A Black Life in Physics

By George Campbell Jr.

In 1876, Edward Bouchet received a PhD in physics from Yale University. Just two years earlier, he had graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa, also from Yale, with a bachelor’s degree in physics. His remarkable academic success and substantial early contributions to research as a graduate student suggested a promising future in physics. Except for one thing. Edward Bouchet was Black. Bouchet’s doctorate was, in fact, the first-ever PhD awarded to an African American by an American university in any field. Initially intent on a research career after graduation, Bouchet could find a job only at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. At the pinnacle of his career, his last job, he served as principal of a high school in Ohio [1].

The tragic story of Edward Bouchet’s life is not a surprise to anyone familiar with American history. It is, nevertheless, noteworthy that physics was the first profession to allow penetration of the previously impervious barrier to education for Black people. This was just before the dawn of the twentieth century when the development of relativity and quantum mechanics, fundamental breakthroughs in physics, created an authentic Kuhnian paradigm shift. Physicists in this emerging era of enlightenment were steeped in the pursuit of objective truth. It might, therefore, have been natural at that time to anticipate a leadership role for physics in breaking down the irrational, obsessive American practice of racial exclusion.

George Campbell Jr.

George Campbell Jr.

It was not to be. In fact, a half century later, the decidedly unscientific voice of William Shockley, a Bell Labs physicist who had shared the Nobel Prize for the invention of the transistor, used his prestigious, highly visible platform to promote a thinly veiled hypothesis of white supremacy. From the day that Bouchet received his PhD almost a full century would go by—coincidentally, until the time I was in graduate school—before the doors to an advanced physics degree and to a career in physics would slowly begin to creak open. While I was a graduate student, the average annual number of physics doctorates received by African Americans in the United States was seven out of a total of about 1,000 awarded. During the more than 40 years since, considerable resources spent by private philanthropy, the National Science Foundation, the National Academies, Congress and others have been devoted to improving access to education and careers in science for minorities. Most of the resources were distributed to a multitude of colleges, universities, and a cottage industry of minority programs. The undertakings have been piecemeal, uncoordinated, incoherent; and no one entity has ever had enough resources to move the needle alone.

A substantial fraction of the finances was dedicated to conducting studies aimed at determining the best strategies and corrective measures, deciphering what the data tells us, uncovering what works and what doesn’t. There now have been enough studies to populate a moderately sized library. I have frequently suggested to funding sources that current resources would better serve the goal of equity if they were devoted to taking action based on knowledge we have already accumulated. In the annals of education research we have copious examples of successful practices and strategies to overcome the gaps in educational opportunities and professional development of minorities. NACME, Inc., the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, which I had the honor of leading during the 1990s, is a non-profit organization that began at the National Academy of Engineering in 1971 to address the underrepresentation of minorities in engineering. It was funded by a coalition of private philanthropy, led by the Sloan Foundation and the nation’s largest technology-intensive corporations. Its board was comprised of Chief Executive Officers of those corporations, several university presidents and president of the National Academy of Engineering. Over the years, NACME conducted several financial studies, yielding compelling recommendations and outlining the amount of financial programmatic resources required to achieve equity. Collective funding from all sources to all relevant programs has never reached more than 20 percent of what was recommended. Of course, with a serious commitment to the mission, the founding organizations could easily have fully supported the effort.

While in some disciplines, there has been measurable, though marginal progress, the bottom line in physics is that in 2017, the number of PhDs awarded to African Americans in the US was 14 out of 2,000, the identical proportion as in the 1970s. We have made virtually no progress toward racial inclusiveness over the last half century. We have not embraced the considerable talents, creative energy, and abilities underrepresented and underdeveloped in the field. Rectifying this historical pattern would substantially enhance and enrich scientific advancement in this country. Resounding studies have shown that diverse groups of professionals devoid of racial hang-ups working in collaboration have considerably higher performance potential than heterogeneous groups [2].

Over the course of my career at one time or another, I have been intensely engaged with the entire educational pipeline. I have worked both in academia and industry, and in what follows, I will share some of the insights I have gained into what strategies are effective in eliminating impediments to education and career advancement in the sciences for African Americans.

The Corporate Sector

During my early physics career at Bell Laboratories, I suggested to a colleague, another distinguished Nobel Laureate—not of the Shockley disposition, but a very thoughtful physicist who cared about issues of equity—that the company should be putting a greater effort into identifying, recruiting, and hiring Black physicists. His very sincere response was, “Anybody in the country who is capable of doing what we do here at Bell Labs is bound to eventually come to our attention, so we don’t have to go out beating the bushes.” What he was missing was that the opportunities for young Black scientists to demonstrate their capabilities both as students and as professionals were extremely limited as a consequence of the still-prevalent social structures encumbered by racial bias. To be fair, Bell Laboratories did have among the nation’s most successful scholarship and fellowship programs in the sciences—essentially growing our own—and at one time employed almost one half of all Black PhD physicists in the United States. Equally important, Bell Labs was a pioneer in developing and delivering innovative, hard-hitting programs to educate managers about cultural and structural biases inherited from centuries of ill treatment of Black people.

One such program that began in the 1970s was called the Urban Minorities Workshop. After going through a developmental phase, the top executives at Bell Labs went through the Workshop and decided to make it a requirement for all new managers. The one-week Workshop thoroughly immersed participants in the Black experience. There were tours of depressed Black neighborhoods in Newark, NJ and visits with civil rights and other community organizations. More importantly, the Workshop confronted participants with their conscious and unconscious biases, latent and overt racial attitudes and learned instinctive assumptions and behaviors toward Black people.

Most white managers came into the program with little or no experience interacting with African Americans either socially or professionally, without having ever given much thought to racial issues and largely ignorant of America’s history of oppressive treatment of African Americans. This was not surprising. Very few Americans then and now were well educated with respect to the history of the African American experience in the United States. It remains virtually impossible to this day to find a public or private school K-12 curriculum that includes more than a perfunctory mention of slavery or any mention whatsoever of its successor policies and outcomes—Jim Crow laws legalizing segregation, de facto legalized lynching, voter suppression, mass incarceration, economic inequities, wealth disparities and daily mistreatment, racial discrimination and systemic police brutality against African Americans. Few, if any, had any inkling of how different the Black experience is from other ethnic groups in the United States.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a senior executive of AT&T in the 1970s, during my time at Bell Laboratories. I recounted a then-recent experience with the police, when two officers accosted me on my front lawn, with guns in my face. I was apparently “suspicious” to them while immersed in and tending to my shrubs. The executive’s honest and understandably incredulous reply was, “Surely you weren’t concerned for your safety in the moment. After all, they were police officers holding the guns!” For him, it was unfathomable that a police officer might have posed a danger to an innocent person. This had to be an example of a simple mistake that had nothing to do with race, a “single isolated incidence.”

Beyond the anecdotal, it would have been rare for any of the Bell Labs managers to encounter any rigorous historical academic treatment of these matters. In any case, the managers universally rejected responsibility for America’s history of oppressive policies. After all, they had taken no part in slavery, in lynching or other such practices. Up to that point, they had undergone no conscious intellectual engagement with the benefits of what we now call white privilege, which the Urban Minorities Workshop brought to the fore. Led by three young Black urban professionals, the program was raw, hard-hitting, contentious, dissonant. Black managers, too, were not spared confrontation in the Workshop. They, too, were prodded over lifestyles that afforded them, at least in part, those privileges conferred by economic class not available to the majority of African Americans.

After several years, there had developed a critical mass of white managers who had been outraged by the Urban Minorities Workshop experience, and who petitioned the company to eliminate it. They felt ambushed, coerced, abused, and belittled in the program. To some extent that was part of the design—to expose them briefly to the ignominies that are all too common for Black people. Admittedly, a less caustic, more amiable approach may have found greater acceptance. However, the managers’ rebellion was also consistent with a long-standing American pattern of resistance to the nation’s history with respect to race, a resistance to change. Ultimately, under threat of legal action, the company capitulated and abandoned the Workshop. Nevertheless, throughout the corporate sector, the need remained for a rigorous program to educate the workforce about the history of racism and their own, perhaps passive, role in its perpetuation.

In a broader context, for scientists—or indeed any professional—to flourish, whether in corporate America or in academia, it’s important to know the unwritten, often socially constructed, rules and processes that underpin success. And for Black scientists, it’s important to understand that the rules are different for them relative to their white peers, in much the same way that the criminal justice system works differently for Blacks relative to white citizens. The presumption of innocence does not work the same way. Mistakes are weighed more heavily. Forgiveness is nonexistent. Just as decisiveness among women can be regarded as vitriolic, brilliance among Black scientists can be interpreted as arrogance. Isabel Wilkerson describes these rules as “a subconscious code of instructions for maintaining a 400-year-old social order” [3].

Over the years, I’ve often been called upon to investigate specific issues of diversity at a variety of technology based or research-intensive corporations and institutions: hiring practices, performance evaluation fairness, promotion outcomes, incidences of overt discrimination, cultural biases, etc. One detailed longitudinal study of an annual review process uncovered particularly interesting insights. It’s worth noting that the specific company’s process was, on the surface, exceptionally rigorous, objective, and fair. The contributions of each member of the scientific staff was discussed in detail with input from a range of managers beyond the direct supervision. An immediate observation was that there was a marked difference in the first projects approved or assigned to the new Black scientist relative to peers with virtually identical academic backgrounds, reflecting a clear difference in expectations or level of confidence.

The conduct of science is inherently collaborative, but ignoring the possibility of overt racism, there is an enduring discomfort interacting across ethnic boundaries. Consequently, white managers, perhaps unconsciously, were often not forthcoming in communicating crucial information to Black scientists. Beyond inhibiting the work, this substantially impacted the extent to which those scientists acquired knowledge of the company’s unwritten rules, strategic objectives, policies, and practices. Supervisors, too, were less candid in communicating performance rankings, whether positive or negative. Informal mentoring was less available to the Black scientist. While risk-taking and creativity are nurtured in a healthy scientific culture, risk aversion is almost necessary for Black scientists to survive. The evidence demonstrates that, for them, deviation from the norm is less acceptable by their managers, and a failed project is virtually impossible to overcome.

Later in the Black scientists’ career, whatever exceptional performance and expertise they have achieved, when entering a new environment, a new organization, they must over and over again re-earn the reputation, the respect and acknowledgement even of competency that routinely accrues to high achieving scientists of other ethnicities. As a manager or leader, climbing the career ladder, Black scientists encounter the, often unconscious, psychological resistance to his or her leadership. This leads to behaviors that undermine or outright sabotage their decisions and their success. The Black scientist is subjected to the invisibility and ever present microaggressions that are well-documented throughout the literature on race relations. A quote from Toni Morrison captures one consequence of racism on the professional:

…the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. [4]

The ultimate outcome I found in studying the annual review process was, for white scientists, the usual normal distribution. Black scientists, on the other hand, exhibited a distinctively bifurcated distribution, with one mean at the low end of the overall distribution and the other mean at the very high end. After much sifting of the data, enhanced by personal interviews with managers, it became clear that the Black scientist who did not quickly get anointed as a superstar entered a rapidly spiraling decline. The non-superstar Black scientist did not get well supported financially and otherwise, did not get opportunities to work on high profile, high visibility projects, did not get access to leadership in the company. Settling in the middle of the rankings was not a possibility.

Academia

Access to a physics career begins well before college with considerably greater preparation and prerequisite courses than for most other disciplines. For the typical Black precollege student in this country, this presents a considerable access barrier. It is well known that public schools in Black communities typically are woefully deficient in science and mathematics. In the small proportion of high schools in those communities that offer college preparatory mathematics and science courses, those who teach them frequently do not have even the minimum qualifications to carry out their assignments.

Looking at the pipeline from a broad perspective, we can incontrovertibly assume that among the approximately two million African Americans in underperforming high schools there are thousands of students who would have exceptional potential, if only given the necessary educational opportunity. NACME programs during the 1990s developed highly successful methods for identifying those high potential students, ignoring traditional measures. We know, for example, that measures, such as standardized tests, are artificial, largely reflective of family income and educational experience. The programs also demonstrated that intervention, exposing these students to exciting ideas in physics, providing intense accelerated college preparation in the mathematics and science “gatekeeper courses” can overcome the gaps in their earlier educational experience. Adequate financial support for college is also essential. The NACME program that took on students with triple digit combined SAT scores and marginal GPAs produced graduates from top ranked engineering colleges with 3.5 to 4.0 GPAs.

Throughout the academic pipeline, from precollege student through professional academic careers, Blacks have experiences similar to those discussed above in corporations. Assumptions about academic potential are made about students based on the color of their skin. At a prestigious private school, in eighth grade, my oldest son was placed in the lowest level mathematics course offered, despite having been selected through national competition for the prestigious Johns Hopkins Gifted Mathematics Program. Reviewing his homework assignments, I recognized immediately the misalignment and intervened to get him properly placed at his school. He wound up getting a degree in mathematics at Swarthmore College when he was 19 years old, solved a famous unsolved problem in number theory while a graduate student, and is now a professor of mathematics and Provost at a major university. This experience begs the question: how many exceptionally capable young Black boys who don’t have a parent proficient in mathematics get inappropriately channeled out of the possibility of a scientific career very early because of race-based decisions?

As aspiring Black physicists progress through college and graduate school and into an academic career, they are typically immersed in a community that has no other Blacks. Their career paths are wholly reliant on those from other ethnic groups to judge their work equitably without prejudice. But faculty members, peers, university leaders are subject to the same conscious and unconscious biases found among corporate managers. They too are bereft of understanding of the history of the Black experience in America and of white privilege. They too could benefit from the kinds of educational experiences and training necessary to become “antiracist.” Being an antiracist demands more than intellectual acceptance of abstract principles of social justice, equity, and equal opportunity. It demands proactive behaviors that expunge deeply ingrained racist behaviors and proactive refutation of white privilege.

Conclusions

On a personal level, as a Black physicist who has had what might retrospectively look like an enviable career, I have been asked what I could possibly have to complain about. Life is difficult. Everyone has problems of one sort or another. The truth is that the opportunities that I’ve had—getting a great education in physics; then in the 1970s and 1980s, working at what was then one of the world’s premiere research and development enterprises; in the 1990s, closely collaborating with the CEOs and other senior executives of the nation’s most prominent technology-based corporations and research entities to formulate policies to advance the equity agenda; then ascending to the highest level in academia, as president for eleven years of The Cooper Union, then one of the nation’s top three specialized colleges—have been all I could have dreamed of growing up as a Black male under segregated conditions in the 1950s and early 1960s. My career as a physicist and subsequently as a manager and leader in the scientific field has been enormously satisfying. I have personally been fortunate enough to have had a great many physicist friends and colleagues of all ethnic backgrounds—Black, white, Latinx, Asian, and others—faculty members, peers, leaders in the scientific community, university administrators, and board members to thank for their unbridled support and confidence as I traversed my career. But my personal history notwithstanding, systemic barriers remain, and those barriers intercept success from K-12 through college, graduate school and the workplace. Those barriers have prevented the physics community from making any meaningful progress in the fifty years since the end of legal segregation.

To be clear, the goal is equitable—not preferential—treatment. I’ve often heard the argument from white colleagues: “Why should my neighbor’s family get any special acknowledgement for being Black? They live in a nice house, their earnings are equivalent to mine, they have all the same privileges that my family has.” What this argument misses is that, in this country, skin color trumps socio-economic status. Even as a college president, I was never immune to the external racist forces that are deeply ingrained in our society. When driving with my three sons, we became four Black men in a car, automatically seen by police and, in certain neighborhoods, by residents, as suspicious, there for nefarious purposes. I will invariably be pulled over, and usually not politely. We are ordered to get out of the car and put our hands on the roof while they approach with weapons drawn. I venture a guess that not many of my fellow college presidents who are white have suffered such indignities or, indeed, as we all have come to realize now, serious risks of bodily harm, including death.

In the wake of the George Floyd murder, it has often been suggested that the mushrooming examples of police brutality and aggression are recent phenomena due to the increased militarization of urban police forces or the presence of a few “bad apples.” The truth is that the only thing that is recent is the undeniable evidence resulting from the presence of cell phone cameras, CCTV, and other video sources. The inequities are deeply rooted in our culture; the violence against Blacks is systemic in police culture and always has been. Even Black police officers are indoctrinated into that culture.

However, as the unequivocal evidence of white privilege and systemic mistreatment of Black people have recently emerged, there appears to be a renewed vigor to right the wrongs in this country with respect to race. Many young whites are accepting the evidence and acknowledging the reality of white privilege. While some efforts that appear responsive to a moral imperative are merely commercial ventures to advance a profit agenda, there has been an unprecedented commitment of philanthropy and other capital investments to reduce the economic inequities in our systems. Various government entities, corporations and other pillars of our society are contemplating, if not enacting, sweeping policies to modify policing practices and to embrace diversity in all its dimensions.

I’m, of course, mindful of the exhilarating hopefulness we experienced in 1964 and 1965 following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, a hopefulness seen also following the Emancipation Proclamation (and, in Texas, Juneteenth), during Reconstruction, following the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th Amendments to the US Constitution, following Great Migration, following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, and following the election of Barack Obama. I’m mindful that each of the joyful moments was followed by a feverish backlash by “conservatives” to reclaim the prior conditions, severely moderating the anticipated progress. The relentless, persistent, cyclical history notwithstanding, I am going to allow myself to believe that the current generation is more enlightened and, through modern technology, more informed, than those of the past. I’m going to allow myself at this moment in the great American experiment, to exult in a hopeful optimism for the future of our nation. I’m going to allow myself to believe that we in the physics community will seize this moment of heightened consciousness to lower the barriers to access and reduce the impediments to career advancement for African Americans. With an honest commitment to change, I know that we can finally begin to make progress towards genuine equity in physics. We can recapture the 19th century promise we saw in Edward Bouchet’s achievements.

The author is President Emeritus, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. This essay is adapted from the Fall 2020 Newsletter of the APS Forum on the History of Physics. The Introduction is adapted and updated from G. Campbell Jr., “United States Demographics” and “Critical Issues,” essays in Access Denied: Race, Ethnicity and the Scientific Enterprise, eds. G. Campbell Jr., R. Denes and C. Morrison, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Notes and References

  1. Ronald E. Mickens. “Bouchet and Imes: First Black Physicists,” in A. M. Johnson, ed., Proceedings of the 12th Annual Meeting and 16th Day of Scientific Lectures of the National Society of Black Physicists, pp. 1-14, National Society of Black Physicists, 1989.
  2. See, for example, Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince. “Why diversity matters,” McKinsey & Co., January 2015; or J.J. DiStefano and M.L. Maznevski, Effective management of diversity: A theoretical model with empirical evidence. Presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting, 1994.
  3. Isabel Wilkerson. “America’s Enduring Racial Caste System,” The New York Times Magazine, July 5, 2020
  4. Toni Morrison, “A Humanistic View.” Speech delivered at Portland State University, May 30, 1975.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine

May 2021 (Volume 30, Number 5)

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