Race and the Construction of Scientific Aptitude in the 'Post-Civil-Rights' U.S.

Amy Slaton, Drexel University

Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science, Regional Colloquium

Friday, April 18, 2008 - 3:30pm

Location: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania 1300 Locust Street (directions, accessibility) Time: 3:00 - 5:00 p.m., with social hour and light dinner afterward Your RSVP to info@pachs.net would be appreciated. Please download and post the poster. Abstract: Since the 1980s, the idea that race plays a role in patterns of U.S. educational or occupational attainment has become less widely acknowledged among policy makers. Anti-affirmative action movements, the celebration of academic “standards,” and the general suppression of race as a category of social analysis have contributed to this shift. All such trends are based on the idea that we have moved, as a nation, closer to some ideal of a perfect meritocracy, in which one’s race would have no impact on one’s intellectual or economic potential. Yet, in science and engineering fields at least, notions of different innate capacities among students persist, and, this paper argues, continue the work of differentiating aspirants on the basis of race. We can identify university science and engineering programs that strive to offer enhanced opportunities to “disadvantaged” populations (African American, Hispanic and Native American students), but which nonetheless support commitments to racialized ideologies of scientific aptitude formulated long before the civil rights era. In these programs, even well intentioned educators black-box learning processes in science and engineering. Achievement thus becomes associated with students’ innate proclivities in a way that naturalizes the historical attainments of majority students, and the lack of attainments by minority students. The evacuation of social-structural factors from explanations of student success, and failure, in science and engineering helps to cement such associations. Examples will be drawn from teaching initiatives at Texas A&M University (TAMU) under the recent presidency of Robert Gates that show such processes in action. This paper will also describe selective innovations at TAMU that have at moments managed to counter these hidden, but powerful, vestiges of traditional race-based metrics of talent. This colloquium is made possible by an educational grant from Merck & Co., Inc.