Trying to reconcile America's greatest failure with its scientific success

posted by Jeff | Tuesday, June 2, 2020, 6:00 PM | comments: 0

It was a strange weekend. On one hand, it's clear that America is pretty tired of black people dying at the hands of police, vigilantes and a wider criminal justice system that works differently for people of color. On the other hand, a company started by an immigrant put a couple of Americans in space, for the first time doing what government would not. The contrast is strange, to see hundreds of years of failure to eradicate racism at the same time as extraordinary scientific achievement.

We've been trying to have conversations with our son about all of this, and if you think it's hard to rationalize racism, try explaining it to a 10-year-old on the autism spectrum who isn't wired to understand something abstract like that. (Yeah, that's a whole post on to itself, for another day.) He happened to see Trump threatening to send the military out, and now we also have to explain that it's not a brute squad out to hurt him.

Racism never went away, but in the comfort of my social and professional circles, it seemed like it was at least pushed well beyond the bounds of polite conversation. But then the frequency of stories of black people killed in police custody started growing, pundits were pointing out the disproportion between the demographics of the population versus those who were incarcerated, poor, sick or otherwise lacking opportunities for education. By the time the mid-oughts rolled in, it started to become obvious to me that the bounds of polite conversation were the only thing really hiding the racism. As any non-white person could tell you, it sure as hell didn't go away.

As bad as the racism was, sexism has always been there too, and largely happening in the open. Being LGBTQ wasn't safe either. In recent years, we could pile on xenophobia. It's disappointing and sad that we can't seem to beat these inequities and hateful behavior out of our culture, despite generations of trying. You'd think the Baby Boomers, my parents generation, would have gotten us most the way there, having lived through the core of the civil rights era. But then, every Gen-X'er like me has that one racist uncle, so it's not entirely surprising that they didn't get it done. Anthropologists suggest that these societal attributes do take many generations to resolve. Mine sure didn't get it done, but then, we're still outnumbered by the Boomers, so I don't know if we ever had a chance. Fortunately, we're outnumbered by Millennials and Z's even more so, and anecdotally I think they'll get it done.

To be clear, it's everyone's job to stamp this out, not blame others. We all have to declare our commitment to the right side of history, hold our policy makers accountable, and get civically involved in a non-trivial way. I've always felt strong about this, but I feel like I have to do more. I don't think I'm alone in that feeling.

About that spaceflight, it was a welcome energy that I haven't felt in years. When the Space Shuttle program ended, rightfully so given the flaws and age of that program, it felt a little like we were giving up. Not that the Russians aren't fully capable of getting people to the ISS, but the story of American spaceflight is entangled with our pride and identity to an extent, which in the 60's largely involved getting to space before the Soviets. When the Bush administration suggested privatizing space travel, and then the Obama administration reinforced that direction, I felt at first that it was kind of a shortcoming. It felt like America couldn't do it, so let's just make it another thing we throw insane money at and get mediocre results.

What happened next was that a South African immigrant, having cashed out of dotcom success, founded a rocket company that mostly failed at first. But the vision for SpaceX was consistent, in the desire to reduce cost by reusing as much of a rocket as possible (you don't throw away a 747 after flying it once, after all). It got a contract for launch capabilities and human flight, and that led to last weekend's trip for the Crew Dragon carrying astronauts. They got there faster than the old guard contractors, and for a fraction of the cost.

If you spent the better part of the day watching all of this, you may have noticed something striking about the people you saw on TV. The engineers from SpaceX who host their webcasts are diverse. To see women of color (with visible piercings and a partially shaved head, no less), who are engineers and not communications interns, along side middle-aged white men, is a big deal. And when you see more of the people working at the factory and they talk with more engineers, you see that the workforce is more representative of America than, say, half of the US Senate (you know which half, don't make me say it). Heck, the president of SpaceX is a woman.

If you work in technology, you probably think, "Yeah, no shit, that's what my work looks like, too." But if you watched that rocket coverage enough, you eventually saw NASA. The shots of Mission Control were not diverse at all. It was almost entirely middle-aged white men (I think I saw one woman at some point). This is why racism isn't simply an issue of rogue police or bad apples or whatever rationalization people try to come up with. How is it that NASA so poorly reflects the population that it serves? When people talk about systemic racism, this is it. I don't for a minute think that NASA hiring managers are going to Klan rallies, but there's something going on that leads to an outcome that is the opposite of the outcome at SpaceX. The issues are complex, not just with the hiring practices, but with education (inequality in access) and cultural expectations (women play with dolls, not STEM kits).

Looking at those contrasting organizations, you have to look at the difference in outcomes, and look for the causes. Then you have to change the causes.

I bring this up, again, not to suggest that we can leave racism as someone else's problem, but rather to give hope and show that the seeds are there to put America's greatest failure in its past. This is the time. If we get people off of the planet by strapping them to a controlled explosion, attacking the institutional racism should be within our reach.

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