Two Rusty Things that Still Exist in the Modern World: Racism and Sexism

By (James) Sungbin Cho

Published Date: 2020 / 11 / 16

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Image of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan
“Katherine-Johnson,-Dorothy-Vaughan,-and-Mary-Jackson-nasa.” Image.

There was a time when people thought that a journey to the Moon was easier than white and black people sitting together on the bus. There was a time when people believed that going to outer space was easier than having female students studying in universities with male students. These statements seem quite strange to us, but it was indeed true during the 1950s to 1960s in the United States.

Racism in the U.S. during the 1950s-60s was severe. For instance, Rosa Parks was arrested simply because she was black and refused to yield her seat to white people. Ku Klux Klan (also referred as KKK) amplified the racism in the 1960s and committed many terrorist acts to black people to merely kill them. More problematic thing was that majority of white American population generally accepted discrimination against and segregation of black people as the norm, while black people demanded basic civil rights. In response, those people insisted on the idea of “separate but equal” to justify segregation as fair enforcement of power. Resentments to this unjust notion were burst out with the ruling for the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which declared the idea of “separate but equal” as no longer valid, stating that the idea was unconstitutional. However, the southern states dismissed the declaration, failing to mitigate racism against black people, thus triggering many civil rights movements across the country. As many movements raised the awareness of issues regarding justice and equality, the old idea of sexism got attention. Although the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed women’s suffrage in 1920, American society was still deeply steeped in gender inequality.

Many people overcame these unfair treatments and eventually achieved their dream. Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan were some of them. They were African American women who worked ‘human calculators’ in NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics), which was later integrated into NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Their responsibilities, providing data analysis and calculations essential for launching the spacecraft, were imperative for the American success in the Space Race. Still, how they were treated did not reflect their significance. Like the rest of America, NACA was segregated, and black people had to use separate facilities like bathrooms and dining rooms. Also, the idea of the male superiority in mathematics was fixed in NACA, hindering female employees to get higher positions.

Mary Jackson, however, did not succumb to these discriminations. At the time, she wanted to step up from her job as a human calculator and work as an engineer, an almost impossible dream since she had to take courses that were not offered to black women. Eventually, Jackson got special permission to study those courses with other white male students after persistent requests at the court and proudly became the first black female engineer at NASA. In 2020, NASA renamed their headquarters to Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters to acknowledge her efforts in NASA. Similarly, Dorothy Vaughan wanted to take the role of a leader in the West Computers, where human calculators worked. She worked hard to get the position and became the first black supervisor and one of the few female supervisors in NACA. Katherine Johnson was one of the first black students who had an opportunity to enter the graduate program at West Virginia. She excelled in mathematics and aerophysics and applied her knowledge to many studies, but she did not get credit for any of her research.The reason was that Johnson was female and black. However, people were no longer able to ignore her contributions, and in 1960, she got the credit for her calculations for shooting the spacecraft into orbit, which was the first time that a female human calculator received credit for her research. In recognition of her efforts in the space program, NASA named the research department building, Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in 2017.

These three women’s efforts were influential. When NACA was incorporated into NASA in 1958, all segregated facilities were closed, which combined Vaughan and her department with other groups of all genders and races. Their achievements were important motives for the civil rights movement as well. And their efforts were spread to the world by the book Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women who Helped Launch Our Nation Into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly and the film of the same title that was released in 2016. Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan were the beacons of hope, inspiring many black people and women to step up and shout out their voices from the unjust society. (For more information about these three women, visit NASA’s Modern Figures website.)

Then, is the modern world free of racism and sexism? Did the efforts of these three figures and other people liberate society from racism and sexim? Do we live in a world that does not discriminate based on gender and race? No. Police brutality on black people was exposed to the public by the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, which triggered the worldwide movement of BLM (Black Lives Matter). Xenophobia against the Chinese has increased after COVID-19 outbreak, as I wrote in the previous article. Gender roles still exist in the world, along with unjust treatments based on gender. However, we deserve equality regardless of our “race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948). Everyone around the planet gets human rights that guarantee justice from the fact that all humans are humans.

We should not let the movements of the historical figures become meaningless efforts. Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan worked so hard to make the world a better and fairer place for everyone. Here is what individuals can do to sustain justice and equality for every person in the world: 1) do not discriminate against people based on their differences; being different means being different does not mean it is wrong. 2) Look for people who are being discriminated against and resolve the improper treatments that they get. We have a great privilege that Mary Jackson did not have in her time; we now know that unfair treatments and discriminations are wrong.

Works Cited
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History.com Editors. “The 1950s.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 17 June 2010, www.history.com/topics/cold-war/1950s.

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Howell, Elizabeth. “NASA's Real 'Hidden Figures'.” Space.com, Space, 24 Feb. 2020, www.space.com/35430-real-hidden-figures.html.

“Katherine Johnson.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Katherine-Johnson-mathematician.

“Mary Jackson.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Jackson-mathematician-and-engineer.

Potter, Sean. “NASA Names Headquarters After 'Hidden Figure' Mary W. Jackson.” NASA, NASA, 24 June 2020, www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-names-headquarters-after-hidden-figure-mary-w-jackson.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights. www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.

“Katherine-Johnson,-Dorothy-Vaughan,-and-Mary-Jackson-nasa.” Image.

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