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MIT debaters clash over whether STEM is ‘systemically racist’

Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are either exclusive fields difficult for people of color to break into or opportunities available to all Americans regardless of skin color, according to a panel of scholars who recently debated the proposition that STEM is systemically racist.

Panelists Chad Womack of the United Negro College Fund and Jaret Riddick, senior fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University, argued for the proposition that STEM is systemically racist at the debate, held Nov. 2 at MIT.

Biologist Luana Maroja of Williams College and Erec Smith of York College of Pennsylvania and co-founder of Free Black Thought argued against it during the debate, hosted by the MIT chapter of the Adam Smith Society and the MIT Free Speech Alliance.

Alliance President Peter Bonilla told The College Fix the debate was hosted “because it’s a topic of significant discussion, and it’s of particular relevance to a STEM institution like MIT.”

During the debate, Riddick argued that because STEM emerged at a time in American history when systemic racism was prevalent, racism lingers in the field today.

“Even though we may change how we use the system, that doesn’t mean racist outputs won’t be produced,” Riddick said.

Riddick and Womack pointed to disparities between the percentage of the population composed by minorities and their representation among leaders in the STEM field.

Womack observed that “only 2 percent” of tenure-track STEM faculty in the United States are African-American, and attempted to tie this to discrimination that persists in American society.

This was countered by Maroja, who pointed out that representation of minorities in STEM is consistent with the level of academic achievement in these groups.

“Do you know any qualified Black scientist today who, simply because of discrimination, could not enter STEM,” Maroja asked the opposing panelists.

Smith also resisted claims of systemic racism against minorities in STEM, arguing “systemic racism probably isn’t the monster we think it is, if it’s anything at all.”

“If we do have systemic racism at all, it’s in thinking that black kids can’t do math in the way that white kids can,” Smith said, criticizing the lowering of academic standards in school districts.

“If a Klansman wanted to make sure he could hold black people down, this systemic racism thing would be a good strategy,” he added.

Responding to an audience question, Riddick said he opposes lowering academic standards, which the questioner characterized as “pushing everyone down” rather than “pulling everyone up.”

“I don’t endorse any relaxing of standards and I agree with Dr. Smith that it’s not necessary,” Riddick said. “However, what we see in the system is that we’re not getting where we need to be.”

Following the debate, Smith told The College Fix in an email that while he was glad both sides agreed that relaxing academic standards is wrong, he believes his opponents’ other positions are “wildly inaccurate.”

“Although both Drs. Womack and Riddick want to maintain academic rigor, they harbor other thoughts that contribute to the negative emotionality that goes hand in hand with such tactics,” Smith said.

Smith told The Fix he believes “Afropessimism” undermines black achievement in these fields, and that disparities cannot simply be blamed on “underfunding” of minority STEM programs.

“Sadly, our students are being steeped in a discourse of victimhood and hopelessness that, in many situations, is considered a more authentically Black mindset,” Smith said.

Following the debate, Bonilla told The Fix that there were no protests of the event and that he was “very pleased” with how the discussion went.

“Every panelist came at the issue from a different direction and brought a lot to the table,” Bonilla said.

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About the Author
College Fix contributor David Glasser is a rising second-year student at the Florida State University College of Law, with over six years of news and opinion writing experience for various publications. He is set to graduate in 2026.