The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Plenary Lecture Examines Ties between Racism and Science

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Scott Auerbach, professor of chemistry and chemical engineering and executive director of the UMass Integrated Concentration in Science program (iCons), delivered the Honors College Plenary Lecture on September 21, 2020. Auerbach’s talk, entitled “Is Racism a Science Problem?”, examined the link between science and racism using empirical and anecdotal evidence.

Auerbach was joined by Roderick Anderson, CEO and co-founder of Elateq, a water purification technology company, and president of the Pioneer Valley Coral & Natural Science Institute (PVCNSI). Anderson, who forewent his PhD studies at UMass to launch PVCNSI, focused his dissertation research as a socio-cultural anthropologist on Afro-American civic leadership, civil society, social movement theory, critical theory, political economy, and the African Diaspora.

Auerbach began the lecture by outlining four main questions he would later address, all of which he affirmatively answered with "yes."

  • Has science contributed to racist thought?

  • Has racism negatively impacted science?

  • Can racism be solved by social science?

  • Can racism be solved by natural science?

Auerbach first classified people into three categories: actively anti-racist, actively racist, and passively racist. Passivism, while not explicitly racist, is what enables systemic and institutional racism to continue to exist. Passive racism largely exists in the form of implicit biases.

Science has historically contributed to racist thought through what is called “scientific racism,” which unequally treats race as if it is based on genetics. Race, as Auerbach addressed, is indeed a social construct stemming from the similarities in gene pools of different races. However, ignoring race as a whole is not the solution, said Anderson. To do so would ignore the social and historical consequences that have created white supremacy and allow contemporary race issues to continue to exist. 

“Gene pools from different races are basically indistinguishable,” said Auerbach. “They are so dramatically overlapping that the take-home message is that race is a social construct. The bottom line is: if you ignore race, you are giving yourself license to ignore racism.”

Anderson drew from personal experience when addressing how racism manifests in scientific research. Part of Anderson’s current work at PVCNSI is studying the structural pieces that reinforce marginalization and white supremacy within entrepreneurship and education, and to support students and researchers who are systemically underrepresented in STEM. Auerbach presented a number of PEW research studies reinforcing the idea that people of color are underrepresented and underpaid in the STEM field.

“There’s a number of daily experiences of racism I’ve witnessed,” Anderson said of his work. “It is really stark at seeing how many people do not see Black and Latinos in the U.S. as so marginalized and discriminated against when it comes to access to strong STEM education.”

Auerbach and Anderson went on to discuss the important social science work of W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois, whom the UMass library is named after, was the first person to apply empirical science to study racism and the first social scientist to study Black Americans during his studies of Black communities in Philadelphia in 1896. Anderson largely drew upon the work of Du Bois as he conducted his own research studies on Black civil society in London and around the United Kingdom.

“Part of the research was on civil society,” said Anderson. “Fraternities, sororities, freemasons, and, particularly, African American freemasons. Historically, those fraternal organizations have had a pivotal role in promoting and creating Black communities, the first freedom schools in Massachusetts, and the first Black banks.”

Auerbach and Anderson also addressed the work of Franz Boas, the founder of modern anthropology, to answer whether racism can be solved through the natural sciences. Boas’ work focused on the importance of cultural behaviorism and the differences in evolution.

Ultimately, racism is not only a science problem, but an "everything problem," concluded Auerbach and Anderson.

“Racism is all hands on deck, no matter what you study,” said Auerbach. “No matter what you look like, no matter what you study, no matter what you do, it’s all hands on deck.”

Auerbach’s inspiration to deliver the lecture largely stemmed from the death of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movements across the country. Since then, Auerbach has done extensive research and readings to move himself away from a passive role and into an actively anti-racist one.

“I was shaken awake,” Auerbach said of the social movements this year. “I realized previously I was ignorant of the nature of systemic racism. Of course, I knew about racism, but I didn’t really know about racism.”

With his newly discovered realizations about the nature of racism, Auerbach’s mission is to bring his knowledge to the iCons program. Students in the past have focused their research on race-related topics, such as Race-Based Medicine.

Anderson’s work at Elateq provides clean water for marginalized communities, with a 90 percent decrease in required energy and 80 percent decrease to operating costs. He hopes to bring Elateq to communities who need it, like Flint, Michigan.

Please visit our Plenary Lecture page to view the entirety of the 2020 Plenary Lecture.