On Sunday, Dec. 9, Julian von Abele, CC ’21, a sophomore in the physics department, made a series of claims perpetuating white male supremacy, especially in science, and further harassed a group of primarily Black women on campus. This incident of racism that occurred on campus showed that science and physics academia blatantly and covertly attacks minorities—and their ability to be a part of the field. His rhetoric further reflected an existing pattern in science academia at Columbia as a whole, and more specifically in the physics department.
A group of undergraduates studying physics at Columbia felt particularly troubled that online comments in forums defending von Abele’s rant used his work in physics as a smokescreen—painting his bigotry as an inflammatory outburst of a brilliant mind. Following the video’s release, members of the undergraduate physics community at Columbia and Barnard decided that it was important to stand against the supremacist's hateful remarks—to debunk and dismantle them from the standpoint of scientists.
An open letter to the Columbia community denouncing the bigotry expressed by someone within the department was drafted and later signed by the Society of Physics Students, Columbia Society for Women in Physics, and more than 150 Columbia and Barnard physics majors.
Columbia as an institution—which includes the physics department—is no stranger to bigotry, sexism, and institutional racism. While von Abele’s words were violent and destructive on their own, they by no means marked an isolated incident, but rather remind us that the neglect of minorities is normalized in the department and the school. The culture of silence that myself and my peers have felt around similar incidents is a subsequent act of neglect, and a direct response of disciplinary and institutional action from the administration should be in order.
Though often privileged as a meritocracy, physics is as susceptible to intolerance, discrimination, and inequality as any other field. Scientists are human and thus are not without bias. These biases dictate the way science is done and who gets to do it. The abstract and formal nature of physics does not represent the absence of outside cultural influence but a distinctive manifestation of it.
Consider the Nobel Prize in Physics: For 55 years (from 1963 until 2018), not a single woman received it. And there has still yet to be a Black laureate. This isn’t because there haven’t been any female or Black physicists worth recognizing. Rather, hegemonic masculinity and systemic racism excluded and continue to exclude women, people of color, and others who are marginalized from the field. Although sciences in general have made efforts to become more inclusive, physics has remained particularly homogenous.
On the night of Monday, Dec. 10, there was a troubling development. The link to the open letter from physics students was leaked to message boards popular with the alt-right, including 4chan. Consequently, an influx of vandalism on the document and hateful messages from anonymous users took place. These included placing the triple parentheses—a noted anti-Semitic symbol—around typically Jewish-sounding names on the document, including my own. Furthermore, the vandalism included use of the n-word, other racial slurs, and several clear white supremacist dog whistles. Though the document was blocked and the vandalism quickly removed, the act struck a chord, indicating how severe and commonplace white supremacy can be.
To me, as a woman of color in physics, von Abele’s public words cut deep. They communicate that people like me are not welcome and that progress to dismantle these exclusionary structures is not as far as it should be. Moreover, as a non-Black woman of color, it is important for me to acknowledge that I will never know the experiences of the Black students who were harassed and who are on our campus, as this act of white supremacy was a reflection of the racism that still runs rampant everywhere in our community.
By appealing to the authority of physicists—whose intelligence is seemingly beyond question—physics’ intellectual weight can be used to justify bigotry and discrimination. The scientific method is assumed to be without subjectivity, yet each step cannot exist without first bringing along the personal beliefs and biases of the scientist conducting it. Science itself is no stranger to racism: Historically science has also been abused to defend white supremacy and racism. The focus on the mythos of purely objective intellect ignores the fact that inequalities and discrimination result from the ways we do science.
The rant in the video demonstrates that this dangerous rhetoric is supported by the assumed lack of bias in physics. Science does not exist in a vacuum. In the context of a field already so severely lacking in diversity, white supremacist rants like this one are particularly insidious as they harmfully propagate existing inequalities and turn science into a tool of white supremacy.
The pattern of silence experienced by me and other physics majors around this culture in the department is unacceptable and makes these white supremacist narratives unsurprising to students—especially minority students.
Thus, this strain of bigotry, sexism, and racism must be forcefully rejected by the physics community at Columbia and the community as a whole. White supremacy must be disentangled from physics, if physics is to ever stop being exclusionary.
Action, discussions, and tangible change must be enacted not only by student groups like the Black Students' Organization and the Student Organization of Latinxs, but by the University and the department in response to this incident and the entire culture that this incident reflects. Anyone who says these things or fails to condemn them is not just perpetuating racism and remaining complicit, but betraying their duty to objective truth as scientists.
The author is a junior, and a physics major at Barnard College, taking a quick break from studying diligently for her upcoming exams. She thanks everyone who contributed in their many ways to this op-ed.
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