One day, while table groups read through a lab activity, Maya, my lab assistant, came over to me with papers in her hands.
“Ms. Lindahl, I found these graphs on your desk. What are they?”
“Those are graphs showing who takes science classes here, broken down by race. Ms. Pilgrim, Mr. Medley, and I are going to a conference to talk about it as a problem we are trying to solve. Some students are going to present, too.”
“I’m shocked. I had no idea that our classes were so segregated; I mean, I did, but I just didn’t think about it. It’s crazy.”
Maya, who is South Asian American, was looking at a demographic graph from spring semester 2011, the year I started teaching at Grant High School in Portland, Oregon. In Biology, a class taken by all 9th graders, classes averaged 65 percent white, 15 percent African American, 7 percent multiracial, 7 percent Latina/o, 5 percent Asian, and less than 1 percent Native American and Pacific Islander students, a close match to our overall school demographics. But other classes, especially when comparing African American and white students, were wildly different. Most significantly, Chemistry, which was a prerequisite for upper-level science classes, including Advanced Placement (AP) classes, was 78 percent white and only 7 percent African American. (It was 6 percent Latina/o and 3 percent Asian.) Foundations of Physics and Chemistry, a survey course that was not accepted as a prerequisite for advanced upper-level science classes, was 49 percent white and 37 percent African American. What was going on here? This is the question my science teaching colleagues and I are trying to figure out.
I could have shown Maya data from the entire country as well. For 2009, white high school students earned an average of 2.0 high school science credits; African American students earned an average of 1.6 credits.1
And these patterns continue beyond high school. In 2009, African Americans were 12 percent of the United States population, yet Black students earned only 7 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. In that same year, African Americans earned 4 percent of all STEM master’s degrees, and 2 percent of STEM PhDs.2 The problems we observed at Grant were clearly part of a much bigger national story.
Maya was right to be both intrigued and appalled. Yet it was her shock about the racial disparities in our science classes that has stayed with me. How could she, and so much of our school community, be immersed in something so apparent and yet be surprised to see the data? As a white teacher, I knew this was something that I and we needed to work on. This blindness lies at the core of why societal inequities are so persistent and seemingly unchangeable. When we grow up surrounded by a particular cultural landscape, we rarely question its origins or the right for it to exist.
At the conference I mentioned to Maya, we started our presentation with a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and host of Cosmos, talking about his experience as an African American boy obsessed with becoming an astrophysicist.
Viewers hear an audience member ask deGrasse Tyson why there are so few prominent female scientists. He responds:
I have never been female. But I have been Black my whole life. And so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective. . . .
I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was 9 years old. . . . Any time I expressed this interest teachers would say, “Don’t you want to be an athlete?” I looked to become something that was outside the paradigms of expectation of the people in power.
Now here I am, one of the most visible scientists in the land, and I look behind me and say, “Where are the others who might have been this?” And they’re not there. And I wonder . . . what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not?