Astronomers, in general, tend to view themselves as liberals or progressives, particularly towards social issues. But at the same time, our field is dominated by white males; the fraction of women in our field with faculty jobs is on the order of 20% , and the fraction of non-white people in our field with faculty jobs is of the same order 20% (and significantly less than that for blacks and hispanics). Exactly how all this is counted is a little difficult to digest given that physics and astronomy are sometimes counted together and sometimes not, and there is a strong bias in these studies against non-faculty permanent jobs, faculty at two-year institutions, and other non-university positions, making a full accounting of everyone in the field incomplete, at best, and biased, at worst (but that is another post). Having said that, it is, however, very clear that the field is dominated by white males.
Anecdotally, it certainly seems that there are more woman in the meetings and conferences that I attend, particularly women in the earlier stages of their careers, than there were in the past. That is, young woman seem to be entering the field and moving through the early career steps; it does remain to be seen if they will remain in the field and move into more senior positions. However, I do not see (again anecdotally) the same increase in the number of people of color at these same meetings. My personal (and probably skewed and biased) observations seem to be in agreement with my reading of these reports; women have made some noticeable, but not spectacular, strides in our field over the past decade, but people-of-color - particularly, black people - have not.
I do not know the exact number of black astronomers in our field, but I am sure the number is small, and I can probably call out a significant fraction of them by name - which indicates just how few there are. My graduate school Ph.D. adviser was black (well, of course, he still is; I never know what verb tense to use in this context), and at the time, he was the only black astronomer I knew. In contrast, I am sure I could not name all (or even a significant fraction) of the women in astronomy, indicting their numbers are far larger.
So the question arises (at least in my mind) what can I do? After all, my perspective is from the point of view of the white male - and in particular, a relatively senior white male astronomer. Part of what I can do (and you can do) is to recognize that with my (and your) experiences come a set of unconscious biases. That is human nature. Being aware can help me (and you) make conscious decisions that counteract these unconscious biases. By being aware of these potential biases, I can help work towards not allowing those biases to influence my decisions.
But perhaps one of the most important things I (you) can do is listen. I have learned from my wife, tenured faculty of physics and astronomy and a member of our field who has endured much in her career as a result of being a woman, to listen to the concerns, to listen to the fears, to listen to anecdotes ... to listen. From a point of view of privilege, it is very easy for a person to see equity and fairness all around them, and to dismiss stories of unfairness and bias as just that - stories. It is also just as important to not simply assume a person is biased or racist - every person has a story - listen - hear them; hear yourself.
Towards that end, one of the blogs that I read regularly is by John Johnson who is tenured faculty at Harvard and a black astronomer. When he writes about bias and race, particularly in our field, he often can make me uncomfortable, but he has helped me to continue to assess and re-assess my opinions. He is beginning a series of blog posts on racism within astronomy (and by extension elsewhere). Do I always agree with John? Of course not, but I do respect his opinion and his observations, and I use his thoughtfulness to help me address and focus my own.
I eagerly await the next post.