Research, Race and Diversity: Remembering Dr. King
By Dr. Henry N. Williams
As we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month, one might ask: Does King’s dream exist in the research community?
In fact, this question is more relevant today than at any other period since King’s assassination. The reality is that research has never before been more critical to the quality of human life and the world in which we live. As research has expanded, the number and diversity of research scientists and technicians in the United States has increased significantly. Yet the paucity of African American scientists and engineers in university and industrial research laboratories is striking, and unfortunately, the numbers are not increasing at meaningful rates.
This is not because there is not a need for more scientists. The nation’s current work force of scientific and technological specialists is unable to supply the pressing demand. There is a need for more researchers to strengthen national security, advance national and global economies, prevent and cure diseases, and create and improve technologies to address social and environmental problems. King’s dream of inclusion of African Americans in all the nation’s enterprises sadly has not materialized in the research community. This lack of progress has persisted despite the improvements in racial diversity and inclusion that have been achieved in some other segments of society.
The failure to erode the many barriers to greater inclusion of African Americans in pursuit of careers in science is negatively impacting the nation’s ability to increase the scientific work force. These barriers represent new dimensions in the evolution of the civil rights movement. They are often invisible, covert, subtle and not so apparent as those faced by King. Nonetheless, they are just as, if not more, deleterious. Because of their invisibility they resist positive change and serve to effectively maintain the status quo.
For example, the interest in the more stringent academic preparatory courses that many African American elementary and middle school students display is frequently not encouraged by teachers and academic advisers. These students, more than others, are likely to be steered away from mathematics, the sciences and the advanced writing classes that are essential requisites for pursuing science at the collegiate level.
Misperceptions about the progress of African Americans also prove to be counter-productive. Recent studies have found that misconceptions about the progress of African Americans in health, business, employment and education promote the belief that African Americans have been sufficiently compensated by the government and no longer require its support. As a result, those who hold this misconception are less likely to support government programs that benefit African Americans. Yet, it is in fact these government programs that contribute to promoting effective strategies that support the cultivation of minority research scientists.
King possessed a rare trait in that he was both a renowned scholar and a model servant. The occasion celebrating his birthday and the observance of Black History Month is a time for all scholars to reflect on King’s dreams and to advance opportunities in research and scholarly endeavors to a point of equitable inclusion.
We can all contribute to King’s legacy, by continuing to dream. Dreaming is the essence of what scholars do and is at the very heart of their creativity, inquiry and search for new knowledge.
— Dr. Henry N. Williams is a professor of microbiology at the University of Maryland Dental School. Dr. DeLois Powell and Eric Byrd contributed to this article. Powell is assistant director in the Office of Sponsored Programs at Morgan State University. Byrd is a coordinator in the office.
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