I recently saw a clip of Cosmos host and all round brilliant Neil Degrasse Tyson answering a question posed during a panel discussion. The question, which wasn’t really a question at all, had to do with former Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ comments on the disproportionate representation of women in science and math fields and his wondering if innate differences in sex might partially explain it.
The heavily mustached Tyson, seeking to ensure clarity in the event that there was any confusion, stated emphatically “I’ve never been a female.” He quickly followed with “But I have been black my whole life”. He went on to suggest that he might be able to tangentially address the issue. “So let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective because there are many similar social issues related to access to opportunity that we find in the black community as well as the community of women in a male dominated, white male dominated society."
He goes on to talk about the roadblocks, he faced beginning as a 9 year old who had decided that he wanted to study astrophysics. Teachers would ask if he wouldn’t rather be an athlete. Later, security guards would follow him in stores thinking he might be a thief. He states that the decision to become an astrophysicist was for him “The path of most resistance through the forces of nature in society, the forces of society.” He follows with this: “And fortunately my depth of interest in the universe was so deep and so fuel enriched, that every one of these curveballs I was thrown and fences that were built in front of me and hills I had to climb… I just reached for more fuel and kept going.”
He then wonders why there are so few others (blacks or women) where he is: “Where are the others who might have been this? They’re not there. And I wonder how, who, what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not, simply because of the forces of society that prevented, at every turn, at every turn…”
Finally, wrapping up he says: “My life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, you don’t find women in the sciences, I know these forces are real and I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity, then we can have that conversation.”
Just as Tyson has never been a woman, I’ve never been a black person. But as a sentient person I recognize that discrimination exists. It always has and until we’re all either clones or robots, it always will. Discrimination is about making choices and making choices is part of life, and people make them for all different reasons. Whether it’s hiring a cousin over a more qualified stranger, a man choosing the younger more attractive secretary over the older more experienced applicant, a woman choosing the 6’ ft brooding Adonis over the 5’4” nice guy, or a white family choosing to attend the mostly white church 4 blocks from their house rather than the mostly black church a block and a half away… discrimination of all sorts exists and takes place every single day. It exists everywhere... and for lots of different reasons, some of which society can seek to minimize and some of which it can't. Think about it, when was the last time you chose to hit on someone you found unattractive? At the end of the day, life is not fair because we’re all different, with different characteristics, abilities, skills, personalities, likes, dislikes, prejudices and as Tyson pointed out, drives.
And that’s where Dr. Tyson misses the mark. He said it himself when he talked about his desire being so deep that it fueled him to overcome all obstacles to his success. Despite what he calls the “forces of nature” set against his success, he succeeded to a level he would likely never have imagined. His success was not due to some phantom “system where there’s equal opportunity” but rather his success was due to his desire to succeed and his willingness to work for it. Just as it was for Clarence Thomas, Jackie Robinson, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Reich, John Stossel and millions of other Americans. Is Tyson suggesting that he is superman and that other blacks and women don’t have what it takes to succeed in life as he did, and therefore they need some special advantages he did not have? I don’t think so. By his own words one could make the argument that Tyson succeeded because of the challenges he faced, not in spite of them. After all he used the roadblocks to fuel his passion to achieve, which led him to become one of the best known scientists in the country.
The problem with Tyson’s comments is that he puts the focus in the wrong place. He suggests that we don’t currently have “a system where there’s equal opportunity” and implies that it is possible to create one. The United States may not be perfect, but for those who are willing to work, for those who have the drive, for those who have the passion to pursue their goals, the United States offers more opportunity than any nation in history. Tyson and tens of millions of others prove that point. But by focusing on a mythical, unachievable, discrimination-free society or system, he undermines the single most powerful factor in someone’s success… their own willingness to overcome obstacles in order to achieve their goals.
There are indeed challenges that blacks face in the United States. And likely they are greater and different than those faced by whites. But the question is, what is keeping more blacks from achieving success? Is it white racism in a world where even the hint of racism can cost a company millions of dollars or open an individual’s life up to social and online scorn and ostracization? Or is it teachers’ unions that force mostly minority students to stay in failing schools? Is it minimum wage laws that keep black youth unemployment near or above 50% and remove opportunities for work experience? Is it government welfare programs that make it feasible for 77% of black babies to be born to unwed mothers?
What has a better chance of unleashing the potential power of success for blacks who have yet to achieve it? Focusing on some impossible dream of a where equal opportunity is equated with equal outcomes or rather empowering everyone by focusing on equipping children with the tools and skills to pursue their passions and overcome all obstacles with the vigor Dr. Tyson did. My guess is the latter would.