An African American woman stands at a chalkboard, solving a complex math problem.

Where Are the Black Physicists?

In the last two decades, the number of students graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics has increased by more than double. According to the American Institute of Physics, the number spiked from 4,000 each year in the ‘90s to almost 9,000 each year in 2022. Studies also show that the number of Black Americans earning a STEM degree has more than doubled over the last 20 years.
While it may seem that racial representation in STEM is on the rise, some sectors are severely lacking. The number of Black Americans getting a bachelor’s degree in physics in the last 20 years has dropped. Today, physics has one of the lowest representations of Black Americans out of any STEM field at just 3% (a decrease from over 5% in the late ‘90s).
To better understand why there is a severe lack of diversity in physics, Apriel Hodari, just one of 150 Black women to earn a doctoral physics degree in the U.S., teamed up with physics educator Melissa Dancy. Together, with support from the National Science Foundation, they interviewed 27 white, male, academic physicists, from senior professors to graduate students.

The Findings: A Lack of Understanding on DE&I

The results of Hodari and Dancy interviews were as sobering as they were unsurprising. While a majority of the men interviewed expressed concerns about diversity and equality, an overwhelming majority were clueless when it came to the lack of diversity in the field of physics. Specifically, the interviewees:
  • Had doubts that racism and sexism were a problem in the field of physics
  • Couldn’t recall a single instance of racist behavior in their classrooms or labs
  • Felt that, as a white man, it was not their responsibility to help control the damage these biases have on the field
Hodari and Dancy’s findings also gave them insight into the impact of white privilege on physics. White privilege is a term that scholars developed to explain the unfair societal advantages that white people have over people of other racial backgrounds.
They believe that this helps to explain why so many of the interviewees are unaware of the glaring lack of diversity in physics and how they may be perpetuating the cycle.

The Impact of White Privilege

All too often, the burden to combat white privilege falls on the shoulders of Black people. A prime example of this in the field of physics is known as “the Black tax.” This tax steps from an assumption that Black faculty members should do more than their white colleagues to promote equality and increase diversity.
The extra efforts Black faculty are expected to make include spending time recruiting and mentoring students of color, advising diversity committees and doing community outreach. Black faculty typically take on these tasks without extra compensation and they are often forgotten when physicists are up for tenure or promotion.
Black physicists also commonly have a hard time getting support from their institutions for efforts to increase diversity, even when they are not getting paid for it.
Some diversity advocates call for more accountability and think that institutions that fail to show progress in improving diversity and equity should be barred from getting federal research grants. Other advocates think this would be a counterproductive move. Instead, they think that the federal government and funders should offer more support to institutions that are doing the right thing.
However, diversity advocates agree that change won’t last until white physicists educate themselves and become involved.

Hope for a Brighter Future

To increase racial equity in the field of physics, and STEM as a whole, individuals and organizations need to come together to do their part. That may mean creating best practices, speaking publicly about this issue or making a monetary donation.
A pillar of Robert F. Smith’s philanthropic work hinges on improving the field of STEM by making it more equitable for students and professionals of different racial backgrounds. Smith partners with a variety of organizations including the Fund II Foundation and Student Freedom Initiative to address STEM diversity, workplace equity and educational opportunity.
Additionally, Smith donated $15 million to Cornell University’s College of Engineering, his alma mater, to establish three scholarship funds at the undergraduate and graduate level, with a focus on graduates from HBCUs and from urban high schools, which are areas typically underrepresented in STEM majors.
Smith has also partnered with several organizations to address workplace diversity, equity and inclusion. Some of these organizations include:
Learn more about Smith’s additional areas of philanthropic focus.