Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Science, Race, and Silence

The coverage of the Feb. 12th shootings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville has been preoccupied, by and large, with the accused killer.   There are details about her background, the 1986 shooting of her brother, her training at Harvard, the 1993 investigation of a bomb mailed to a Harvard professor, her research, her publications, her tenure case at UAH, her husband.

And there has been new talk about the usual issues:  The  perpetual vexation about tenure.  The problem of safety on campuses.   The question, now customary, of whether a shooter’s  writing offers any clues to her or his psyche.

But there hasn’t been much discussion about the victims.  Two of the three who were killed, Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel D. Johnson, Sr., were African American professors.  All three of the deceased — the other, Prof. Gopi Podila, was department chair — were known for their support of students, according to obituaries published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.   This in itself is both laudable and rare enough, in a field increasingly driven by the quest for research grants, to deserve mention.  But the sudden death of two science professors who were themselves black Americans and who devoted themselves to educating black students in the sciences is a particularly profound loss to higher education.

That Dr. Ragland Davis was a black woman, one of the rarest of beings in the scientific professoriate, makes the loss particularly poignant.

Statistics are no solace, of course.  But the silence about the loss of two black American professors who died by gunfire is part of the greater, even more stunning, silence about the great many black Americans who die by gunfire every year.

In 2006, the last year for which complete data have been posted by the National Center for Health Statistics (see table 18), 30,896 Americans died by gunshot.  Almost half, 12,791, were murders.  That’s 35 firearm murders per day, on average.   About one every 40 minutes.

Black Americans are over twice as likely to die by gunshot than are white Americans (see table 19 at the link above).  The gunshot death rates are roughly 22 deaths per 100,000 per year and roughly 9 per 100,000 per year, respectively.  Those risks have been remarkably constant, even as deaths from Americans’ main form of deadly mishap, vehicle crashes, have declined.

This is not a plea for gun control.  Better gun control laws would allow a lot of people to live longer, and improve the public’s health — but we hear such pleas every time  a multiple shooting makes the news.  That’s not the point here.

The point is the problem of giving chances to people who haven’t had them.  Or, to put it more bluntly, the point is race.

In particular, the impossibility, still, of talking about how science should be done by people who have not historically been included in shaping it and defining it.  By people other than the ones who, at least until recently, made all the decisions about what’s worth studying and what’s worth changing.  By women, by black Americans, by people who grew up poor, by people who did not attend elite universities on the east coast or in California.

Universities — the elite ones and the many non-elite ones — are indispensable in the endeavor to change science, for all sorts of reasons.  Maybe the best reason is the presence of professors who support and encourage students who aren’t drawn from the usual class of people.

The deaths at UAH should be an occasion for great mourning, not only for professors who died doing their work, but for the project of changing science.  If the silence over the Huntsville victims were the silence of grief, it wouldn’t seem so bad.  But I think it’s the silence of not really caring, or of not wanting to face a shameful truth.  Compared to talking about the links among race, science, and education… well, it’s less taxing to wonder about the shooter’s unpublished novel.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 at 12:48 pm and is filed under News, public health, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

6 Responses to “Science, Race, and Silence”

Anne Fernald says:

Thank you for saying this: I was struck by the race of the vicitms, but didn’t think through the implications at all until I read your post. Shame on me! When I taught at DePauw, I worked actively with a consortium working to bring minorities to liberal arts campuses and saw first hand the tremendous positive impact of a diverse faculty on students–especially in encouraging students of color to pursue higher education. This is such a sad, sad tale. We need to do better.

    Philip Alcabes says:

    Thanks, Anne, for this reminder that there are some universities that are trying hard to open doors. And that it’s not only the sciences that need to find ways to do this.

    The academic endeavor, when it’s earnest, is all about changing old ways of thinking. And that’s good. But we in academia don’t always think about how we can change the cast of characters who are responsible for establishing and further the old ways of thinking.

    I’m glad you’ve joined in here.

DNLee says:

The diversity of the staff did not escape me. That was a very diverse department. I hope to be apart of an academic department where I’m not the only person of color teaching classes. I wish more departments had that much diversity.

Philip Alcabes says:

Readers who aren’t already familiar with DNLee’s Urban Science Adventures site should take a look at her post on this topic, here:

(Thanks to Joanne of Joanne Loves Science,, for introducing me to DNLee’s site!)

DNLee says:

thanks for sharing my link with your readers. In included this post in the Black History Month Edition ofthe Diversity in Science carnival.

Alan Zuckerman says:

It’s highly frustrating and possibly pointless to lament the strangely warped nature of news coverage. Don’t blame the news, but the people who consume it. The so-called “news” is nothing more than a form of entertainment. Entertainment output is constantly tweaked to ensure the maximum size of its consumer groups. Reporting as it exists is merely a reflection of those majorities who prefer it that way. We are not going to vastly change that bell-curve majority’s tastes–ever. For those of us who judge news by its intrinsic relevance, honesty, open-mindedness, accuracy, implicit incorporation of the scientific method, etc., there is always plenty of worthwhile true news to find–We know where it is located, seek it out. and appreciate it. We can do no more than have an impact by means of our own words and, especially, actions. Let’s not waste our energy railing against the news as entertainment industry. It will distract us from more noble causes.