A Juneteenth Reflection

July 12, 2020

Originally written on June 19th, 2020

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Darrien Hunt, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain and countless other black lives have spurred an overdue conversation regarding systemic and institutionalized racism in America. In response, these institutions, including academic institutions, have launched new inclusion initiatives, including new diversity committees, new mentoring programs for URM, allocated new funding for outreach, and so forth. While such new initiatives are a wonderful first step in a long road towards racial justice, equity, and inclusion, at the end of the day, I can’t help but feel, and what is often left unsaid in my opinion, that, for many of us working within these institutions: this is our fault, too.

While I should hope that none of us have made blatantly racist, derogatory remarks or contributed to an openly hostile and unwelcoming environment for our black colleagues and students, it is far too simplistic and naïve to conclude “I’m one of the good ones.” As individuals in positions of leadership, as gatekeepers, as fellow human being, we must recognize our complacency in perpetuating institutionalized injustice. We must vow to do better.

In order to do better, we must first recognize how we, within our current systems, perpetuate institutionalized injustice. One way is through the hiring process. This provides an opportunity for us to leverage our privilege as people with hiring authority to bring about the diversity we wish to see.

However, in reflecting on my own experiences as a person with hiring authority and influence, I recognize a number of mistakes that I have made that have inadvertently perpetuated institutionalized injustice. Here are a few examples:

  1. I failed to invite a URM student for an interview because she did not have the best grades or test scores. There were a number of other indications that she was qualified based on her life experiences including starting a company and financially supporting her family. I hindsight, I didn’t recognize how her qualifications were not well reflected in our current biased metrics of evaluation that claim but so often fail to be quantitative proxies of a student’s intellect, motivation, and potential particularly for women and URMs.
  2. I didn’t consider a female student for an internship because her recommendation letter hinted that she was pursuing research to build up her resume rather than being interested in research. In hindsight, other well-represented students who I did accept into the internship program were also pursuing research to build up their resumes but were not given the same level of scrutiny. In hindsight, if I were to use this as a criterion for selecting students, I should have applied it uniformly to all candidates rather than holding minority candidates up to this higher standard.
  3. When I evaluate students for my lab, including very junior high-school level interns, I am drawn towards applications from students with prior research experience. However, through my own experiences, I know that many of these early internship opportunities are obtained through exclusive connections by pushy parents rather than based on merit or even interest by students themselves. In hindsight, I should take this unequal early access to opportunities into consideration during the evaluation process.

So, having recognize a mechanism by which our current systems perpetuate institutionalized injustice, how can we leverage our privileges to bring about change? Unfortunately, the answer is not easy because change is never easy. Change takes effort.

At minimum, we must first make an effort to seek out information without burdening URMs through our own self-education. We must become knowledgeable about the possibility of our own implicit biases emerging, not necessarily to ensure that these biases will not operate, but to increase the likelihood of self-conscious efforts to use procedures that will minimize the possibility of implicit biases hindering fairness of the decision-making process.

We must make an effort to reach out to URM student applicants, encourage them to apply, read their applications, reach out to references, conduct phone interviews, and evaluate our students based on more than just a series of numbers that are intended but so often fail to reduce down a complex being into passing glance’s worth of information.

We must make an effort to ensure that URM students are able to maintain rich and well-rounded lives with hobbies and friends who can support them through the inevitable ups and downs of pursuing novel scientific research, even if it means sacrificing our momentary productivity.

We must make an effort to mentor URM students so that they can gain the mentorship and experiences of doing science, not as a byproduct of us advancing our own careers, but as fundamental goals with inherent intangible value onto themselves.

And ultimately we must make an effort to create institutionalized structures and mechanisms that reward these efforts if we wish to see them persist and scale.

Because if we don’t do it, who will?

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