On June 10, as thousands of researchers across the world stopped work to protest racism in science, a University of Florida astronomy professor railed against calls for greater diversity in the field, telling his department that he didn’t believe systemic racism existed in academia except for the “pernicious” effects that “identity politics” has on admissions and hiring.
The professor emeritus, Haywood Smith, who is white, wrote in an email to students and faculty that he could not “recall ever seeing any systemic pattern of discrimination against blacks.” And he likened the ongoing protests against racial injustice to “street mobs like the ones from the time of the Weimar Republic,” the German government that preceded the Nazi regime.
“[N]on-blacks in this country are supposed to have Communist-style sessions where we put on sackcloth and ashes for our sin of ‘white privilege’ and grovel,” he wrote, adding: “Well, count me out.”
Smith’s message stirred anger within the department at the same time that similar messages were circulating inside the astronomy department of another university, Yale. As BuzzFeed News reported last week, retired professors there questioned on a mailing list whether systemic racism existed in their department because they’d hired one Black administrative employee 35 years ago.
The conflicts reflect a stark diversity problem within the field of astronomy at large. A 2018 survey of the American Astronomical Society — which includes undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, and retired astronomers — found that 82% of members identified as white and only 2% as Black or African American.
But unlike the incident at Yale, Smith’s email was immediately and fiercely denounced by virtually all of the University of Florida astronomy faculty. In an email from department chair Elizabeth Lada and signed by other faculty members, Lada stated that they “strongly disagree with the premise of your email.” Systemic bias is well-documented, “regardless of whether any one of us individually experiences it,” the faculty wrote.
In the views of four current Black astronomy graduate students who spoke with BuzzFeed News, this response was a marker of their department’s relative dedication to equity and inclusiveness.
The students said they had never met or, in most cases, even heard of Smith before. He is not listed on the department’s website. The researcher retired in June 2014 after a 35-year tenure at the Gainesville, Florida campus, which included serving as the adviser for undergraduate astronomy majors, an adviser to graduate students, and an adviser to the first-year orientation program. Smith’s email seemed all the more unexpected, the students said, because they feel that the department highly prioritizes racial diversity.
Quadry Chance, a Black student who is starting his second year in the PhD program, said he’d like to believe that “all I have to do is be a good scientist and that’s all there is to it.” But Smith’s email “is a sharp reminder that racism is everywhere,” he said.
“This person probably doesn’t believe I earned my place for where I am,” he said. “It’s hard to see because like most grad students, I already struggle with thinking I earned my place rather than just got lucky or something like that.
“But at the same time,” he added, “it’s not like I haven’t seen this before.”
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Reached for comment, Smith said by email, “I thought there were things that needed to be said and problems that absolutely have to be addressed but aren’t being. I wasn’t deliberately trying to hurt anyone, but the issues are more important than individual people’s feelings.”
He also said that he had done further research after a graduate student told him he was uninformed about systemic racism. “After looking into it I found out she was right,” he wrote. “The concept of systemic racism isn’t what I originally thought it was — according to what I’ve read it is a sociological theory that is far more malignant in its effects than I even imagined.”
At the same time, he wrote, “I expected to catch some flak for my email considering that people have been fired for much less. So be it. It’s for the greater good.”
In the midst of protests over the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans, academia is having its own reckoning over the lack of diversity in its ranks as well as its history of racism. Under the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory, hundreds of Black scientists have been describing the everyday racism they have faced in their careers.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 9, at the University of Florida, Lada told astronomy students and faculty that the following day would be dedicated to a “Strike for Black Lives,” when they and thousands of scientists worldwide would stop research in protest against anti-Black racism.
Having already issued a statement in support of Black Americans, professors planned to spend the next day virtually discussing ways to combat racism in their field and at their institution in particular. One agenda item, for both the day’s meeting and a bigger meeting later in the week, was to discuss a study finding that women of color in astronomy face greater risks of harassment. While the meeting was taking place, Lada added, “The leaders of the strike make clear that it is important to protect the right of our black students and colleagues to rest.”
At around 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Smith announced his displeasure with the department’s moves.
“Elizabeth has asked for everyone in the department — except blacks, apparently — to have a ‘serious and unflinching discussion about the systemic nature of racism in the academy,’” he wrote. “Although I’m no longer an active member of the faculty I feel obliged to contribute to the discussion.” And his opinions, he predicted, would not go over well. “If you think you might be ‘triggered’ by what I’m about to say, stop reading or cover your ears,” he added. “But someone needs to say these things.”
He then proceeded to say the things that apparently needed saying.
“First, as to the systemic racism in the academy: I don’t believe it even exists, except in one narrow but very important sense,” Smith wrote. That exception was “identity politics,” which in his view has a “pernicious” effect on admissions, hiring, promotions, and awards. “Placing primacy in those decisions on group identity cannot help but color one’s evaluations of people, often unfairly,” he explained. “It can tarnish the standing and accomplishments of minority students and faculty, and it can put people in situations for which they are ill-suited or even set up for failure.”
When academia proclaims that “diversity is our strength,” Smith wrote, “What nonsense!” Why should race “confer any advantage in tackling a scientific problem?” he asked. As for gender diversity, he said, “How meaningful can it be when one can choose it?” To him, the diversity that mattered as a scientist was a “way of thinking.”
Smith then zoomed out to the big picture. “All of this was sparked by the death of a black man at the hands of a white policeman,” he wrote, referring to the police killing of George Floyd. “Somehow it spread from a claim that the police systematically kill black men — not supported by the data, by the way — to a claim that American society is massively racist, with demonstrations that somehow morphed into riots.” (According to the Washington Post, police kill Black Americans at a disproportionate rate. They account for less than 13% of the US population, but are fatally shot at more than twice the rate of white Americans.)
He condemned “people under the banners of ‘antiracism’ and ‘antifascism’ running around attacking people and destroying things — street mobs like the ones from the time of the Weimar Republic.” (While some protests have involved looting and turned violent, in part because law enforcement has excessively attacked attendees, the vast majority of demonstrations have been peaceful.)
Citing the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” Smith wrote, “The sad fact is that black lives clearly don’t matter.” By way of explanation, he claimed that the protests were overlooking the deaths of other Black Americans. In other words, “we wouldn’t be focused on the death of one man but on the lost lives of large numbers of black men, women and children, as well as countless ruined lives, because of the massive policy failures of the past half-century trying to deal with the race problem,” Smith declared.
In fact, thousands of protesters have been demonstrating against the killings of not just Floyd, but also Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and many other Black Americans, as well as decades of laws and cultural norms that perpetuate racial inequality.
“The universities favor these groups and sympathize with their aims, which underneath the surface are nihilistic,” Smith concluded. “Nothing good, only evil, can come from these disorders.”
That day at Yale, professors emeriti were expressing similar skepticism that their department suffered from systemic racism. One said that the department’s first and only Black administrator “didn’t receive and didn’t need any special help for black people,” while another claimed that Black scholars were largely absent from the field because of a natural disinterest in the physical sciences. The first people to push back were a group of undergraduate students and a handful of young researchers. They were later joined by at least 3 of the 20 other faculty members listed on the department’s website, emails showed. The two retired professors apologized days after. (The department did not provide diversity data for BuzzFeed News’ story.)
In contrast, at the University of Florida, virtually every faculty and staff member in the astronomy department quickly banded together to publicly denounce Smith’s missive.
Within a half-hour of the email, graduate student Marika Edwards, who says she is one of four Black students in her year alone, fired off a searing reply. “Thank you for taking the time to explain systemic racism to the group,” she wrote, adding, “I strongly encourage you to take the advice of your colleagues and change your personal beliefs to actual facts. Take today to do actual research on the topic of systemic racism and it’s real implications on black scientists like me.”
Next to speak up was July Thomas, a graduate student in physics, who noted that signs of racial discrimination were all around their university and city.
“That you could live most of your life among these conditions and fail to even consider their impact on the people around you not fortunate enough to benefit from them,” she wrote, “says more about your own intellectual deficiency than it does the self-evident statement that Black Lives Matter.”
Laura Blecha, an assistant physics professor, followed suit.
“To anyone reading this who was still harboring any doubts that systemic and overt racism still exist in academia, or who doubted the urgency of the need for action, I would encourage you to read Haywood Smith’s racist screed below,” she wrote. “And then reflect on the facts that this is just what he said publicly — on a professional email distribution list — and that this is someone who held a position of power at our university for decades.”
Meanwhile, astronomy faculty members, caught off-guard in the midst of their meeting, were scrambling to respond. Just before 3 p.m., within two and a half hours of Smith’s email, Lada, the chair, replied in the message signed by 13 additional faculty members.
Smith’s email “implies that the bar is somehow lower for minority students — this sort of implication is patronizing and harmful,” their message said. “We unequivocally emphasize that *all* students in our program were admitted because they are highly qualified individuals whose exceptional abilities stood out in their applications, and we are both proud and fortunate to have them in our department.”
A day later, the letter was updated and expanded to include a total of two dozen staff and professors, both current and retired.
Lada declined to comment on the emails in this story or Smith’s employment and background, saying she could not discuss matters that involved current or former employees. But she said that the department “places tremendous importance on our diverse students and their sense of belonging” and is “engaged on numerous fronts to address this equity gap, including faculty and student recruitment, retention, anti-racism training and other structural ways to create an inclusive, diverse and welcoming environment.”
Lada said the University of Florida’s PhD program is one of the few in the country “whose demographics nearly match those of the broader US population,” though she did not provide specific data about its racial makeup.
Of the astronomy department’s 15 faculty members, four are women and four are Hispanic, according to Lada. “We currently have no Black faculty, however, and so we know we can and must do better,” she said by email.
In interviews, Black graduate students — most of whom said that they had been the only Black student in their class or department at times — condemned Smith’s email, with one calling it “ignorant” and another dubbing it “very misinformed.”
Chance called the email clearly racist, saying, “I know some people think that it’s only racism if you say the N-word, but he was the undergrad coordinator a few years ago. It’s this exact attitude that stopped who knows how many people who look like me from pursuing astronomy.
“Somebody in this position of power, not understanding the different things their student goes through, whether they be black, white, other people of color, men, women — that’s something that’s his responsibility to understand. Not understanding that is racist,” he said.
“It’s this exact attitude that stopped who knows how many people who look like me from pursuing astronomy.’
All of the students were perplexed by Smith’s claim that he had never seen systemic discrimination against Black people.
“That’s incredibly rich coming from an astronomer,” Chance said, adding, “We have this entire well-described theory for invisible matter and people believe it because there’s evidence of it. But when it comes to a discussion of systemic racism, if it’s not right there in front of my nose, then it doesn’t exist.”
One student, who requested to speak on condition of anonymity, said it was disturbing to read “knowing that this person was in a position of power at this university for decades.” He added, “It’s just unsettling that people can be this much in denial or just completely ignorant of a situation.”
Said another graduate student, who also requested to speak on condition of anonymity, “I don’t think there’s anything in the email that literally says he thinks that black people are lesser. But there’s a lot of subtext that implies that.”
At the same time, the students said they appreciated the department’s recruitment of multiple Black students and students of color, as well as its quick and forceful response to Smith’s email.
Edwards said that after she spoke up on the thread, more than a half-dozen faculty members individually responded to her with encouragement and thanks. “Astronomy, specifically, I believe has stepped up to this situation,” she said.
Still, the incident has been a stark reminder to her and others that even their department is not exempt from racial bias.
“I don’t think I’m going to run into too many people like this,” one of the students said. “But if I do, I’m going to be ready, that’s for sure.”