Alabama shootings: Why aren’t we talking about race?

Until Rob told us in comments, I hadn’t come across anything at all about race and the Alabama shootings that initially appeared to be about tenure. But apparently all three of the faculty members killed were people of colour, one Indian and two African-American. Given the standard composition of science departments, it would seem very surprising if this were coincidental. This really should be getting reported.

26 thoughts on “Alabama shootings: Why aren’t we talking about race?

  1. The possibility of a racial hate-crime changes the picture, doesn’t it? It’s interesting how we (or I) construct a narrative from so few elements. I can feel a minimal solidarity with a female professor on a murderous rampage after being denied tenure by a sexist faculty, but my solidarity evaporates when the same female professor denied tenure, possibly by a sexist faculty, becomes a racist.

  2. I’m hesitant to think “racism” here, though obviously it’s not something one can easily tell. In general, in the States white guys as a group seem to be less and less interested in doing university research, and non-whites are now a significant presence in US academic science. (This is one reason why NSF is so keen on getting more women in science.) E.g., on Thurs I was at a group meeting for cognitive neuroscientists. 9 people showed up, and 5 were non-white. If someone were at some of the meetings I’ve been at and were to shoot randomly, the probability of hitting non-whites would be high.

    I don’t of course want to claim her shooting was random. And there may be many factors we don’t know about. E.g., the AA women faculty member, Davis, whom she shot was a 50 year old assistant professor. That’s a very unusual profile, while Bishop is 45, which also seems older than one would expect. UA Birmingham got one of the huge NSF awards to advance women in the sciences, and NSF suggests they try to bring women back into academic research, particularly women whose careers have been disrupted by having children. So there may be some other thing going on there that placed Bishop and Davis in competition as women. This is just speculation, of course. But Davis’ husband quotes her as saying that Bishop is not as good as she thinks she is.

    I asked my resident science adviser and he said he’d estimate the percentage of non-whites in biology to be about 40%. I did look at the Huntsville dept and think that it not at that percentage. However, I did notice something else. The department does not have a PhD. It is an MS department. I cannot tell you how undesirable in general** it is for a research scientist to be in an MS department. And how surprising it is to find a Harvard trained scientist in one, still more to find she didn’t get tenure.

    There is a new biotech PhD program, and Bishop and those she shot were involved, as far as I can tell. But if Bishop were involved in setting it up and getting students and still didn’t get tenure, she might be even more unhappy, and the situation might be even more puzzling, on its surface at least.

    **There are some exceptions, I suppose, but even at a superb college it is hard to do big science without PhD students.

  3. BTW, I don’t mean to suggest that the question of racism should not be raised. I agree with Jender that it should be mentioned. My comment before this was about what answer I’d give if the question were raised.

  4. While adding race to the reality of the situation changes the hue of the event, there is still some part of me that understands the woman’s rage. Historically, at least in the U.S., men of color were given rights before women. When we look at power structures it’s not just white men who are above women – it is even men of color. Granted there will always be exceptions to the norm. I am in no way defending her actions; I’m simply stating that I understand what I suppose to be her thinking and must acknowledge that same anger in myself.

  5. All of this seems incredibly speculative. Meanwhile, CNN reports that Bishop was also a suspect in a mail bombing case while she was at Harvard:

    If Bishop was indeed the culprit, that’s quite a history: a mass shooting, a mail bomb and the slaying of her own brother. All of this makes me inclined to think that Bishop was just someone who tended to react violently when angry or upset.

  6. Jane: Even acknowledging that you do not condone Bishop’s actions, I find your sentiments disturbing. Suppose I grant that one might legitimately feel chagrined that “men of color” have gained rights before women–what about this would justify resentment of those men? Are you suggesting that one might somehow *blame* men of color for having achieved what privileges they have? That’s clearly ridiculous!

  7. I’m addressing emotions, not actions. I said I understand her rage – an emotion. I’m not suggesting one blame men of color for their privileges.

    As I said, I must acknowledge the feeling in myself, and thus, I believe work to achieve a different end than violence. I think that it is also important for anyone in the “privileged” group to acknowledge their privilege while working for equality.

    My repudiation is at power structure, not individuals.

  8. I think that one of the problems in understanding what occurred is that everyone or almost everyone has been frustrated or indignant enough to fantasize about recurring to violence, and so we tend to place ourselves in this woman’s situation (denied tenure, with a Harvard degree, etc.) and to understand her from our point of view. However, there is a tremendous distance (although it only takes a slight pressure on a trigger to cross it) between fantasizing about violence and being violent. And since none of us (I imagine) actually recurs to violence, we have no idea what goes on in the mind of someone who does; we have no idea what processes lead one from “I’m so angry that I could kill him” to
    killing him.

  9. Hi amos, it’s funny, I just looked at the nsf figures concerning a lot of this. One thing throughout all this that one has to remember is that a very great deal of US basic research takes place in universities, and that’s thought to be the basis of the US economy, such as it is. You know, innovation. So a lot of people are very concerned.

    Though I’m relying on my memory of the complicated charts, I think the percentage of white guys with doctorates dropping out of – or not going into – S&E (science and engin’g) has been very significant even over the last few years. One reason is that the salaries are substantially higher in industry, while the jobs are by and large significantly less demanding – in my understanding. If I’m remembering correctly, a PhD in engineering can expect up to 20K more starting in industry and doesn’t have to worry about going through a tenure process.

    Also, profs and even doctoral students and postdocs may need to go into the labs six or more full days a week. Consequently, some people would prefer to go to law school or work to get some other sort of job.

    Finally, a lot of people find working in universities intensely frustrating. I was taking to a new and major science/engineering chair in my place who is nearly foaming at the mouth with anger, since his contract promised him a X offices and he’s got X-10. The next day I went over to a really excellent nearby university to find faculty celebrating that they had gotten rid of the evil provost. A really world class researcher at University College London was telling me recently that it’s the same all over, while, here is Texas, faculty are practically tripping over themselves to get out of a very top medical school which is nearly a billion in debt and currently seizing faculty resources. jj-partner spent about three years convincing our upper administration not to dismantle the university’s crown jewel; people who were angry they couldn’t control the leaders of the crown jewel institute had spread extremely mischievous lies (not all of which were entirely without foundation). Aaarrrgggghhhhhhh!!! People in philosophy don’t see this that much, and I strongly advise that philosophers stay away from anything remotely like administration if they tend to care a lot about how university funds are used and whether the faculty have a substantial say in their own research.

  10. Let me add: I recently talked to someone who does the sociology of higher ed in the US and she was maintaining that poor administration is a problem throughout higher ed; she maintains that most university administrators end up in universities because they aren’t good enough for industry, where they could earn hundreds of thousands more. Actually, I know some wonderful administrators (well, 2 or 3) for whom this isn’t true, but I suspect it’s a good approximation.

    I’m sure this is more than you wanted to know. One of the problems with acquiring largely a great deal of useless knowledge is that one is tempted to relay it.

  11. @Jane
    I cannot even believe you making that argument about MOC. Let’s be clear even though MOC had the legal right to vote before White women, due to race they were not able to act on this right. White women have always been in a position of power over MOC or did you forget that they carried the whip in slavery just as much as their white husbands? On a further note I would like to point out that affirmative action which came out of the civil rights movement in an attempt to rectify the generations of imbalance created by slavery mostly continues to benefit White Women. If you are going to play oppression Olympics how about holding onto historical accuracy.

  12. @ 4: “Historically, at least in the U.S., men of color were given rights before women. When we look at power structures it’s not just white men who are above women – it is even men of color.”

    I’m sorry, but this claim is ridiculous as a generality.

    Since the Bishop case concerns a white woman–and one of the three faculty members Bishop killed was a woman of color–it is especially perverse, to say the least, to imply colorblind female solidarity in this case.

    A broader issue, of course, is the way in which a certain, purportedly feminist narrative insists on failing to recognize the ways in which men of color do and do not enjoy privileges in comparison to women generally and women of color in particular.

  13. About possible racism: We need to remember that in a lot of ordinary contexts, white people are in the minority now. I think that for people in such contexts, race can genuinely become less salient. To assume race is always a motivating factor is, I think, just wrong. That is not to say that harmful racism isn’t still around, but it does not dominate in all the many textured relations one can have in such a setting. Or so my own experience strongly suggests.

    We encountered the question of racism/sexism over the Obama-Clinton contest. Here’s a link to some of that discussion:
    This takes you to three posts; the first one isn’t relevant, I think.

  14. @ 15: “About possible racism: We need to remember that in a lot of ordinary contexts, white people are in the minority now.”

    I do not know where you are or have been, but this claim is false about the U.S. Schools are increasingly racially (re)segregated, which largely reflects residential areas having become increasingly racially (re)segregated. Whites are nowhere near a minority in non-service workplaces. I realize, the data aside, that this conflicts with a popular, post-racial narrative.

    Maybe you could point us toward those places and “ordinary contexts” where race is not very salient. I would like to have the post-racial experience–and I have spent most of my life in or around major U.S. cities.

    Of course, no reasonable person assumes that race and racism are “always” motivating factors and “dominate in all” relations. Don’t look to intimate relations, though: findings there are quite dismal (recent interest sparked by John Mayer’s Playboy interview).

    Are you a non-white or, more specifically, a black American? If not, why believe that your own experience is anywhere close to a reliable guide on this issue?

  15. @Jane:

    Historically, at least in the U.S., men of color were given rights before women. When we look at power structures it’s not just white men who are above women – it is even men of color.


    It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon Johnson over 100 years after the Civil War ended, that it became illegal to stop Blacks from voting. Blacks were finally guaranteed their voting rights in 1965.

  16. Hi everyone: I don’t live in the U.S., but a debate over who is more oppressed, women or blacks, is bizarre. I suppose that one could also argue that homophobia is worse than racism or sexism or that the worst form of oppression is not racism or sexism or homophobia, but the division of society into social/economic classes, rich and poor. A debate between victims about who is more oppressed only serves the interests of the oppressors and exploiters. Finally, can one really quantify or measure oppression? How many units of being treated a sex object are equivalent to how many units of being stopped by the police as potential criminal when one goes out to buy milk?

  17. anon sr philosopher: non-whites are now about 50% of the university engineers and 40% of university scientists. Engineers in universities include people who do research with scientists – the disciplinary boundaries are breaking down. So that’s pretty much the world as I experience when I’m with my best cogsci friends in the university. Furthermore, whites are in the minority in my exceptionally large city (one of the largest). The last (and recent) time I went to a university-community meeting for “leaders” in the community, my guess is that minorities were close to 50% or above. Doctors, lawyers, judges, state representatives, congressional rep, pastors, etc.

    I wouldn’t count this as post-racial for a minute, but if I were to go beserk with a gun in a meeting or (possibly more likely) ram a car out of road rage, the chances of hitting a minority person are high. And if I get mad at X and X is an African American, I am pretty sure it’s not race. That doesn’t mean I trust my expectations in all circumstances, but that’s not something I spoke to.

    I doubt my experience as an academic is all that unusual, at least from the science perspective.

  18. amos: No one was quite having the “bizarre” debate you describe, even if it looks that way to you. Your voice of reason from outside was not needed.

    jj: Your response does not reflect what you actually wrote @ 15 and to which I responded. (This is to respect your intelligence.) So I had better take leave of such discussions here.

  19. Amos, you must be Canadian like me. I thought the same thing until I hitchiked through the black ghettoes of Pittsburgh as a cute little blonde teenager. The people living in the ghetto were REALLY nice. I won’t even discuss the way the whites that saw me leaving that place reacted to my being there.

    I was trying to stay out of this discussion, because I didn’t want to have to start defending myself with my Ojibwe First Nation banner over every stupid typo. Just trust me, Amos. “Race” is a reason to live and die for a tragic number of Americans.

  20. anon ‘sr’ philosopher: perhaps we are failing to understand each other. I thought you were asking for specific examples. I think a lot of academic science is one area, and that is, of course, the most relevant area to the topic of the post we are discussing.

    Alternatively, perhaps we disagree about what counts as significant. I’ve been shocked to find that my engineering colleagues are on the whole much more congenial, constructive and understanding of diversity than my philosophy colleagues. The engineers are also shocked, funnily enough, at what they’ve encountered through me of our world.

  21. Steve, Wow! What do you think?

    Perhaps the narrative is too close to that of a prosecutor. I do note one sentence that seems to flaut grammatical conventions.

  22. At this point, I have no idea what to think. It all shows how our (or my) opinions are swayed by the media and how, in my case at least, something that is well written tends to convince me: we might call it “the fallacy of the English major”.

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