Kington calls out one of the thousand cuts
March 5, 2013
Kington, as in Raynard Kington (PubMed), senior author of the Ginther et al. (2011) report that identified poorer NIH Grant success for African-American applicant Principal Investigators. Also as in previous Principal Deputy Director of the NIH Kington and current President of Grinnell College Kington.
And so I was dismayed by a recent news story on http://www.the-scientist.com about our report that seemed to prove our point about the existence of such unintentional bias. The story identified me as an “African-American scientist,” as have other stories I’ve read over the years.
Is that who I am? And if yes, is it relevant to my research?
Let me answer the second question first. The Scientist article to which I refer mentioned four scientists—and I was the only scientist who was identified by race. Moreover, the article didn’t mention any other demographic characteristics about me—not my age, my gender, my ethnicity, my sexual orientation, my geographic location, not even my current job as president of one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges. Nor did it include demographic information about the three other scientists mentioned in the story.
This issue touches on my occasional blogging about specific individuals, particularly a number of posts on African-American scientists triggered by DNLee’s Diversity in Science Carnival some time ago. I’m going to plead special case on this, since for those particular things it is sort of the point to identify their underrepresented status. But it is worth consideration.
In some contexts, it can be a help to the diversity agenda. There are scientists, not many but some, underrepresented in my fields of interest that I knew extensively from their work before figuring out what they looked like. I don’t know if my order of understanding was good or bad but it certainly raises the profile of their particular minority in my fields of interest if they are known to be Hyphen-American investigators. On the whole, I’m a big fan of this sort of overt, recognizable and visible diversity.
In other contexts, identification of race or other status of the investigator has an undercutting effect. We can’t help it, for the most part. Whinging about discrimination against our own group simply falls with less impact than whinging about discrimination against other people. When you don’t have a dog in the hunt, so to speak, you come across as more neutral, more objective. May not be the case….but there you are. This is one of the reasons I take an interest (blogwise) in discrimination against people who don’t happen to be just like me. Occasionally, like now, I’ll encourage you to take that special effort as well. Yes, fight your own fights for sure….but also think about how you have extra impact when advocating for those who are not like you. This is not “being an ally” or any crapola like that….this is being a decent person and following the Golden Rule.
In the context of the Ginther report, wherein the major outcome is discrimination against African-American PIs in the NIH extramural grant system, identifying the senior author as an African-American scientist can’t help but be a jab at his credibility. One wonders if media coverage of the recent paper purporting to counter the findings of Ginther et al took the same pains to point out the Asian/Asian-American author list? See what I did there? For anyone who is reasonably familiar with the Oppression Olympics in the US that tends to pit minority populations against each other, this is clear dogwhistle. For “Duh, what the heck would you expect from a bunch of Asians? At the very least they are jockying for minority advantage and at worst they are some of the worst bigots against African-Americans!“.
It’s just as wrong for me to do this as it is for anyone to cover the Ginther report with a throwaway reference to Kington being black.
I note that the offending article to which Kington was responding was indeed about the Yang et al (2013) counter to the Ginther report. They did not note anything about the ethnicity of the authors of the Yang et al (2013) report….perhaps they thought identifying the senior author, Ge Wang, in the article was sufficient?