Scientists Around the World Took a Day Off to Protest Systemic Racism

By Shani Saxon Jun 11, 2020

Thousands of scientists around the world took a day off from their jobs on Wednesday (June 10) in protest of “anti-black racism in the world of research,” Wired reports. The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25 sparked worldwide protests against racial profiling and police brutality. These protests have driven millions “into a reckoning with the racist systems that they participate in and benefit from,” according to Wired. Black scientists and their supporters didn’t take this wakeup call lightly. 

Brittany Kamai, an astrophysicist with a joint appointment at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Caltech, spoke to Wired about her initial reaction to seeing corporations post statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement on social media. “We saw those and thought, ‘We don’t need your solidarity,” she said. “We need your actions.”

Kamai was moved to help organize “Shut Down STEM to Strike for Black Lives, a call for researchers to stop their work and spend [June 10] learning about how systemic racism functions in their fields and at their institutions, and then to draft plans for eradicating those inequalities. According to Wired, the event was coordinated by a "diverse coalition of scientists using the hashtags #Strike4BlackLives, #ShutDownSTEM, #ShutDownAcademia, and #VSVillage. It is aimed at people who are not working directly on critical, COVID-19-related research."

Kamai urgently pointed out to Wired that scientists have a responsibility to take a stand, especially because their work can be used to intentionally harm the Black community. For example, as Colorlines previously reported, “civil rights advocates have long criticized the use of facial recognition [technology] because of its ability to quietly track large portions of communities of color.”

“In both academia and STEM, we make enormous contributions to society in the form of research papers, books, and technology,” Kamai told Wired. “The root of the problem is anti-black racism, which shows up in all of its manifestations. This includes perpetuating racist narratives that lead to murders of black lives and is perpetuated within STEM and academia. With this day of action, we’re bringing that protest into our digital streets.” 

Kamai organized quickly. According to Wired:

The event materialized in little more than a week. On June 1, after a weekend of nonstop, televised police-on-protester violence, Kamai was texting, Slacking, and emailing with an informal group of physicists, astronomers, biologists, and diversity and inclusion experts about what they could be doing to connect the dots between racism in policing and in science. One of them was Brian Nord, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago with whom she had worked at Fermilab when she was a grad student. Meanwhile, Nord was having the same discussion with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire, and other members of Particles for Justice, a group of particle physicists that banded together in 2018 to denounce structural sexism in their field.

Together, they teamed up with VanguardSTEM—an online platform that hosts conversations with women of color in STEM—to put out a call to action. By Friday, the organizers behind #ShutdownSTEM and #ShutdownAcademia had launched a website with a request for scientists to cancel any experiments, classes, or work-related meetings planned for June 10 and details about how to participate. The same day, Particles for Justice released a similar request and invited other scientists to join by pledging to #Strike4BlackLives. As of Tuesday night, more than 4,000 people had signed, representing scientists on every inhabited continent.

Organizers of the day of protest hope that non-Black scientists took the day to learn and figure ways they can personally uplift Black voices, Wired reports. For Black academics, they hope they were able to “take a break from the demands of being a black scholar—to relax, recharge, grieve, whatever they need—without publishing deadlines and teaching hanging over them,” according to Wired. 

“Giving concrete actions that people can do really has seemed to help guide people to channel their energy to make a difference,” said Tien-Tien Yu, a physicist and a member of Particles for Justice to Wired. “For a while, I’ve been the annoying person in my department trying to hold people accountable, to no effect, so it’s been encouraging to see my colleagues start backing me up and now people pledging across different fields—it’s just snowballing in a way we never expected,” she added.