Science, Technology, 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 second of three parts, is co-published with Science for the People.

Photo by Uri Thier

Emily Hamilton: The original Science for the People organized around a number of issues in the 1970s and 1980s. Can you describe your particular activism focus within the group?

Sam Anderson: At SUNY [State University of New York], Old Westbury we made sure that once Science for the People started publishing the magazine that our students had availability. It was in the library and some of us purchased a number of copies to use in the classroom. So there was that kind of relationship growing between the faculty members. Even some of the faculty members who were not scientists were also using Science for the People, particularly in the political economy realm. We had discussions around the environmental issues. If the environmental issue is happening in the broader context, what is happening within the Black and Latino communities in and around New York City—these were some of the things that we were beginning to get into.

I was concerned about how we bring students of color into the sciences, and how we could use Science for the People to help bring more students of color into the field of science. Environmental issues were coming into view, if you will, particularly in the Harlem community in the 1970s. We had poor garbage collection in central Harlem and that meant you had these diseases and so forth that were running rampant. We knew that the pollution from the buses was impacting the community—I’m talking roughly 1974-78, about a four-year period. There was a Harlem based environmental group just beginning to form. That was one of the focal points—the diesel buses polluting and the research that group was doing in terms of linkages between respiratory issues and the proximity of these children and adults to the buses, the bus routes, and the bus depot. There was a bus depot—and there still is—on the east side in Harlem, about 127th-128th Street. And there was a large community around it. You had another bus depot on the west side. And so people began to do some research on that, from the community, sometimes with the help of students, Science for the People based students at Columbia University. And so that was one of my concerns, to try to deal with that.

We had an organization—I was living in Harlem at the time—Black New York Action Committee. That was one of the things that we tried to tackle along with the other factor of abandoned housing. There was a study done by Columbia University that mapped illnesses, and the map showed that in many ways a lot of respiratory illnesses or other kinds of environmentally related illnesses were happening in two or three areas in the Harlem community. That was also where we had these abandoned houses and rat infested, garbage strewn, abandoned houses and at the same time, the major north, south, east, and west bus routes. The map was so striking because once you left south of 96th Street on the east side, nothing. No health issues. It’s a matter of two or three blocks. And on the west side, once you left south of 110th Street, downward. Not over by Columbia. Columbia was obviously up on the hill. And that was fairly middle class to relatively wealthy people living in that area. So you didn’t have a health crisis issue [there]. But you come down the hill from Columbia, you see it. You go south of 110th Street and you see that there was no longer a health issue. So that was a very important type of mapping1.

This mapping, this type of research, we were trying to get some people in Science for the People to pick up on. It was done primarily by a group called the Black Topographical Society. And these are young people and what they would do, would be to go into the public records, and look at the developer’s plans. Look at the health records in the New York City public health scene. And what they were talking about and trying to explain to people was not believed until Columbia, a couple of years later, comes out with this report that legitimizes their research. And the whole idea was, not only to expose that reality in Harlem, but the methodology in which they proceeded to do the research can be replicated in every other urban center in the country since they were doing it on public records and then piecing it together with their expertise. One thing I really regret was not being able to get that into one of the issues of Science for the People.

The other thing that was happening in Harlem was the Black Economic Research Center. And that had many types of research. But what overlapped with the work we were doing was their research on housing, or the lack of housing, about landlords sitting on perfectly good housing waiting for the right time to sell and so forth. And the impact that had, as I stated before, with disease carrying rodents, infestation of cockroaches, and what came out of that, was the revelation in the 1980s that there was a direct correlation between cockroach infestation and asthma with young children. Then there was a whole organizing effort. Landlord tenant organizing efforts that went on about getting rid of rats and roaches and so forth. In New York City the housing struggle, the landlord tenant struggle, was fairly formidable. You had some very powerful leaders in that field, in all of the boroughs and particularly in Harlem. Jesse Gray was one of those leaders in this period. He was feared by landlords. He was a great organizer.

Hamilton: I know that you see science, technology, and math as central issues for Black liberation. How did your thinking on that relate to the work you were doing in Black studies and the Black liberation movement? How did those combine for you?

Anderson: In my head, if we were going to have a liberated US, Black people, people of color will be not just in certain types of jobs. They will work in all fields. And it’s essential that in this period of the sixties that the Black liberation movement understand this, that moving forward in a revolutionary change in the United States, you also have to be cognizant of the developments in the fields of science and technology. If you’re not directly involved in it, then others will be defining what science and technology is and who can do science and technology in a [society] increasingly more dependent on science and technology.

And at the same time, we had this big push in the sixties for Black Studies programs on campuses. What I was advocating was that every Black Studies program should have some sort of science component to it, either history of science or collaborative science work. But it was hard to get non-science folks to understand that. Most of the people who were developing and advocating for Black studies programs on campuses were social scientists who, if they had any contact with math and science, it was trauma. So they didn’t understand the interconnectedness of all of the physical sciences and mathematics to the social struggles. I did a short essay that came out in The Black Scholar in 1970, called “Mathematics and the Struggle for Black Liberation.” And for most people it was like cognitive dissonance. What is this, I don’t see the connection.

Hamilton: Who or what were the most important early influences on your thinking with respect to a political analysis of science, technology, and math?

Anderson: Some science fiction writers when I was a teenager, you know, Issac Asimov, and a little bit later Ursula LeGuin, and a little bit later in life Octavia Butler were influences. Growing up in the post-World War II 1950s, a lot of the pulp fiction, science fiction, comic books, and novels were around and that helped shape my sense of things about science and led me to be more interested in science.

Hamilton: Why is it important to bring science to the people?

Anderson: If we have a science for profit and for capitalism, it will continue down the road of helping fascism and totalitarianism—whatever you want to call it—forms of oppression to continue to build and overpower us. We need to have the sciences in the hearts and minds and hands of ordinary, everyday people in order to counter that move that we are already beginning to see—particularly around the issue of climate change—where the capitalist forces find all kinds of ways to undermine the fight back against the climate crisis.

The capitalist system is based on inequity and inequality. It’s got to have that in order to exist. But we fight. We bring those ideas out. We advocate for them. We fight for that. We build on whatever little victories we have, more and more. As Harriet Tubman would say, “freedom or death.” And so, in the twenty-first century, those of us who are advocating for a socialist America are fighting an uphill battle, both internally with allies and externally with the capitalist system. But there is, to me, no other alternative. There’s no third way, no middle ground.

Hamilton: What’s your role with this rebirth of Science for the People?

Anderson: I’m on the sidelines again of the new rebirth. At first I was trying to get myself involved deeply in it, but then a lot of other political work—you know, you have to make a choice—came in and I had to deal with that in terms of the downswing of the Black liberation movement. It took up a lot of my time. My vow in 2020—to get more involved, definitely. Say no to some things over here and say yes to some of the Science for the People work. And I think my role is going to be to bring in those young people of color who are in the field, that have no idea that this body exists, and would feel like “this is what I’ve been looking for and want to get involved.”

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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.