Anti-Black racism in policing: what's it got to do with physics?

posted by Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer, Western Washington University on

Content warning: anti-Black violence and death.


Below, I share a slightly edited version of an essay I wrote last February for students enrolled in a class called Matter & Energy in Physical Systems. I wrote the essay for Black History Month as a way to hold myself accountable to my own self-education about Black history. I shared this and other essays with the students I was teaching as part of an overall strategy of incorporating the people and history of physics into formal undergraduate physics education.

I’m posting this essay on the PERC 20/20 blog in response to the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade by current or former police officers. People across the nation mourn and organize publicly and privately. Meanwhile, the president of the United States has threatened to use the military to kill Black protestors, using a racist dog whistle and quoting a racist police chief in the process.

This is a terrifying, dangerous, and heartbreaking time in the United States. Amidst the pain, fear, and heartache, it is important to remember that PER is interconnected with the realities of racism in policing. In this essay, I emphasize that interconnectedness by compiling writing done by individuals and groups in physics and astronomy.

Anti-Black racism in policing

The goal of this essay is to explore the impacts of anti-Black police practices on the physics and astronomy communities. As a first step, I think it will be useful to comment on the reality of ongoing and systemic anti-Black racism in policing.

Anti-Blackness in policing is well-documented and has historical precedent. The US Department of Justice has recently reported on systemic racism and unconstitutional use of lethal force in the Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson police departments, and it described the level of force used by police officers in Cleveland as "chaotic and dangerous." Moreover, according to a 2015 FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide, "domestic terrorism investigations [by the FBI] focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often have identified active links to law enforcement officers." (emphasis added). Similarly, in 2006, the FBI released a bulletin called "White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement."

Alarming as they may be, the DOJ and FBI reports of racism in policing are unsurprisingly consistent with historical reality that, in the United States, slave patrols were a precursor to police. Consider a more recent example: the federal government's "war on drugs," a campaign responsible for skyrocketing increases in the number of people (disproportionately Black) incarcerated in the United States. The war on drugs was initiated by President Nixon in the 1970s and exacerbated by President Clinton in the 1990s, and it was rooted in anti-Blackness from the start: John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy advisor, told Harper's Magazine that

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Thus, anti-Black racism in policing is neither new nor accidental.

#BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName

Anti-Black police violence undergoes waves of attention by popular news media, and reports typically focus on the experiences of Black men. In response to these trends, Kimberlé Crenshaw urges us to remember that "police violence against black women is very real. The level of violence that black women face is such that it's not surprising that some of them do not survive their encounters with police." (The Urgency of Intersectionality, TEDWomen; 2016). Moreover, according to the 2015 US Transgender Survey Report, trans people experience "high levels of mistreatment and harassment by police," and negative experiences are particularly common among Black trans women.

Within the last decade, multiple movements have taken shape to raise awareness of systemic racism in policing and advocate for reform. In 2013, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi started the #BlackLivesMatter movement in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer, George Zimmerman. Since then, the movement has expanded into a global "chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes." (Note: there is a #BlackLivesMatter chapter in Bellingham.)

In 2014, the African American Policy Forum ( rolled out the #SayHerName campaign in response to the unjust police killings of Gabriella Nevarez, Aura Rosser, Michelle Cusseaux, Tanisha Anderson, and other Black women. #SayHerName is "a movement that calls attention to police violence against Black women, girls and femmes, and demands that their stories be integrated into calls for justice, policy responses to police violence, and media representations of police brutality."

By focusing on #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName, I don't mean to imply that resistance to anti-Black racism in policing began only recently. Indeed, because modern policing is rooted in slave patrols, the history of resistance includes historical figures and networks like Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad as well as present-day scholars and movements like Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Prison Abolition.

The histories and movements described above inform the sociopolitical context in which physics is embedded. Put another way, physics is not isolated from issues of police violence. In fact, individuals and groups within the physics community have responded to this issue in a variety of ways.

Police violence and physics

The fatal police shooting of Tamir Rice (a 12 year old boy) received major news coverage, as did the shootings of Alton Sterling (37 years old) and Philando Castile (32 years old). Videos of all three shootings were widely circulated in news and social media. The fatal police shootings of Aiyana Jones (a 7 year old girl) and Rekia Boyd (22 years old) received less attention, but were no less devastating.

In the physics and astronomy communities, the shootings elicited responses from individuals, groups, and organizations.

Response from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

In 2017, theoretical physicist and feminist theorist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein wrote a poignant and unfinished essay called, "What is the plan for including Tamir Rice in #STEM?" From her essay:

I learned recently that the American Geophysical Union believes that stating that #BlackLivesMatter is outside their purview, but also they want us to know that they are committed to inclusion.

So, I have a question: what is the plan for including Tamir Rice in STEM? Are they aware that it is hard for dead Black children to become scientists? Are they aware that it is hard for Philando Castile to encourage his daughter to become a scientist? Are they aware that Alton Sterling’s children no longer have a father to help pay for the books that might open their minds to science?

. . . [C]an we bring back Aiyana Stanley-Jones, who was shot because she was Black and seven years old and sleeping in her bed at home?

Also, how about Rekiya Boyd? It might be that she was going to take a physics class one day that would change her life. And maybe then she would have changed ours.

. . . Let’s be real though. These professional societies don’t have a plan for including Tamir Rice or Aiyana Stanley-Jones in STEM, and I don’t either because they’re dead. They were murdered by police officers who faced no serious legal repercussions for killing Black children because to the system, to you who refuses to oppose it, their lives were nothing but the smudges of a pathetic second class of post-slaves that you call African-Americans, because you’re polite.

. . . The only plan to include me in STEM is the one that looks past the living and speaks to the dead and says we are going to mourn for you and fight like hell for those you left behind.

Responses from members of professional committees

In 2016, the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile provided the impetus for two statements from members of professional committees. First, members of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA) wrote a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. The statement was co-signed by members of the AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA) and the AAS Working Group on Accessibility and Disability (WGAD). From the statement:

The recent extrajudicial killings of two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, by the police have shocked, disturbed, and frightened many of us today. We express our unequivocal repulsion to these acts, which are just one manifestation of the underlying systemic racism in our country. These events affect our community directly. Many Black astronomers in this country, especially those in junior positions, are suffering at this moment. We encourage all of you to be mindful as you reach out to our fellow Black astronomers, and be present with them during these difficult times. The undersigned reaffirm our commitment to ensure the inclusion, support, and safety of every Black person in astronomy.

Black Lives Matter!

Next, members of the American Physical Society (APS) Committee on Minorities (COM) and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Committee on Diversity (COD) jointly wrote a statement in support of Black Lives Matter:

These events [the shootings of Sterling and Castile, and the fatal shooting of 5 officers at a Dallas protest] affect the physics community. Safety, justice, and equality underlie our ability to succeed at all endeavors, including physics. Systemic racism exists. Systemic racism exists in physics. And we all must work tirelessly to challenge the structures that allow it to exist.

The APS COM and AAPT COD are dedicated to building a community where people of color can learn and practice physics free from racial harassment, bias, and fear. We are alarmingly far from this goal and we call on the entire physics community to join us in making this endeavor a reality. One way to move toward this goal is to engage in self-education and anti-racism training to build understanding in the ways that power structures combine with bias and racism to differentially impact physicists of color. This understanding is critical to our ability to affect change. We must create a climate that encourages and supports people of color in their pursuit of physics and physics careers.

The undersigned affirm our commitment that Black lives matter and that racial justice matters, in our society and in the physics community.

Importantly, neither of the statements by members of AAS CSMA, APS COM, and AAPT COD were official statements from the professional societies themselves. Indeed, it took about a year of coordinated internal and external pressure before the American Physical Society released a statement about systemic racial violence.

Response from the American Physical Society

With 50,000 members, the American Physical Society is the largest professional physics organization in North America, and I think it is the second largest in the world. Shortly after the release of an unofficial statement in support of #BlackLivesMatter by members of the APS Committee on Minorities, pressure began mounting for an official statement from APS. While members of COM coordinated internally with key decision-makers in APS, a group of white queer and trans people (mostly women) wrote and circulated an open letter outlining the realities and dangers of systemic racism in policing and its impacts on the physics community. Some of the authors of the open letter consulted with Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and members of COM to ensure that the content and purpose of the letter were appropriate. Ultimately, hundreds of physicists co-signed the open letter.

Finally, on April 23, 2017, the American Physical Society released an APS Board Statement on Racial Violence:

Physics flourishes best when physicists can work in an environment of safety, justice, and equity. Therefore, all of us must work vigorously against systemic racism and to overcome implicit biases. The Board of the American Physical Society believes that it is timely to reaffirm the importance of building a diverse and inclusive physics community, as expressed in the APS Joint Diversity Statement (Human Rights 08.2). The Board expresses deep concern over incidents of racially biased violence and threats of violence against people of color.

Racial profiling and physics

In the United States, white civilians too often use calls to the police as a way to harass Black people. In the context of multiple DOJ and FBI reports noting systemic racism in police departments, such calls carry the threat of violence. Moreover, they reinforce the racist idea that Black people are criminals who do not belong in particular spaces, including college campuses and other places where physics and astronomy research happen. Thus, the phenomenon of white people using the police to harass Black people has an obvious impact on the ability of Black physicists and astronomers to carry out their work.

Response from Simone Hyater-Adams

About a year ago, in January 2019, Simone Hyater-Adams was interviewed by Filling Space about her research on Racial Identity and Physics. When asked about forms of bias, Dr. Hyater Adams's response included recounting an episode when police were called on a student of color at her university:

A pattern of bias that can (and has) impacted physicists and physics departments is the pattern of calling the police on innocent people of color. This year, I witnessed this in my own department when a student of color was seen as “suspicious” while they were in the physics building after hours. The police were called on the student and while in this instance he was not harmed to my knowledge, there is national data and countless examples in the media that show how easily such an encounter between the police and a person of color can escalate to death. In addition, the professor who was involved sent an email to the department lists warning others about this student, and included a non-consensual photo of the student. Our department’s response was to reassure the person who called the police that they had done nothing wrong, instead of acknowledging the harm that they caused and the potential danger they put this student in. The department’s inability to publicly respond to the incident and the email had two big consequences: (1) it communicated that students of color are not seen as normal or innocent bodies in that space and therefore look suspicious; and (2) it caused this student to leave the department.

Silence from department faculty, administration, and staff in moments of injustice communicates that discrimination through people’s actions as well as department and university policy are welcome in your space. These messages contribute to why students of color, and of other marginalized identities, decide to leave the field.

Response from astronomers

In 2018, members of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA) wrote a Statement Against the Policing of Black and Indigenous Students:

We bring to your attention a string of recent incidents involving Black and Indigenous students being racially profiled on university campuses in the United States. We urge you to reaffirm your commitment to the safety of Black and Indigenous astronomers, and especially students, within your institutions.

. . . Make no mistake, these incidents do not happen in a vacuum, but are the continuation of centuries of systemic racism and over-policing of communities of color, and the over-surveillance of Black and Indigenous bodies in predominantly-white spaces.

As summer arrives, new Black and Indigenous students prepare themselves to move to new settings, either to join graduate or REU [Research Experiences for Undergraduates] programs. The signatories urge you to step up your commitment to their safety. A few recommendations for white colleagues include:

    • Recognize that it is your duty to ensure that Black and Indigenous members of your scientific communities feel safe, protected and included - and take immediate action to protect them.
    • Have conversations in your departments and research groups about the implications of white folks calling the police on people of color, which may result in their incarceration and violent (often lethal) action against them.

Response from physics education researchers of color

Beginning in 2017, physics education researchers of color created a discussion space for people of color at the annual Physics Education Research Conference (PERC). Last summer, members of that space wrote a document Emerging Reflections from the People of Color (POC) at PERC Discussion Space. One of the sections of this document focuses on "Dealing with Racism in General Society." Graduate student Brian Zamarripa Roman was the lead on this section, which includes the following excerpt:

These incidents [incidents of interpersonal racism that sometimes result in calling police or other authorities] occur in general society and new incidents occur daily; thus, they are not only a possibility, but a reality during conferences. POC in the discussion space have been detained, handcuffed, and had their citizenship questioned by local law enforcement when walking back to their Airbnb. Others have also been questioned by hotel staff about their guest status during conferences on various occasions and conference locations. Individuals in the space have also been pulled over by police in their Uber on their way to restaurants at night and accused of drunk driving due to the driver having a non English accent. A large group of POC were kicked out of a bar after a minimal altercation with one of the individuals, while the white perpetrator was allowed to remain in the premises. Additionally, the AAPT conference in Texas raised serious concerns regarding the possibility of POC being interrogated and detained. These incidents were the ones willingly shared by POC in the space, however it is likely other traumatic racist experiences have occurred that were not brought to light. These experiences, as well as those happening in general society, lead to POC in PER becoming hyper aware of potential racist incidents and carrying a burden that their white counterparts may not be aware of.

AAPT is an organization that promotes and encourages diversity and the Physics Education Research Community should endeavor to support diversity. As a starting point, the community should be aware of the triad of agents (businesses, individuals, and authorities) that potentially perpetuate racism and the ways they interact with POC who are AAPT attendees.

Concluding thoughts

To learn Black Physics History is to learn the history of police brutality and racial profiling by civilians and authorities alike as they apply to Black physicists and astronomers, including colleges students as well as children like Tamir Rice and Aiyana Jones who will never have the option of considering a physics major. This is history is heartbreaking, and I am grateful to Black women like Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and Simone Hyater-Adams who have vulnerably and publicly spoken up about their experiences and views.

This is the first time I've compiled so much previous writing about racist police practices in one place. For me, my next steps include re-reading the various resources and recommendations, and thinking about which steps I could take locally as an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and which steps I could take as an active member of multiple professional physics organizations.

Tags: racism  anti-blackness  policing  physics  astronomy  aapt  aas  aps  

-- Dimitri R. Dounas-Frazer, Ph.D. (he/him) Assistant Professor Physics & Astronomy Department Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Program Western Washington University

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