Systemic racism persists in the sciences
Adia Harvey Wingfield

*Adia Harvey Wingfield* is a professor of Sociology at Washington
University in St. Louis, MO, [log in to unmask]

Science  24 Jul 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6502, pp. 351
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd8825

   - Article <>
   - Info & Metrics
   - eLetters
   - PDF <>

[image: Embedded Image]

It's tempting to think of medicine and health care as objective and
neutral, driven solely by scientific principles and free inquiry. Indeed,
scientists go through extensive measures to make their research bias-free.
However, recent developments show that despite the best efforts, racial
disparities persist in the health care system even when they are

The disproportionate impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on Black
and Latinx communities in the United States has demonstrated that although
illnesses may not discriminate, varying access to treatment, preventive
measures, and other resources can still lead to imbalances in health care.
Racial differences persist in scientific research as well: Algorithms
designed to make decisions about health care incorporate biases that limit
care for Black patients. Another recent study showed that Black applicants
to granting programs at the U.S. National Institutes of Health got less
money than their White colleagues. This was not a result of intentional
discrimination, but because Black researchers worked in areas (fertility,
health disparities, and adolescent health) that tend to be underfunded.

Why do racial disparities persist despite the safeguards scientists have
put into place to keep their work bias-free?

Much of the problem is that racial biases not only occur in individuals,
but are also embedded in our institutions—what sociologists refer to as
“structural” or “systemic” racism. Once primarily heard among social
scientists, these terms have, in the past few months, become more
mainstream. Systemic racism refers to the well documented fact that most of
our institutions—in politics, law, education, and health care, to name a
few—are fundamentally organized according to assumptions and policies that
work to the disadvantage of communities of color, and Blacks in particular.

In health care, for instance, this can mean pay policies that discourage
practitioners from treating patients who are affected by poverty,
discrimination, and other factors that can impair health—factors that
disproportionately affect Black patients and the Black practitioners who
are more likely to treat them. In technology, this means facial recognition
systems that frequently misidentify Black people. And in the legal system,
these structural barriers are present in the oft-cited racial disparities
in mandatory minimum sentencing rules for drug use, and in targeting
predominantly Black, low-income communities for nonviolent drug crimes
whose punishment can escalate into a loss of voting rights and other

None of these policies is necessarily a result of individual intent, overt
bias, or malice. But ultimately, individuals are the ones who create social
institutions. When most of these people are White, it is all too likely
that they will fail to recognize the particular realities of life for Black

The first step toward addressing these issues is to recognize that despite
the pride scientists take in being analytical thinkers, these problems
persist. Most people don't set out to maintain racial disparities, but do
so inadvertently, and the scientific community is not exempt. After
acknowledging the issue, the second step would be to establish policies
that encourage more racial diversity in all sectors of the scientific
community—among researchers, educators, and policy-makers across the board.

What is badly needed is a wider range of perspectives. This suggestion may
not sit well with scientists who are committed to the belief that theirs is
a completely meritocratic field. But bringing together a broader variety of
voices to the scientific community will help all scientists as they
continue to make discoveries that advance society. The crisis that the
COVID-19 pandemic has brought to Black and Latinx communities adds to the

This is an article distributed under the terms of the Science Journals
Default License
View Abstract <>