Education professor probes causes of systemic racism in chemistry 

Chemists know the importance of laboratory safety to protect against the hazards of their work environment. But a new commentary from Terrell Morton of the University of Illinois Chicago applies social theory to highlight the causes of a deeper threat to the field: systemic racism. 

Terrell R. Morton, Asst. Professor, College of Education
Terrell Morton, assistant professor for identity and justice in STEM education in the UIC College of Education.

In a commentary for Nature Chemistry, Morton, assistant professor for identity and justice in STEM education in the UIC College of Education, applied the framework of critical race theory to the field of chemistry, where diversity remains a particular challenge even relative to other sciences. He identified factors such as feelings of invisibility or hypervisibility in Black students, differences in financial and social capital, and lack of intersectionality in diversity programs as systemic barriers facing students, faculty and career scientists in chemistry. 

By publishing the commentary in one of the field’s premiere research journals, Morton said he hopes to reach scientific readers with basic information about critical race theory and why it is relevant to their field, in their own terms. 

In laboratory science, “if an experiment goes wrong, we don’t necessarily blame the experiment. We ask questions about the environment, we ask questions about the materials, we ask questions about the processes by which this particular thing went wrong,” Morton said. “We don’t do that from a perspective of racism or systemic injustice. We constantly point the finger towards an individual because we have this theory of justice that’s very individualistic.” 

Morton said that by focusing on the actions of systems and policies instead of individuals, a critical race theory approach provides constructive insight that can lead to reducing the marginalization of targeted groups and creating equitable conditions in all areas of society — including laboratory research and classroom spaces. 

“One of the things that scientists have struggled with understanding is that racism is structural and systemic, not just interpersonal,” Morton said. “There are power structures at play that impact our everyday experiences, including the research that is done, how we do the research, who gets access to that research and who we recognize as a chemist.” 

To address these root causes, Morton cites fellow scholar Ann Kimble-Hill’s idea of treating the mental and physical harm of systemic racism as a matter of laboratory safety, inspiring science-based proactive efforts to protect students from these hazards. 

Through his own work with the Re-Envisioning Culture Network and leading an $8.8 million NSF grant on Blackness in post-secondary STEM education, Morton explores how using project-based learning and influences from art and culture, such as Afrofuturism, can transform learning environments and make them more welcoming and inclusive.  

“How do we incorporate those strength-based assets in learning spaces, so that they see those spaces as a reflection of who they are, rather than a space that is antagonistic to who they are?” Morton said. “That’s how I try to mitigate systemic racism.” 

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