This week revealed the deep failure of our nation to acknowledge how racism shapes our world, our nation, our institutions, and our relationships. SF State’s mission includes an “unwavering commitment to social justice,” and the EOS Center’s mission includes commitments to environmental justice and educational equity. We will not be silent.
George Floyd, Breonna Tayler, and Ahmaud Arbery are only a few of the many Black people who have been killed, murdered, injured, traumatized, or made ill by systemic racism. Racism impacts the lives of Black people every day, in many ways, and not only when courageous people record violent, murderous acts for all to see. We stand in solidarity with demands for change. Black Lives Matter.
When I learned that Christian Cooper had been falsely accused of a crime by a White woman, Amy Cooper, when he was birding while Black in the Ramble of Central Park, I was quickly reminded of my own racist upbringing and the traumas faced by Black environmental and ocean science students. As a young girl I first learned birdwatching in Central Park, in the Ramble, during an organized nature walk. I was amazed to find this hidden patch of wild nature in the middle of New York City. My mother was horrified. She immediately forbade me from going to the Ramble ever again – the Ramble was where Black men hooked up and raped White girls. Racism is learned.
We hear about some of the traumas Black students bear, not only when they head to field sites to do science, but also during the most mundane of daily activities. When a Black student walks along a dock during an early morning low tide to conduct a survey of invasive marine species, and someone calls the cops on them because they are perceived as suspicious. Or when a Black student gets stopped by the police riding their bike into town and their backpack is searched, while White bike riders continue unimpeded. Black students experience racism.
It is no secret to those of us working in the ocean sciences that we are much whiter than the US population. In 2016, underrepresented minorities made up 31% of the US population but only 4 % of the PhDs conferred in the ocean sciences – the lowest representation in the geosciences, and of all STEM fields. For Black people, the numbers are even more scathing: 0% of PhDs compared to 12% of the US population. This is not because Black people are not interested in the ocean or ocean science careers. There has been no progress in diversifying who becomes a marine scientist for 40 years.
We must work together to change our institutions, our interpersonal relationships, and our own minds to heal from the cancer of racism. Black students should be able to study enter all careers without the extra burdens of racism. Nature, the ocean, and the planet are gifts for all humanity to enjoy, to sustain us, and to care for. Race should not limit the careers Black students can purse.
This week we focus on sharing resources to learn about racism and anti-racism, and opportunities to listen to and elevate the voices of Black scientists. We will continue to share anti-racism resources here. I am taking more time to listen and learn and act. I invite you to do the same. Dismantling systemic racism is not a “one and done” checkbox on your to do list. Listen, learn, and reset your compass to build an anti-racist future.
Karina J. Nielsen
Executive Director Estuary & Ocean Science Center