From Georgetown Law To JAMA: What We Can Learn From Racist Incidents In Elite Academia

Racism is an added challenge for many Black and Brown professionals in professional degree programs … [+]

“I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks. Happens almost every semester.” These aren’t the words of some 19th century eugenics pioneer. Instead, they’re the casual musings of a Georgetown Law professor conducting what seems to be an everyday Zoom call with a work colleague (last month).

“No physician is racist so how can there be structural racism in healthcare?” That’s not a laughable retort from a misguided 19th century physician; it’s a now-deleted 2021 tweet from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

These two instances are just a couple recent high-profile examples of how deeply embedded racism and racially biased thinking are not just where we might expect it—amidst highly conservative, less educated corners of the deep South arguably—but also very much thriving within our elite academic institutions that pride themselves on intellectual depth, progressivism and inclusivity. In fact, the June 2020 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article “Academia Isn’t a Safe Haven for Conversations About Race and Racism” references a “liberal white supremacy” that often seeks to dominate discussions of race among academic faculty.

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The truth is that as long as society continues to view anti-racism as niceness—as Robin DiAngelo warns against in her New York Times bestseller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism)—we’ll continue to miss the racism hiding in plain sight within so many purported bastions of progressivism.

After the video began trending on social media and Georgetown’s Black Law Students Association developed a petition calling for adjunct professor Sandra Sellers’ termination, she was reportedly terminated, and the other call participant adjunct professor David Batson was placed on leave. The Washington Post also reports that she offered a resignation letter that in part read, “I would never do anything to intentionally hurt my students or Georgetown Law and wish I could take back my words.” She continued, “Regardless of my intent, I have done irreparable harm and I am truly sorry for this.”

Similarly, following a Change.org petition started by the Institute for Antiracism in Medicine, Howard Bauchner, MD, editor-in-chief of JAMA and the JAMA Network, reportedly requested and accepted the resignation of JAMA Clinical Reviews podcast host Edward H. Livingston, MD after a recent episode titled “Structural Racism for Doctors: What is it?” wherein American Medical Association (AMA) Deputy Editor for Clinical Reviews and Education, Edward Livingston reportedly stated, “Structural racism is an unfortunate term. Personally, I think taking racism out of the conversation will help. Many of us are offended by the concept that we are racist.” To make matters worse, the organization later tweeted, “No physician is racist, so how can there be structural racism in healthcare?” The American Medical Association (AMA)—an organization that had in November 2020 adopted policy recognizing racism as a public health threat—subsequently issued a series of statements after the backlash not just condemning the recent statements and highlighting the reality of structural racism but also (arguably more importantly) committing to investigating how such a podcast was planned, produced, then promoted and also taking additional corrective action to avoid future harm and promote health equity.

One of the classic definitions of racism is simply “prejudice + power” and these most recent examples highlight how insidious racism really can be. It’s not just the individual prejudices (which are bad enough) that many of us have, but arguably the real harm comes when that prejudice is weaponized (whether intentionally or not) through our biased decisions and actions that can create significant consequences for members of historically marginalized populations unfortunate enough to exist within a prejudiced person’s sphere of influence. Amy Cooper, Sandra Sellers and Edward Livingston are just a few names that have become publicized through these incidents, but what about all the others whose names we’ll never know—judges, teachers, school administrators, loan officers, admissions directors, publishers, literary agents, business executives and more? How do their racially biased views impact their associations, choices, decisions and the views of their colleagues?

Hearing a Georgetown Law Professor matter-of-factly imply that Black students are less capable leads one to consider the most obvious potential impacts. Did this biased thinking impact how Black students were evaluated in her classes? Did it impact her legal teachings and interpretation of the law? Did it impact any recommendations she might have made (or not made)? How would such language impact other Black students at Georgetown and beyond? How would Black lawyers and judges in general feel hearing her conclusions? How have her thoughts and feelings potentially impacted her colleagues over the years? The sad truth is that we’ll never know, but what we can be nearly certain of is that her views aren’t unique. They were just caught on camera.

While incidents like these can feel like a gut punch, there are opportunities to learn, so let’s explore a few practical takeaways.

Lofty Degrees and Positions Don’t Make One Immune to Ignorant, Misguided Belief Systems

Dr. Livingston’s example reminds us that racist thoughts cross all barriers. Even though his own organization had previously highlighted the scientific basis of structural racism, during the podcast he reportedly questioned how racism can be so embedded in society if it’s illegal with all the intellectual rigor of one questioning how robbery, assault or even shoplifting for that matter could have possibly continued once they were deemed illegal. The unfortunate truth is that racist and ignorant thoughts are pervasive. Much like Covid-19 they know no color, gender, vocation, class or education-level boundaries, so we must fight it everywhere.

Protest is a Necessary Part of Progress

Both incidents spawned protest, and that pressure certainly seems to have had a significant impact on each organization’s ultimate decision to sever ties with the offender. The JAMA podcast (since replaced with an apologetic audio message from JAMA’s editor in chief) appears to have aired on February 23. The podcast tweet was sent on February 24, and Livingston’s resignation was announced on March 10. This WebMD article asserts that more than 2,000 signatures had been collected in a Change.org petition calling for an investigation into the offensive podcast. Similarly, Georgetown Law student Hassan Ahmad, who posted the viral video on March 10, later tweeted his frustrations about the administration’s response. “The Administration issued a (woefully inadequate) statement,” tweeted Ahmad. They admit that they learned about it ‘earlier this week,’ and yet it took public outcry and a petition to get them to launch an ‘investigation’ into something everyone can see in a video clip less than a minute long.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently reminds us in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” it’s naïve to expect leadership to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. Indeed, direct action is typically required, and that action often takes the form of some sort of protest or demonstration.

Allies Matter

Watching the cringeworthy Georgetown Law professor call, it’s hard not to notice her (White male) colleague’s lack of outrage which seemed to suggest that he either agreed with the sentiments himself, wasn’t disturbed by her racially-charged comments or some combination of the two. His clear unwillingness to seize the obvious opportunity to push back or at a bare minimum question her outlandish conclusions highlight why allyship is so important in the fight to build anti-racist workplaces. Allyship is also critical because it’s still very much an uphill climb for Black and Brown professionals to raise these issues in what are often less than hospitable professional environments. In fact, the aforementioned HBR article insists, “When people of color give voice to the discrimination they experience, they are often silenced by their white colleagues, many of whom purport to be liberal progressives. And although there is a perception that academia is a safe haven for these kinds of honest conversations, it is often the opposite.”

Training Can’t Cure All

If there is a silver lining in these stories, it may simply be that each offender was terminated. Likely influenced by the very public backlash, the organizations didn’t opt for the often woefully inadequate option of “diversity or sensitivity training” which conveniently offers leadership an escape route from addressing the problem head on. Certainly, anti-racism training can be a powerful tool for organizations when used as part of a broader, ongoing strategy, but typically training is most effective as a preventative, educational measure, not as a feeble attempt to correct long-standing individual problems. Just like a doctor might prescribe regular exercise and diet changes for an otherwise healthy population but schedule surgery for a patient with a cancer diagnosis, organizational leaders must recognize that race-related trainings while effective tools still aren’t magic wands.

Part of the reason why training won’t typically “fix” these individuals is that training tends not to work well for people who don’t want to be trained, and once a racially-charged incident has occurred, subjects are more likely to focus their energies on defending their “non racist status” than they are to digging in and looking for opportunities to expand their thinking and grow as an individual. As much as we’d love to cling to the idealized view of the highest levels of academia as bastions of curiosity, self-reflection and enlightenment, the truth is that revered, highly credentialed professionals are probably more likely to approach even the mention of diversity training with an overly dramatic Sharon Osbornesque “”How can I be racist about anybody or anything in my life?” indignation. (Osborne has since penned a public apology in response to recent incident on The Talk). As a trainer, I’ve often taught that there are three elements necessary for personal improvement: awareness, ability and motivation, and quite often the self-imposed barrier impeding progress for so many is simply a stubbornly arrogant inability to conceive of the fact that that one’s biases, assumptions or behaviors could actually be part of the problem.

While these incidents are beyond disturbing, they help illuminate how pervasive racism is within virtually every corner of American society—particularly within spaces thought to be more “progressive.” In fact, it’s the bias that’s embedded within these environments that’s often the most difficult to attack because it’s not as overt. It lay dormant like a slowly progressing cancer, but it’s just as lethal.

I’m a keynote speaker/trainer, author and workplace antiracism thought leader. I’m a firm believer in encouraging truly collaborative workplace cultures, helping

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