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What Can Academia Do to Fight Racism?

A Black member of Hopkins staff holds a sign that says, "White Coats for Black Lives."

Guest post by Michael Hopkins, founder of Black Scientists Matter; a self-described community activist, an advocate for Black issues; and a fed-up graduate student. 

Recent events of police brutality have sparked protests and outrage across America about the systemic racism that is embedded in our country’s history. These racist policies, practices, systems and institutions, many of which were founded when Black people were still property, have evolved and adapted but remain steadfast in their oppression of Black people.

Institutions of higher education were some of the most resistant to racial integration; have perpetuated violent white supremacy; and have actively conducted harmful research on Black communities. With all the historical injustices from universities, and in light of recent events, the academic community has asked, “What can academia do to fight racism?” In response, there has been a worldwide call to action to address systemic racism in higher education, including a shutdown of STEM to brainstorm ways the academy can fight racial inequality.

To spark conversation, here are six ways we can fight racism in academia:

1. Take accountability.

The question isn’t whether or not the academe is racist; it is. Even if you are a non-Black person in higher education who hasn’t specifically engaged in racist thoughts, actions or policies, you are still a part of a racist system that ostracizes, marginalizes and demonizes Black people. Reconcile this fact. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you have benefitted from racism and prejudice. But, with awareness and retribution, you can address and combat systemic racism. You should take accountability for the role you can play in addressing racial inequality at your university and in your everyday life. Black people should not be alone in addressing the state-sanctioned racism that devastates our communities, and for far too long, we’ve been left alone on the battlefield in a society that we’ve built. Until non-Blacks view these injustices as a tragedy to our society as a whole — and not just as a “them problem” — our educational system will continue to oppress Black people. So, be accountable and reflect on your own prejudices and privilege, which have kept you and your friends and family oblivious or complicit for far too long. Your Black friends, classmates and peers are tired.

2. Educate yourself.

Your Black trainees and faculty have experienced racism their entire lives. You can no longer remain ignorant about racism or choose to ignore it. It is here, and it isn’t going anywhere until we address it. A significant amount of research has demonstrated the prevalence of racism in academic institutions, specifically in STEM fields. This racism has adverse effects on the recruitment, retention and promotion of Black students and faculty. Do the work of seeking out these educational resources and brainstorming solutions. The onus shouldn’t be on Black students to fix your institution’s problems. Use your platform to speak up about these issues. If we want higher education to be more inclusive, we have to eliminate the people and policies making it exclusive. The most prudent thing you can do after gaining knowledge about racism in academia is to share it with your peers, your trainees and your superiors so that we can all fight racism. As activist Angela Davis eloquently said, “In a racist society, it isn’t enough to be nonracist; we must be anti-racist.”

3. Incorporate the truth about racial inequality into your curriculum.

The active or passive role academic institutions have played in perpetuating white supremacy is easy to observe. Universities should use these injustices as teaching moments. Every department should review its curriculum and incorporate the erasure, oppression and violence against Black people that their field has facilitated. For economics programs, learning about predatory loans, red-lining, income inequality and the economic impact of racism should be mandatory. For medical students, disparities in health care access and quality of care, how social determinants of health are impacted by racism, and how racism is a public health issue should be addressed in the curriculum. For criminal justice and law programs, the over-criminalization of Black communities, for-profit prisons, the roots of mass incarceration and the racial disparities in criminal sentencing are crucial topics that must be taught. As beacons of knowledge, it is higher education’s duty to teach critical race theory and its intricacies throughout American history. Every educational field is touched by racial inequality, and it is imperative that professors and students become knowledgeable about these issues, if we hope to use higher education to right the wrongs of racial injustice. If your institution has directly participated in documented malicious practice against Black people, every student and educator at that institution should be well-versed in the history of these wrongdoings, the lessons the university learned and the steps the university is taking to remedy these issues. I’m talking to you Johns Hopkins, Harvard, University of North Carolina and the University of California, among others. We can’t progress toward the future without addressing how past injustices still impact Black people in the present.

4. Fund Black campus organizations, diversity initiatives, and invest in the community.

Put your money where your mouth is. If your school/lab/program/department actively supports and values Black students and faculty, that should be reflected in your budget. How much money does your institution invest in its police department compared with how much they invest in the community? A financial investment from your institution shows dedication to addressing inequality in the Black community. It also ensures that your school/lab/program/department will have a vested interest in utilizing that money for a specific purpose. This financial support can be applied in many different contexts. Some examples include merit-based fellowships specifically for Black grad students and postdocs; funding the research of a Black undergraduate student during the summer; or funding/supporting research that directly studies racial inequality. Additionally, this money could be applied to host a postdoc diversity recruitment event, or it could be used to fund science education in your local community. Note that the use of these funds should not subsidize a departmental happy hour nor any other diversity event that appeases white guilt without acknowledging the deeper systemic issues hurting Black people. No matter how the money is spent, one thing is certain: Where your money is, so your heart is. If you really want to address racial injustice and support Black people, save the lip service and open your checkbook.

5. Create a diversity, equity and inclusion committee.

Most universities have an office of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) with a broad universitywide focus. But there are prevalent issues that affect Black people at the lower program/departmental level. Every division of the academy that educates students should have a designated DEI committee comprising both faculty and students of various racial, ethnic, sexual and socioeconomic backgrounds that reflect the diversity of the department. This committee should be dedicated to advocating for the needs of marginalized communities — hosting events, forums and panels to educate their peers on diversity; participating in department/program faculty and administrator searches; ensuring that graduate student recruitment is equitable; surveying the climate of racial inequality in the department; and holding the academic community accountable for racist infractions. This committee must be backed with substantial administrative and financial support to reflect the institution’s dedication to fostering diversity. More information on starting a DEI initiative can be found here.

5. Implement policy that enforces diversity and inclusion.

The most effective way to dismantle white supremacy in higher education is to draft policy that condemns discrimination, racism, sexism, xenophobia and white supremacy. Every lab, graduate program, academic department and research institution should have a written policy on diversity and inclusion that clearly states their mission to value and foster diversity and to provide an inclusive learning experience for everyone with clear language on enforcing this policy. This policy must be adapted at every level of the academy, and it must be 100% zero tolerance. Those in positions of power must convey that racism and bigotry are unequivocally unacceptable. However, written policy is effective only if it is enforced. Every violation of these policies must be investigated by the diversity, equity and inclusion committee, and suitable punishment must be handed down, whether the perpetrator be faculty or student.

Anti-Black racism is systemic, pervasive and complex. If we are to begin righting the wrongs of racial inequality in higher education, it will take concerted effort from every shareholder in the enterprise, starting from the top-down. Diversity can’t be another box we check off our to-do list. It must be a core pillar on which we base our institutions. Although several changes must start at the administrative level, there is still significant work that individuals can do to address their privilege and fight racial inequality.

Our educational system is fundamentally flawed; it is only through intentional research, education and policy change that we can shift the culture to combat systemic racism and anti-Blackness. Our higher education system must be radically changed at every level to ensure an equitable and safe future for Black scholars.

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