Silence is not an option
Members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Maximizing Access Committee (formerly the Minority Affairs Committee) wrote the commentary below.
Dear ASBMB members,
It has been two years since we, members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Maximizing Access Committee, laid bare our grief, anger and despair in a letter to this community in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by the police, the extrajudicial execution of jogger Ahmaud Arbery, and numerous other racist acts of violence and injustice.
Sadly, we write to you today as the nation grapples with yet more horrors. First, the massacre of Black Americans at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket by a white supremacist armed with an assault rifle engraved with his depravity. Just days later in California, worshippers at a Taiwanese church were murdered in a politically motivated hate crime. And then, again just days later, innocent children and their teachers were slaughtered at an elementary school in Texas. We don’t even have time to grieve before the next living nightmare emerges.
It’s all too much to bear. And yet we must bear it. We cannot turn away. We cannot distract ourselves with work, family or the things that bring us joy. We have a responsibility to stare each tragedy in the face and confront the causes of the carnage. We have a responsibility to use our positions of influence, raise our voices and do something.
Today, we want to discuss the massacre in Buffalo. The perpetrator subscribes to what experts call the “great replacement” theory. The National Immigration Forum defines it this way: “The ‘great replacement’ theory, in simple terms, states that welcoming immigration policies — particularly those impacting nonwhite immigrants — are part of a plot designed to undermine or ‘replace’ the political power and culture of white people living in Western countries. Multiple iterations of the ‘great replacement’ theory have been and continue to be used by anti-immigrant groups, white supremacists and others.” Adherents frequently misappropriate genetic studies and make flawed assumptions that contradict actual data.
Though this conspiracy theory was once embraced only by fringe groups, it has since been adopted more widely, including by some high-ranking elected officials. As the Southern Poverty Law Center explains: “The rhetoric in the alleged Buffalo shooter’s document indicates that he has absorbed a wide range of apocalyptic racist propaganda in online forums that have played a part in radicalizing other perpetrators of racist violence. But great replacement narratives circulate far beyond sites such as 4chan.”
The effects of this racist narrative have been manifesting repeatedly in our communities for centuries now. The SPLC noted that more recently: “The suspect accused of a mass murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018 and the killer behind an attack at a mosque and a community center in Christchurch, New Zealand (in March 2019) each cited the ‘great replacement’ theory. So did the suspect in the August 2019 attack on a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and the individual who opened fire at a synagogue in Poway, California, and set fire to a mosque in Escondido, California, in 2019.”
Given all that we know, we urge you to think deeply about everyday resentments, the ones that you share openly and the ones that you reveal unwittingly — the kind that usually go unexamined but that contribute to what is basically low-grade or sanitized replacement theory.
You need not be a neo-Nazi or a Proud Boy to sow the seeds of grievance that grow into genocide. You need not carry tiki torches or support a “Muslim ban” to terrorize religious minorities. You need not take up arms at the border to warn immigrants that they’re not welcome here. You need not storm the Capitol to show support for removing civil rights and protections.
A handful of examples: that whisper about whether or not someone truly earned a spot in a Ph.D. program; that gripe that a scholarship or award is for only underrepresented scholars; that feeling that you can’t be yourself because everyone is so “politically correct” these days; that irritation felt when people are speaking a foreign language or wearing clothing that is culturally specific; that eye roll when someone requests that others use their correct pronouns. As members of MAC and historically excluded communities, we have all, at one point or another, experienced some of these indignities.
We have a responsibility to interrogate our own prejudices and come to terms with mistakes we have made, even if it makes us uncomfortable or ashamed.
“The very heartbeat of racism is denial,” Ibram X. Kendi, director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, said last year. “When people say they’re not racist, they’re sharing the words that white supremacists use. Jim Crow segregationists said they weren’t racist. Lynchers argued they weren’t racist…. Slave owners said the same thing. But to be antiracist is to say: ‘That chokehold was racist, and that policy that has impoverished that community was racist. When I supported it, I was being racist, but I’m going to change it and be different.”’
It’s time to be honest with ourselves. Replacement theory doesn’t exist only in white supremacist chat rooms or on right-wing television. Racism and other forms of hate are alive and well in our classrooms, in our hallways and in our offices. We — as scientists, mentors and educators — are on the front lines of the fight against hate.
When you entertain a student or colleague engaging in grievance rhetoric, you’re perpetuating that thinking. When you put up with a colleague acting exasperated over having to examine their privilege, you’re condoning that behavior. When you empower or elevate people who are racist, sexist or homophobic/transphobic, you’re actively harming others.
Lest you think you can keep your head down and let others do this important work, we suggest you reflect on the words of Mamie Till, spoken shortly after the lynching of her 14-year-old son, Emmett, in 1955.
She told the crowd at an NAACP rally in Ohio: “Two months ago, I had a nice apartment in Chicago . . . . I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to Negroes in the South, I said: ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ . . . Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
We know why we’re here again, and so do you. Silence is not an option. The Buffalo shooting is one example of many others that have happened and will keep happening as long as people with good intentions remain silent.
Two years ago, we said: “We will not be silent.” We believed then, and we believe now, that we must not only speak up but also hold our colleagues, neighbors and relatives accountable. If we are silent — if we do not act — we are complicit.
We must have the courage to stand up for what is right. We need action. We need transformation. In our lives, in our labs, in our classroom, and in every circle of influence that we have.
Sonia C. Flores, Chair, ASBMB Maximizing Access Committee
Ciearra Smith, Manager, ASBMB Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Programs
Allison C. Augustus–Wallace
Lea Vacca Michel
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