Liberating Our Young, Gifted & Black: The Role of STEM Education in Addressing the Existential Threat of Racism, White Supremacy, and Systemic Violence

Submitted by Cadre-Admin on Mon, 07/27/2020 - 12:07

Roxanne Moore, Doctoral Student, Washington State University

Racism, white supremacy, and systemic violence

Solve: 5 - 7k = -4(k+1) - 3

The teacher, frustrated with her inability to teach 13-year old Mia how to solve multi-step equations, began berating her in front of the entire class asking, “Why do we even bother to have these 504 meetings if you're not going to pay attention and turn in your homework?” before sending her out of the room.

There were other students with disabilities in that math class. Some of those students were also struggling with the math content. None of those students were humiliated about their disabilities or intervention plans. None of those students were sent out of the classroom to miss out on important content. None of those students were Black...neither were any teachers, administrators, or staff.

Every evening Mia’s mother, a former secondary math teacher and current doctoral student in mathematics education, would reteach her daughter the mathematics concepts that the teacher refused or failed to teach Mia during the day. Despite success in the evenings, Mia grew more and more anxious and depressed, at times claiming to be “too sick” to go to school. She stopped turning in math work altogether, stating, “If I don’t turn in anything, then I can’t get anything wrong, and then she can’t yell at me for being wrong.” Her grades in all of her other classes dropped as well. When her mother asked why, Mia explained that she struggled to focus in her other classes because “all day all I think about is what is going to happen in math class.” After witnessing the teacher berate Mia daily, other students in the school began to bully her as well. Mia was so afraid of the bullying that she stopped eating lunch because the lunchroom has less oversight, and more bullying happens there.

Unfortunately, Mia is not alone.

Grace, a 15-year old Black high school student with ADHD who receives special education services in Michigan, was incarcerated for violating her probation for not completing her online schoolwork during the COVID-19 pandemic. The family court judge, Judge Mary Ellen Brennan, in her ruling, found Grace “ ‘guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school’ and called Grace a ‘threat to (the) community,’ ” (Cohen, 2020).

An 11-year old Black middle school student in New Mexico, was shoved to the ground and pinned down by a school resource officer, accusing her of “disrupting class, standing up on the bus and taking too much milk at the cafeteria...and assaulting him and other school officials — allegations an internal affairs investigation found to be false,” (Thebault, 2019). The girl suffered a mild concussion. The school resource officer resigned and never faced any criminal charges.

Niya Kenny, an 18-year old Black high school student in South Carolina, was arrested for “disturbing schools” and “disorderly conduct” when she began filming the assault of her classmate, Shakara, by a school police officer (Blad, 2017). The police officer violently drug Shakara out of her desk and slammed her to the ground for allegedly refusing to put her cellphone away during her math class (Martin et al., 2019). The police officer was fired, but federal authorities did not charge him with criminal civil rights violations.

A number of studies, including a 2018 federal report, have discussed the racial disparities in discipline for Black students, boys and girls (e.g., Evan-Winters & Girls for Gender Equity, 2017; Morris, 2016; Wun, 2016a; Wun, 2016b), and students with disabilities.

Solve: 5 - 7k = -4(k+1) - 3. Was it really this equation that precipitated the absolute dehumanization that would lead Mia, my daughter, to develop anxiety, depression, and manifest behaviors commonly associated with PTSD. Or was there something deeper, something I was studying in my PhD program at that moment—the white racial logic that strips Black people of their humanity, that drives the insatiable desire to control and subjugate Black bodies, and that justifies the infliction of systemic violence (Martin et al., 2019)? I knew my Black autistic daughter with ADHD was not immune to the systemic violence in schools fueled by racism and white supremacy. I just thought our research would save her.

As a Black mother whose daughter is a survivor of the trauma of racism, white supremacy, systemic violence, and dehumanization in (math) education, this experience forced me to (re)examine not only what constitutes sufficient in working against reproducing neoliberal ideologies, supremacist ideals, and in addressing systemic violence in STEM education (Moore, 2019), but also who exactly is responsible for doing this work.

Statements on racism, white supremacy, and systemic violence

The short answer is every single STEM education researcher has the responsibility to urgently engage in research that impacts the material reality of people whose humanity is under attack daily. We must immediately make seismic shifts in our research activity, which must include a focus on the existential threat of racism and white supremacy. It is imperative that work deemed sufficient results in the measurable, material (re)humanization of Black people. This is not the first call to action for Black lives to matter. But if radical action is not taken, it will not be the last.

The fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) seem to have finally recognized that they are simultaneously implicated in and shaped by the systemic racism and white supremacy baked into the institutions and practices of our society. STEM and STEM education associations have made statements in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery:

Despite the National Science Board (NSB) recognizing that “racism is persistent, including in the science and engineering (S&E) environment, and that inequities continue to limit the participation and the potential of Black people,” their Vision 2030, published in May 2020, makes no mention of racism nor how they will address it.

The Vision 2030 identifies three trends that “threaten the nation’s Science & Engineering (S&E) leadership” (p.6), including the demand and supply for STEM talent, stating (p. 7): 2026, S&E jobs are predicted to grow by 13% compared with 7% growth in the overall U.S. workforce. Yet even as STEM competencies have become more essential, U.S. K-12 mathematics and science scores are well below those of many other nations and have stagnated. Women and underrepresented minorities remain inadequately represented in S&E relative to their proportions in the U.S. population. The rapid growth of S&E jobs and demographic changes have outpaced the progress that has been made in the participation of these groups in S&E.

On how the U.S. can increase STEM skills and opportunities for all Americans, NSB suggests (p. 16):

Increasing the STEM skills and opportunities for all Americans will require local, state, and federal governments, public and private educational institutions, community organizations, and industry to step up their efforts. The U.S. needs “all hands on deck” to modernize its education system, reinvest in public elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education, and support the reskilling/upskilling that workers will need throughout their careers.

The report goes on to offer additional suggestions around research-based pedagogy and practices that will address U.S. students’ underperformance in international math and science assessments, models to create pathways from education and training to STEM jobs, and strengthening the partnerships between education institutions and the business sector.

NSB dedicates one paragraph to noting the underrepresentation of women and Black and Hispanic peoples in S&E yet offers no concrete explanation for that underrepresentation nor any explicit strategy to address such. The Board does reaffirm their October 2018 harassment and sexual assault commitment to “fostering safe and sustainable research and educational environments for all in the U.S. S&E ecosystem,” (p. 15). In addition, NSB takes an unequivocal stand against mathematical literacy, claiming, “Just as illiteracy is unacceptable, it can no longer be acceptable for anyone to be ‘bad at math,’” (p. 16). However, they take no unequivocal stand against racism and white supremacy.

The approach by NSB effectively seeks to increase participation of Black people in STEM, while leaving unaddressed the racism and white supremacy that created the underrepresentation in the first place. “The freedom to participate and integrate into anti-Black spaces characterized by systemic violence is not freedom. ...Liberation does not entail inviting Black learners to participate in anti-Black spaces that are made incrementally less dehumanizing as a result of reform or White benevolence" (Martin, 2015a as cited in Martin et al., 2019).

We must move beyond statements in solidarity and rallying cries for change to real (re)humanization and liberation. STEM education researchers must critically reflect on the impact of their work, and unequivocally take a stand against racism and global white supremacy (Martin, 2015b). The genocide of Black and Brown people will leave little reason to discuss the pedagogical and epistemological obstacles in STEM teaching and learning, as being alive is a necessary condition for participation in STEM education.

Beyond statements on racism, white supremacy, and systemic violence

There is a long history of Black scholars and activists urging people in all fields to move beyond rallying cries and to take action to address racism and white supremacy. Literary genius and activist, James Baldwin, in a 1963 interview with Kenneth Clark, in no uncertain terms, warns that the future of our country hinges on our ability to face and combat the existential threat of racism and white supremacy:

Lorraine Hansberry said this afternoon, we were talking about the problem of being a negro male in this society. Lorraine said that she wasn’t too concerned, really, about Negro manhood, since they had managed to do and to endure and to even transcend some fantastic things. But she was very worried about a civilization which could produce those five policemen standing on the Negro woman’s neck.

...It is entirely up to the American people, and our representatives, it is entirely up to the American people, whether or not they’re going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they’ve maligned so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts, why it was necessary to have a "nigger" in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need him. The question you have to ask yourself, the white population of the country’s got to ask itself, ...If I’m not the nigger here, and you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.

Echoing the prophetic words of his friend W. E. B. Du Bois (1903), historian John Hope Franklin (1993) cautioned, “The problem of the 21st century will be the problem of the color line. ...By any standard of measurement or evaluation the problem has not been solved in the 20th century and thus becomes part of the legacy and burden of the next century.”

STEM education in addressing the racism, white supremacy, and systemic violence

Two decades into the 21st century, one would be hard-pressed to argue that (STEM) scholarship has sufficiently addressed racism and white supremacy. While the threat of continued dehumanization seems undeniably dire, collectively, (STEM) scholars have not taken seriously the centrality of racism and white supremacy to all of our existence, and thus to our work.

Indeed, there are some researchers engaged in reflection on the role of STEM education research in addressing the existential threat of racism and white supremacy. University of Illinois at Chicago Professor, critical mathematics educator, and father, Danny B. Martin (2020), critically reflects on research that can make a difference:

As the research literature on mathematics identity continues to expand in volume and scope as part of what some have called the sociopolitical turn (Gutierrez, 2013), now is a good time to reflect on this work, not just in terms of describing growth and variety and highlighting advances in the field, but in terms of the potential for this work to impact and change the lives of those whom we study. I use the word potential because I am uncertain if the research has met these social change demands.

...Let us also consider the fact that Botham Jean, the 26-year-old Black man killed by the off-duty officer, worked as an associate at Price Waterhouse Coopers, in the area of risk assurance. He was described by a colleague and supervisor as an excellent problem solver. I will take some liberty and assume that he had a positive math identity. But, in the end, did it really matter to the white officer or to the state that he might have a positive math identity?

There are also some researchers engaged in critical reflection on the role of racism and white supremacy in shaping STEM education research. Vakil & Ayers (2019), in The Racial Politics of STEM Education in the USA: Interrogations and Explorations, ask us to critically reflect with them on the STEM educational research enterprise as a whole, considering:

...In the first place, given the implicit and sometimes explicit aspirations of STEM education to be a counteracting force against racialized injustice, how do students and communities of color experience and make sense of STEM reforms/initiatives? In what ways are STEM reforms implicated in the advance of neoliberal multiculturalism, antiblackness, colonialism, white supremacy, and militarism in this unique historical moment? Moreover, what are the racial logics that inform how STEM is deployed as a ‘justice’ and/or ‘civil rights’ intervention? How do the racialized politics embedded in these reforms become embodied and contested in school cultures, curricular and epistemological priorities, and pedagogical practices?

It speaks to the enormity and complexity of addressing racism and white supremacy that these senior scholars are also contemplating what radical actions can actually combat systemic racism and white supremacy in a meaningful way. It is incumbent upon all of us to join them in a commitment to make the seismic shifts in our research activity in order to sufficiently address racism and white supremacy in our society and in education.

Though this work will look different to each of us, all researchers taking this commitment seriously can start by expanding what we believe to be within our purview to include addressing racism and white supremacy as part of the research aims of every project (Groves Price & Moore, 2016; Moore & Groves Price, 2015). This will necessitate listening to Black students/parents/people’s experiences and concerns, taking these concerns as the starting point, and seeking to amplify these concerns and experiences through our work. Every project must commit to uncovering, identifying, and acknowledging the racism and white supremacy lingering below the surface in every (project) context, and how it impacts the research results. Projects must include a measurement that demonstrates the project’s impact, directly or indirectly, on Black people. Researchers must reflect on and name the ways in which racism and white supremacy operate through our bodies and identities (including as a researcher). Lastly, we can start to address white supremacy by refusing policies and practices that often relegate work for the humanization of Black people to “service.”

If we continue our STEM education research enterprise as we always have, then we can be certain that at the turn of the 22nd century, some child, in some math class, somewhere, will be made to feel less than human because of the color of her skin. DRK-12 researchers can lead the way in discovering the radical actions necessary to truly address racism, white supremacy, and systemic violence through our STEM education research.


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Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.