Analysis & Opinions - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

A Call for Antiracist Action and Accountability in the US Nuclear Community

| Aug. 24, 2020

Authors’ note: This piece was reviewed and edited by Professor Gabrielle Hecht (Stanford University), Professor Susan Silbey (MIT), and several contributors who prefer to remain anonymous, to whom the authors are deeply grateful.

The recent depraved killings of George FloydBreonna TaylorAhmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks ignited widespread protests across the United States, representing a renewed outrage at centuries of white supremacy, colonialism, and state-sanctioned oppression of and brutality against Black people. While not new, this sweeping public outcry and swelling national movement has catapulted conversations about systemic racism into mainstream awareness with an exceptional sense of urgency.

As part of the ensuing national racial reckoning, institutions within the US nuclear community—academic departments, think tanks, advocacy groups, national laboratories, and others—have issued statements condemning systemic racism. (Several institutions within the nuclear community, at the time of writing this article, had still not produced a statement.) But the nuclear community must go beyond acknowledgement alone if it genuinely aims to dismantle long-standing structural inequalities. For these institutions, the true work of becoming antiracist still lies ahead: accepting and rectifying their own complicity in the problem.

A commitment to dismantling systemic racism and becoming antiracist requires openness, willingness to listen and change, and, above all, accountability—on an individual, organizational, epistemological, and institutional level. However, the nuclear community may find it difficult to hold its own institutions and community accountable for systemic racism.

Recent conversations around racism in the field are often limited to security policy and strategy or the militarization of the police force. These discussions illustrate that many are able to critique injustice outside of their own institutions, but miss the more fundamental problem hiding in plain sight in the nuclear community: that its history, logics, and culture “produce or sustain racial hierarchy,” which, by scholar Ibram X. Kendi’s definition, means it is racist.

Accountability starts with understanding how systemic racism in the nuclear field is produced and sustained in two different, yet entangled ways. Epistemic racism concerns itself with how the field was built, normalizing colonialist dehumanization, erasure, and exploitation of people of color. Institutional racism, by contrast, involves the mechanisms within the nuclear community that even today create and sustain barriers precluding Black and non-Black professionals of color from full participation, inclusion, and professional advancement. Only by deeply understanding how these traditions of injustice came to be, persist, and thrive within the nuclear community today can its members commit to being antiracists.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Turner, Katlyn, Lauren J. Borja, Denia Djokić, Madicken Munk and Aditi Verma.“A Call for Antiracist Action and Accountability in the US Nuclear Community.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, August 24, 2020.

The Authors