of American Science. With budget cuts came a rise in tuition costs and an overall debt-driven predatory system for minoritized students and professionals seeking higher education and research careers. The response from corporations and the academy was to put more Black, Latino, and other underrepresented students into these systems of debt and austerity, create myths around financial planning and literacy in order to blame individuals for their personal hardship, and create a pipeline to flow students of color into violent institutions that cause harm to Black and brown communities in this country and abroad, specifically defense contractors and the national security apparatus. 

This neoliberal austerity and financialization of the economy came amidst the shrinking of an organized US labor force and anti-Communism after World War II. Historically, radical unions since the 1930s have fought for unity among the working class which led to leadership fighting against racism (see International Labor Defense and the Scottsboro Case) and for stronger labor rights. This led to the passage of the Wagner Act, unemployment insurance, and other policies that built the “middle class.” A strong organized labor force may provide a solution to what we find ourselves in today. Workers bargaining for fair contracts to fight wage theft, gender and racial pay gaps, differences in benefits, safety on the job, and for higher pay will benefit the working class as a whole. 

Diversity and inclusion falls short, given the scientific research enterprise’s relationship to corporate management and not being an independent institution for workers to organize and fight for changes. We need to fight for working class leadership, union drives, and build institutions that support working families and fight racism.

Dr. Dante O’Hara is a materials engineer based in Washington, D.C. He graduated from the University of California, Riverside with his Ph. D. in 2019 where his research focused on the development of two-dimensional magnetic materials. Outside of the lab, Dante is an organizer with Science for the People, Debt Collective, National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and is also a member of the National Society of Black Physicists. You can find him on Instagram @dante_ohara and Twitter @DanteOHaraPhD

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