This story is part of a special package about the barriers Black physicists face and potential models for change.
In the 1990s, physics departments at U.S. universities faced an existential crisis. The number of undergraduate physics majors had plummeted by 25% over 10 years, prompting fears that many departments might disappear or be merged into other programs. Academic physicists scrambled for ways to attract more students, making lectures more interactive and updating the curriculum. The changes had the desired effect: The annual number of physics majors, the first rung in the career ladder, nearly tripled over the next 2 decades (see graphic 1).
Black students, however, were left behind. In 2017, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) assembled a National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP), the discipline’s first deep dive into the lack of diversity at the undergraduate level. The task force’s 2020 report documented the crisis in dispiriting detail.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education show the percentage of undergraduate degrees awarded to Black students dropped from 4.8% in 1999 to 3.1% in 2020. Had the number of Black undergraduates earning physics degrees simply kept pace with the overall growth in the major, the current annual total would exceed 350. Instead, it was 262 in 2020.
As bad as those numbers are, they hide how rare Black students are on most U.S. campuses. Some 30% of the 853 U.S. departments awarding physics degrees did not graduate a single Black student between 1999 and 2020, and an additional 30% graduated just one or two (see graphic 2). In contrast, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) lead the nation in graduating Black physics majors despite their relatively small size and limited resources.
The demographics at the graduate level are even more depressing. Black students made up less than 1% of Ph.D. recipients in physics in 2019 (see graphic 4). Over the past 2 decades, the absolute number of physics Ph.D.s awarded to Black students each year has remained essentially flat. In contrast, the number awarded to Hispanic students has increased substantially (see graphic 3).
The near invisibility of Black people has made it easier for the physics community to ignore their perspective. This special package, which draws from interviews of more than 50 Black scientists, seeks to rectify that situation and amplify their voices. They tell of battling systemic racism, which creates an uneven playing field, as well as pushing back against a culture that continues to question their ability and desire to do physics. They describe how that dominant culture in academic physics expects Black people to lead the way in correcting a problem not of their making. They talk about struggling to gain the same professional recognition, respect, and rewards that accrue to white physicists, and how working to improve diversity can jeopardize their own scientific careers. They also describe isolation and debilitating self-doubt, and their frustration and anger that decades of rhetorical support for improving diversity haven’t translated into better demographics.
Especially poignant are the experiences of those who have broken through the double barriers of race and gender. In 1972, Willie Hobbs Moore became the first Black woman to earn a U.S. doctoral degree in physics. Exactly 50 years later, the total stands at only 150, according to a list compiled by physicist Jami Valentine Miller, a senior examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In 2007, she became the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Johns Hopkins University. Many U.S. graduate physics departments have never handed a diploma to a Black woman.
Although Black scientists in other disciplines face similar barriers, this package examines physics because, as the TEAM-UP report notes, the community’s record on diversity “is particularly depressing.” The stories describe how the “priesthood,” the white men who constitute a majority in the field, has stymied efforts to make meaningful change through a sense of white privilege, and how some universities are building a more welcoming environment by dismantling policies that disadvantage students from marginalized groups. One story examines the outsize role HBCUs have played in educating Black physics undergraduates, and how that role is threatened. Another shows how a graduate program at an elite, predominantly white institution has been more successful than its peers in training black Ph.D.s, using a model that was not intended to address diversity at all. The package also explores the disproportionate number of Black Ph.D. physicists who are drawn to teaching at the precollege and community college levels.
Together, these stories attempt to portray the Black experience in U.S. physics and identify institutions and programs that offer models for change. But there are no simple prescriptions. As the TEAM-UP report emphasizes, the physics community must first internalize how it got to this dismal point before it can make meaningful improvements in the culture.