Environmental Crises and Black Liberation: An Interview with Sam Anderson

Emily Hamilton interviewed Sam Anderson in early December, 2019.  Sam Anderson is a Brooklyn, New York, native and a founding member of the Coalition for Public Education and the National Black Education Agenda. He is the author of several books and essays on science, technology, and the history of slavery, among them The Third World Confronts Science and Technology and The Black Holocaust for Beginners. He was the first chair of a Black Studies department in 1969–70 at Sarah Lawrence College and taught mathematics, science, and Black history at SUNY Old Westbury, City College of New York, New York University, Rutgers University, and Brooklyn College. He has been active in the civil rights and Black liberation movement since 1964 as a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, the Black Panther Party, and the Black reparations movement. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This interview, the third of three parts, is co-published with Science for the People.

Photo by Uri Thier

Emily Hamilton: While you were involved with the original Science for the People group, were there issues that you thought the members should be tackling and they weren’t? Did you see any weaknesses with the group or particular strengths?

Sam Anderson: The big weakness was not having a critical outreach to people of color, particularly in academia, because they were mostly based in the universities, not so much in industry. You would provide them with, “hey, there is Professor so-and-so over here who is interested in doing work with you. Contact them and try and follow through. And he or she might be able to get some students involved in it” and so on. And that was not happening.

The strong point, I think, was the inclusion of women as equals in the organization. Even though there was, you know, a lot of male chauvinism going on, it was a fight. It was a battle. It was productive. I think the effort to bring some of these complex scientific ideas down to everyday folk in the writings and in some of the organizing is also very good. And I think that was particularly inspired or rooted in the anti-war work that people were doing and exposing that capitalism uses science to oppress people. Capitalism uses science to divide the American citizenry, and so forth. You know, that kind of thing was very good work that they had done. I think the growing work on the international level was important, even though I don’t think they did enough of that. But particularly in the Western Hemisphere, it was still important not to see yourself as scientists just focused here in the US, but begin to make that connection on an international scale. I think some of them went on a trip to Cuba. Formally there might have been a report in one of the issues on that trip, which would have happened in the late 1970s.

Also, Science for the People did use pre-social media very well. With the magazine, with the development of the smaller conferences, some of the regional conferences and what have you, I thought that was something very useful in deepening and broadening Science for the People. And again, that goes back to the struggles, the internal struggles that they had ideologically, and the struggles that women had in claiming equity in the organization. That evolved positively over the years. And I think that was, again, the impact of the powerful feminist movement in that period. To me the height of the feminist movement was from the latter part of the sixties to the early part of the eighties. That period, you know, feminism really pushed all of the progressive structures, organizations that were existing and those that came into being in that period, it made a big difference in a positive way.

Hamilton: Science for the People disbanded in 1989, but of course your activism did not end there. Can you tell us about what kinds of work you did in the intervening years? How did you continue to advocate for public science literacy or organizing in the sciences?

Anderson: Maurice Bazin and I worked in the mid-seventies on a two-volume book that was published in Portugal and was planned to be published in England, called The Third World Confronts Science and Technology. And it was a collection of work that we had done. Doing the whole historical overview of science: science before Europe, science out of Asia, science out of Africa, science out of the Americas. Then looking at how science was transformed within Europe: during medieval times and how the early stages of capitalism used science to push its economic agenda. And of the direct uses in slavery and the slave trade and how “science” came out of this, how race gets developed as a “scientific development” to rationalize slavery and the slave trade and then rationalize post-slavery, the oppression of people of color worldwide.

Then we talk about contemporary science outside of the US, and outside of the West I should say, in that period during the war, and how the Vietnamese were able to use science and technology to thwart the onslaught of the US military, the various ways they did that. So in a nutshell, what we wanted to do with the book was to show that there is a long history of science and technology that’s not found in Europe and that pre-dates Europe, and that in the contemporary period of the 1970s, is being used by people to fight against capitalist science.

In that period the UN [United Nations] came out with its first major study on the environment, the global environmental crisis. And we talked about that. And what would the earth look like thirty years from now when they were middle aged. That’s now, right! And we talked about that and the dangers and so forth. So the whole idea was to bring in students who would never think about science in any way, shape or form, and see that science, and mathematics, and engineering are part of their lives either directly or indirectly. And that if it’s done wrong, it will be a negative thing down the road. If the capital structure ignores, in 1989 the call of the scientists, or slowly takes it up, we will be impacted thirty years down the road and then their children will be impacted.

Hamilton: You’ve adopted the moniker Black Educator. Tell us what education means to you and how it brings together lots of different strands in your political philosophy?

Anderson: I see myself as covering many different areas under the name of educator, trying to deal with that both in the math-science area as well as in political history, and to a lesser degree now, literature. I used to be a short story writer and poet in the sixties. But so many of us were that anyway. It was like breathing air, you know, in that period, in the explosion of Black cultural material from the early sixties on through the eighties. If you were politically active and you were Black, you were touched by the cultural aspects in one way, shape, or form. And being in New York City, you couldn’t help but step outside, living in Harlem or living in Brooklyn, you step outside and you were in a vibrant Black cultural milieu. This is prior to the gentrification of those communities. And so you incorporated that, you figured out how to weave a lot of that stuff into your own work, your own pedagogical approaches and things.

Hamilton: What do you consider to be the most pressing issues today that Science for the People should be tackling?

Anderson: The most pressing issues, pick a letter out of the alphabet. There’s so many. I think the unifying issue is the climate crisis. That impacts everybody and it has disproportionate impact in the US on people of color, all over the country. That’s one big issue. And the government right now is not doing anything but the opposite. With the Trump administration, the right wing is going crazy. I just saw a piece where it stated that they don’t have enough agents to go around to inspect in the Food and Drug Administration [FDA].

The climate issue also brings in the importance of science with people being international in scope from its very beginning. Of course, the climate is not just hovering in crises over the United States. There are consequences elsewhere that impact us and vice versa. So I think that the international component needs to be developed in Science for the People. Maybe a conference sponsored by Science for the People, a working conference to develop these international relations and international organizing efforts within Science for the People.

Hamilton: Do you see any potential pitfalls that the new iteration of Science for the People will face?

Anderson: Yes. I think one pitfall is the Democratic Party. And how once they return to power how they would use the image of being progressive in the area of science and technology to cover their corporate agenda. I think that’s a big danger because the Democratic Party is a reform party. And they will fight tooth and nail any kind of radical disruption of the structures that already exist. The structure of the FDA, for example. They would tweak that, they wouldn’t rethink it. You have to fight tooth and nail in the FDA to get things done that corporations don’t want to happen. And that shouldn’t be. It should be [that] the FDA is getting things done and the corporations should be on the outside. But it’s the other way around.

I mean, there are so many things that have to be addressed in the field of science and technology and government that we have to be very vigilant. The urgency of the environmental issue is one that I think should be front and center to any of the presidential candidates in the Democratic Party. And that requires a radical shift on all levels. It’s like what happened when I was growing up in the 1950s and Sputnik went up before the American satellite. That created a whole radical shift on many levels, particularly in education, to draw young people into the field of science and technology. And a similar thing has to happen but for the [environmental crisis], because that’s a crisis that needs to be recognized and addressed first and foremost.

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Emily Hamilton

Emily Hamilton is assistant professor of the history of science at the University of Massachusetts. Her research focuses on the cultural and political history of mathematics education reform in the United States. She has worked and taught extensively on a wide variety of topics in the history of science, technology, mathematics, and medicine, as well as in oral history methods and philosophy.