Black geology matters

Since my last post two weeks ago, the dreams of black Americans, deferred so often and so long, have once again exploded. I’m at risk for the Covid virus and not the type to join a march; still I have support to offer from this peculiar pulpit.

Geology is the whitest science in America. The geoscience community knows this, doesn’t like it, and keeps trying different ways to remedy it. I know this, I don’t like it, and I keep trying here in what I hope is a neutral way to expose you, whoever you are, to the geological wonders of this most excellent place. My hope is that adults will catch a spark of insight from me and pass it around, or nurture it within themselves, and bring this special side of our landscape into Oakland’s public affairs and popular culture for everyone’s benefit.

The special sauce of science is its neutral, trans-human point of view, in which new knowledge is born from the encounter between nature and the pure intellect. This viewpoint feels natural to folks like me, born in suburban white America to educated parents with good intentions. It’s an ideal that fosters a freedom to follow our curiosity wherever we wish.

My life since childhood has been one of dawning, then growing awareness that I grew up within a historical and political system with deep taproots in racism. Our inner lives are affected by how white people treat us. Duty calls upon white people in general to see this clearly and act accordingly. This post aims mainly at people like me.

That neutrality so tempting in science can be treacherous by masking us from ourselves. Inevitably, what we are affects what we see. To illustrate this point, I bring you the life of the notable geologist Joseph Le Conte. Well, a few years ago in this space I brought you the shallow, all-lives-matter version of his life. Since then I’ve looked more deeply and have more to say.

Joseph Le Conte was born on a Georgia plantation in 1823 and spent a cloistered, pampered childhood there. From the earliest days his mind sought the purity of nature and the comfort of social order. He passed the Civil War as a loyal Southerner in all respects. Le Conte first visited the Sierra Nevada in 1870, chaperoning a slapdash horseback expedition of Cal’s first undergraduates. In 1875 he published an edited version of his notes as “A Journal of Ramblings through the High Sierras of California.” (The Sierra Club reprinted it in 1900.) In the entry for 25 July, their fifth day on the road, comes this jarring passage:

Soon after leaving the plains, we stopped for water at a neat hut, where dwelt a real “old mammy,” surrounded by little darkies. On inquiry I found she was from Jackson County, Georgia, and formerly owned by a Mr. Strickland. She had come to California since the war. I was really glad to see the familiar old face, and hear the familiar low-country negro brogue; and she equally glad to see me. She evidently did not like California, and seemed to pine after the “auld country.”

That Le Conte saw fit to publish this vignette, deliberately and after reflection, says much about his and California’s deeply ingrained racism, but I want to note that it reveals the depth of his self-deception. This is the reminiscence of someone raised in “free plantation life” on the throne of white boyhood, but who never had to wield a whip on a human being or sign a human being’s bill of sale with his own hands (his share of the family’s property had an overseer).

By excusing the life he was born to on the basis of racialized Darwinism, he could wash his hands in pure intellectual water. It was only pure scientific truth and plain fact, he long argued, not a matter of malice or evil, that blacks were low and whites were high. And the lofty white intellects he prized most were in polite agreement (or mild, polite disagreement) with him. The key was that the men were articulate, mutually respectful and never raised their voices.

This man had a prominent role at UC Berkeley for thirty years, where he taught geology. He was named to the National Academy of Science in 1875. (“I might have been elected sooner,” he wrote in an autobiography, “but for the iron-clad oath of uninterrupted loyalty to the United States, which of course I could not take.”) He wrote textbooks and taught classes and all the while gave high-minded cover to the vicious forces of discrimination. Today UC Berkeley’s geoscience department is first-rate — I have no aspersions at all to cast on it — but it has a history embodied in its campus home, named Le Conte Hall.

We didn’t raise a statue to Le Conte, but we have erected monuments with his name on them: a Sierran peak, a college building, a city street, a children’s school and so forth. Those things are fair game for discussion and action. We are not to blame for our history, but we are responsible for it.

To get back to the moral, the neutrality of science is only the promise, not the guarantee, of a benign worldview or a neutral career. It’s not fair of me to suggest otherwise. What do white geologists owe this moment? I say we need to offer more effective help to those who don’t enjoy our privileges, people who are minoritized. They have reasons not to see the world as a reasonable place. They have reason to suspect our science as part of white hegemony.

A Change.org petition for geoscientists (which I’ve signed) puts this part of the problem well: “Geoscience is intimately tied to fossil fuels, mining, environmental contamination, atmospheric pollution, water quality, natural hazards, parks and tourism, and climate change. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx People and other minoritized groups are disproportionately impacted by limited access to these resources, and the negative impacts of each of these.”

We also need to admit that the minoritized have real reasons to beware being out in the wild, poking at rocks and acting unusual. I’ve encountered people who challenged my presence, and I know it’s easier being white. The minoritized need our full support in visiting the outdoors freely, without fear.

Of course black folks are doing their own work, through organizations like Outdoor Afro (founded right here in Oakland), the National Association of Black Geoscientists, the American Association of Blacks in Energy and others. For its part, the Geological Society of America presents a prize each year, the Bromery Award, to worthy scientists from minoritized communities. Nearly every awardee mentions the special problems that nonwhite geologists experience.

But white folks need to open up, open up more, and do their part. For my part, I recognize that each of Oakland’s communities has its own idea of what the hills mean, what earthquakes mean, what the land around them means, who got the benefit of our natural resources and who did not. I’ve visited every bit of this town, including places some folks fear to go, and everywhere I’ve learned something about the variety of human and natural experiences Oakland contains. I want to listen harder, study deeper, avoid unintentional offense, spread knowledge and cheer, and help in whatever ways I can to set things right.

8 Responses to “Black geology matters”

  1. mpetrof Says:

    I greatly appreciate this post.

  2. Janet Bauder Thornburg Says:

    Thank you, Andrew, for your insightful, timely message. I am a geologist who grew up in the Fruitvale district of Oakland in the 1950s and 1960s. I have shared your message on Facebook where many of my friends are geoscientists. I have also signed the Change.org petition for geoscientists.

  3. Charlotte Steinzig Says:

    I hope to share this, especially the links for my friends in geoscience. Thank you for this.

  4. JB Says:

    Thank you for speaking out and showing that black lives matter in every city, neighborhood, field of study, and profession!

  5. Tim Says:

    Beautifully put, Andrew. Thank you for sharing this.

  6. francislowtech Says:

    Yes. Thank you

  7. C Says:

    Thank you.

  8. Sarah Redondo Says:

    Thank you for this article, I really appreciate your insight and transparency. I’d like to share a little bit of my journey through science as a half Mexican female, who came from a middle to low socioeconomic and very religious family. I noticed immediately when I started taking geology classes that the majority of the students were not only white guys, but very fit and healthy people. Most of them who were local lived in NW Fresno and went to the best schools in the city. Their parents were often scientists, doctors or teachers.

    I thought it was so cool when someone would tell me their parents were scientists. I can only imagine that they grew up being encouraged to go out in nature, to learn and to be active. They probably had people around while growing up to answer their scientific questions and encourage that analytical thought process. My parents (I love them dearly and have always been as encouraging as they can of me) are Christian pastors. So when I would asked as a child, “how was that mountain formed?” The answer I got was “God did it”. And the questions ended there. So, it was hard for me to get into science, and is even seen as anti Christian by some of my family members.

    Also, it amazed me how many students had been hiking, rock climbing and/or river rafting before. When I started geology at 22, I had only been to a river maybe 5 times in my life. Even though I live in Fresno, I had never been to Yosemite National Park and had only been to Kings Canyon National Park twice when I was very young. I had probably never walked more than a mile ever in nature. I had walked miles around town from bus stop to bus stop out of necessity, but never had gone on real hike for enjoyment and to learn about nature.

    And I am actual still lucky! I know 30 yr old+ people in Fresno who have never been to a natural body of water. They don’t even know there are rivers close by, even though there are rivers on either side of the city. They don’t have the money or a vehicle to go to a river.

    What all this means for me personally, is that it took years of my life to figure out that I love science, which science do I like more and what even are the career possibilities. I didn’t know I really liked science until I was probably 20.

    At 22 or 22, I was already a math major and had an AS in math, then I decided I really love geology and added it as a second major. I struggled for years trying to be a double major and constantly work full-time to simply get by. I had to drop math even though I was so close and even after I graduated in 2018 with a BS in geology, I am still looking for a job (though I think I only have myself to blame for that).

    Anyways, I can only imagine how much harder it is for people who grew up on the even poorer side of town and had less than me.

    If I could go back in time, I’d go to my elementary school self and say “hey you love science- any science will be good just pick a science and stick with it!” Then I could’ve had a “head start “ on my career and also an equal-footing compared to those who had a better scientific understanding from the get-go. Thank you again for the article, you’re awesome!

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