Race and Racism in the History of Science

Scholarship, I believe, must be founded on the fundamental value of the equality of all human beings. It cannot operate honestly unless its practitioners embrace that basic ideal. As the current custodian of the IsisCB, I feel an obligation to defend this value and to reckon with its implications for my work and the scholarship it serves.

The wave of protests that has been sweeping the United States—and which has found support in cities globally—focuses our attention on the injustices perpetrated by a culture of systemic racism. This racism is not just an American problem, but the history of slavery and imperialism in the United States intensifies it here. Its tentacles reach deeply and often subtly into all of our institutions. Even the IsisCB is not immune.

My staff and I at the CB office have been discussing how we might be able to answer the call for transformative change. With the help of my advisory board, we have begun to sketch out some answers.

We will begin by addressing the problem of invisibility—one of the most intractable aspects of racism. The discipline of history of science developed in an almost exclusively white setting. It is a legacy that obscures both the practice of racism and the people who are targets of it. America’s rich and vibrant culture is indebted in almost every way to people of color, yet their presence in the literature of our discipline is tiny.

The IsisCB works best as a means of discovery, and to that end, we are creating ways to highlight scholarship that grapples with issues of race. We are developing research strategies for teachers, students, and others. As a start, I have built a page on Explore that will help people discover material related to the history of African Americans and science. I intend to develop more pages of this kind.

Moreover, we believe that the data in Explore can be put to use in ways that will help us better see the historical biases of scholarship in the discipline. The IsisCB data allows us to see patterns of research across decades. Such data can provide us with a self-reflexive look at what we have been doing and where we are deficient.

I am also contacting scholars who can help me build up the bibliographical resources in this area. Indeed, I hope to be able to publish one or more bibliographical essays in the near future. These essays will provide sophisticated and nuanced guides to resources on race and its relationship to science, technology, and medicine.

To conclude, I welcome collaboration and ideas for further exploration and encourage anyone to send me citations of relevant scholarly resources (books, articles, web pages, and the like). Please write to me at stephenpweldon@gmail.com.

As we move as a nation and a global society to fight against racism, the IsisCB offers its support to the guiding ideal of honest scholarship: the fundamental value of human equality.