This post is part of our series #BlackInAstro. For our cornerstone post, see here. In this installment, we look at the experience of Black folks in STEM in the United States. While we chose to focus on the U.S. here, it is important to note that many other countries have a similarly stark landscape (for example, see this thread on the underrepresentation of Black physicists in the U.K.).
Black students and researchers are drastically underrepresented in physics and astronomy. In this post, we break down some of the statistics about the representation of Black students in academia, and summarize some of the existing research on the experiences of Black students and researchers in STEM.
We think it is particularly important to be familiar with research on the experience of marginalised groups in STEM. Just like with astronomy papers, understanding social science research papers can be difficult at first, but we at Astrobites are here to help get you started.
A Quick Look at the Numbers
There is a severe lack of representation of Black students in STEM fields and careers in the United States. This disproportionate distribution begins before the university level. A 2015 nationwide school survey by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) found that 27% of Black students took high school physics, compared to 29% of Hispanic, 43% of white and 57% of Asian students. This discrepancy in physics enrollment is tied in part to socioeconomic status, which is often racialized due to historical patterns of oppression. As a result, 44% of Black students attend schools considered ‘worse off’ (as judged by their teachers), while 22% attend ‘well off’ schools. This is in stark contrast with those numbers for white students, with 23% attending ‘worse off’ schools and 40% attending ‘better off’ schools. Schools considered ‘worse off’ saw an 11% lower rate of enrollment in physics programs compared to ‘better off’ schools.
The issue of underrepresentation is further worsened at the university level. A 2015 study found that 7% of students enrolled in public college were Black, despite making up 15% of the college-age population (64% of students were white, despite making up 54% of the college-aged population). In the nation’s top universities, the proportion of Black students varies wildly: for example, in 2020, Brown University’s student body consisted of 6.3% Black students, compared to Harvard’s 13.7%.
While those statistics encompass all subjects studied at University, things look worse in physics. A major study by the AIP found that in 2017, only 3% of undergraduate Physics degrees were awarded to Black students. This is a significantly lower fraction than even most other STEM fields. While this represents an increase in total degrees awarded compared to historical data, the fraction of Black students graduating with Physics degrees has actually dropped, down from 4.5% in 1995. The number of Bachelor’s degrees in Physics awarded to Black students increased by only 4% between 2005 and 2015, compared to a 57% increase for all students. Astronomy looks a bit better: it saw a 67% increase in degrees awarded to Black students, compared to 25% for all students, although it is important to note that only 2% of astronomy degrees that year were awarded to Black students.
As one might expect, underrepresentation continues to get worse as we climb the academic hierarchy. In 2012, only 2% of Physics PhDs awarded to US citizens were to Black students, while 88.2% went to white students. It is a similar story at the faculty level: in 2012, Black scientists represented 2.1% of all Physics faculty in the US, compared to 6.6% across all disciplines (white scientists represented 79.2% of Physics faculty, 74.9% across all disciplines). This gets worse again where race intersects with gender. At time of writing, only 22 Black women have been awarded a PhD in astronomy in the United States. In total, 144 Black women currently hold PhDs in physics or physics-adjacent fields (such as physical chemistry).
These statistics make clear that Black students are disproportionately underrepresented in physics and astronomy at all levels of the academic process. The AIP’s TEAM-UP Task Force finds in their report that this underrepresentation is independent of potential or aptitude: Black students “have the same drive, motivation, intellect, and capability to obtain physics and astronomy degrees as students of other races and ethnicities.” The report attributes this in part to the lack of a supportive environment in Physics and Astronomy departments across the country, and provides detailed information of five factors responsible for the success or failure of Black students in the field.
How Discrimination Disrupts Black Students in STEM
Why are there so few Black students in STEM? One common response is that this is a “pipeline problem,” in which disparities in academic preparation start in grade school and become increasingly insurmountable by the time students get to university. However, research suggests that retaining Black students in STEM is a pressing issue even at the undergraduate level. For instance, Riegle-Crumb et al. demonstrate that Black students who begin a STEM major in undergrad are more likely to switch out of their field than their white peers, a difference that is unique to STEM fields (and one that is not fully explained by differences in academic preparation).
One of the leading reasons for this failure of retention is the discrimination Black students face in STEM departments. According to a Pew study from 2018, an overwhelming 72% of Black STEM professionals believe discrimination is a major reason they are underrepresented in STEM. However, this effect is severely underestimated by their white colleagues: just 27% of white STEM professionals believe that discrimination is a major issue for Black professionals. Figure 1 shows a breakdown of these statistics in more detail.
The study further shows the extent of this discrimination: 62% of Black STEM professionals report that they have experienced discrimination at work due to their race. This is even higher than the rate of 50% in non-STEM sectors. More specifically, while most white STEM professionals (about 75%) believe Black STEM professionals are treated fairly in hiring and advancement, not even half of Black STEM professionals (only about 40%) believe that they are treated fairly in these regards.
Examples of Discrimination: Hiring and Microaggressions
How might faculty discriminate against Black students? In 2019, Eaton et al. conducted a study in which they ask faculty in physics to rate hypothetical candidates applying for a postdoc out of graduate school. They asked the faculty members to evaluate CVs that were identical—except for changing the name of the applicant to a common white, Black, Asian, or Latinx name. They gave the candidates an average number of publications, along with a few arguable strengths (e.g. a university prize with a year’s worth of funding) and a few arguable weaknesses (e.g. no external funding). They chose to focus on an average applicant because past work has shown that reviewers are more likely to discriminate against average candidates than the absolute best applicants.
In their study, Eaton et al. found that Black (and Latinx) applicants were rated over 1 point lower on a 9-point scale than white or Asian applicants in both competence and hireability. Since the authors designed the study to include both major strengths and major weaknesses on the CVs, they argue that with white or Asian applicants, reviewers were more likely to reward applicants for their arguable strengths (and ignore their arguable weaknesses). On the other hand, with Black (or Latinx) applicants, reviewers were more prone to use their arguable weaknesses as an excuse to rate them lower (while ignoring their arguable strengths).
In general, both faculty and students contribute to a discriminatory learning environment through racial microaggressions, a term devised by Professor Chester Pierce in 1970 specifically to refer to statements made against Black folks. Microaggressions are everyday statements that imply an attack on a person’s (1) competence, (2) identity, (3) right to have opinions or concerns, and/or (4) their sense of belonging. These attacks are often much more obvious to the victim than they are to the perpetrator. It is also common for the perpetrator to become defensive when accused of making a microaggression. Solórzano et al. specifically demonstrated that “the cumulative effects [of microaggressions on Black college students] can be quite devastating.”
Sue et al. revitalized academic interest on microaggressions with a broad seminal review of the subject in 2007. They note that “almost all interracial encounters are prone to microaggressions” and list a variety of racially motivated microaggressions in their paper. Some of these examples are shown in Figure 2 (modified by us to better reflect analogous situations in academia).
We note that these studies are just two examples of how bias and discrimination affect Black students in STEM and the representation of Black researchers in these fields. Other research finds that discrimination extends into nearly every arena of academia and science, from elementary school to graduate admissions.
The underrepresentation of Black students in STEM. The lack of retention of Black students in STEM majors. The further underrepresentation of Black STEM researchers at the PhD and faculty levels. The discrepancy between how white and Black STEM professionals view discrimination. The bias against researchers’ names. The prevalence of microaggressions. These are all facets of how the anti-Blackness that pervades our society manifests in our academic spaces.
It is clear that STEM workplaces are not doing enough to prevent discrimination and address bias—and this is strongly felt by Black students and researchers. Fighting discrimination in our departments is crucial to retaining Black students in STEM, and to ensuring that our scientific spaces support Black astronomers and physicists.
We would like to acknowledge that we are summarizing research outside of our field. While we are trained astronomers and physicists, and practiced writers of paper summaries, we are not experts in social science research. We have done our best to capture the findings of this literature accurately and respectfully, but do defer to the original papers and to the authors of the studies.