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.