Comment: Forum Physics World  November 2020

Keeping your eyes on the prize

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein describes the social and political barriers that Black physicists face in their daily lives

Overcoming obstacles Acheiving personal success doesn’t mean the battle against systemic racism is won. (Courtesy: iStock/skynesher)

In 1987 the US Public Broadcasting Service began airing a 14-part documentary about the civil rights movement called Eyes on the Prize. I was five at the time and my mother, who is not at all tech savvy, figured out how to record the series using our VCR. In subsequent years I saw every episode and it was my earliest education in Black American history. My parents are both grassroots activists, so I didn’t walk away from Eyes thinking that all problems were solved or that racism was over. I watched daily as my parents organized to support primarily low-income people of colour, especially mothers. I got a sense of the moral arc of the universe – not one that bends because some physical law mandates it, but rather one where people put their bodies on the line, leading to change. For better or for worse, I think this is one reason I was attracted to physics as a line of thought and way of life. It is not that I didn’t want to help, but physics seemed like exactly the escape humanity needed from its own mess.

More than 30 years later, I sometimes think that one of my tasks as an adult is to soothe the inner child who is constantly mourning how naïve and wrong she was. As a university student, I learned how entangled physics classrooms were with social traditions of racism and sexism. As a postdoctoral fellow, I had to grapple with how physics and astronomy supported, and were in turn shaped by, colonialism. And there is still the larger world to contend with.

As a young adult, I never expected to live through and try to do physics during a year like 2020, which has been profoundly shaped by structural racism. I thought that police would no longer be shooting Black and Brown folks in the streets as they had done in the 1980s Los Angeles where I grew up. It never occurred to me that the shootings might get worse. That in the aftermath of 9/11 police forces would militarize and all that weaponry would be used on the civil rights protestors – Black Lives Matter protestors – on a scale that Americans had not witnessed since the late 1960s. I also did not imagine living under a president whose choices would lead to the deaths of 200,000 US residents in just a few months. I know my Black peers in the UK are experiencing a similar social and political environment, albeit with its own distinct unique contours.

When I look back, the challenges are still there for the people coming after me

At a point in my career when I need to “shut up and calculate”, my heart is being pulled in several directions all at once. I am filled with grief and terror at the thought of losing a beloved family member if the cops pull them over, perhaps with a child in the car. I also fear that my family will be mistreated in hospital during a pandemic that has disproportionately killed Black, Brown and Indigenous people. I am expected to keep calculating through these fears. I am expected, as a junior faculty member, to keep saying yes to prestigious speaking opportunities that are globally broadcast, even as I need time to rest my weary heart.

Keep your head up

When I was a 17-year-old first-year university student, I thought that being one of the first Black Americans to earn a PhD in particle theory would, of course, be hard work punctuated by a series of moments of triumph. It is instead hard work persistently disrupted by the need to fight – for the lives of my community members, myself and other Black physicists – to have access to resources. Indeed, by many metrics I have been incredibly successful: I am one of fewer than 100 Black American women to earn a PhD from a physics department and I am the first Black woman to hold a faculty position in both theoretical cosmology and particle theory.

One might think I saw barriers and rammed through them. But in reality, while I have sometimes clambered over these barriers, it took something from me physically to do so. When I look back, the challenges are still there for the people coming after me. Occasionally people interpret this to mean that I didn’t do enough, but the reality is that the system is setup to make it hard to eliminate roadblocks on the path to success. To start, even if racism in hiring goes away, we still worry about safely getting to our office without being harassed by vigilantes and racists on the street. When I look ahead, I see all the barriers I have yet to get through.

I better understand now the sacrifices that the people featured in Eyes on the Prize were making. They accepted that they might not live to see tomorrow, but they fought because they wanted to live in a better tomorrow. And they accepted that even if they did not make it to the promised land, their children might have a chance to glory in it. Part of what has sustained me on what has been a difficult journey, especially in this tragic year, is my belief that knowing the marvellous mathematics that underpins particle physics is part of the glory that awaits us in that promised land. It is my task to shape the arc of the moral universe so that it bends toward a delicious justice filled with the right to food, housing, clean water, and the right to know and love the night sky. While I struggle to focus amid global calamity, I keep my eyes on that prize.