For the past few years, like academic semesters, the killing of black people by the police has been on a regular schedule.
The explanation script, always controlled by the police, is familiar and tired. The deceased person’s reputation is dragged through the mud. He had a gun or she was under the influence of some drug; therefore, deadly force was necessary.
Video footage almost always contradicts this official account. But it doesn’t seem to matter because the police are rarely held accountable in such cases.
As a result, there is community outrage that sometimes reaches the level of unrest. Authorities call for calm and peace — rather than justice — and then we are forced to have the same national conversation about race and diversity that we have had for more than 50 years. The only thing that changes is the names of the pundits paraded before the public.
As a professor, a black professor, I often think about the impact that this has on my students, especially the black students. What messages does it send to them? I suspect, with horror, it sends the same ones that I received when in their seats some 30 years ago: “Your life is worthless compared with a white person’s. They are superior to you by the mere fact that they are white in a white-controlled world.”
I explain how for more than 25 years, I have studied the interactions between the brain, drugs and behavior, trying to understand how drugs influence the function of brain cells, how this and other social factors influence human behavior, and how the reverberations of morality regarding drug use are expressed in social policy.
My research has taught me many important lessons, but perhaps none more important than this — drug effects, like semesters, are predictable; police interactions with black people are not. In encounters with police, too often the black person ends up dead. That is why I would much rather my own children interact with drugs than with the police.
I am certain that my white colleagues, when faced with an emergency situation, wouldn’t think twice about calling the police. This, however, may not be the case for their black and Latino students. These students may be faced with the dilemma of not calling for police assistance even when they are in need of help for fear that the police will make the situation worse, and may even kill them or their loved one.
We need our universities to comprise historically excluded faculty to represent these and other perspectives. For this reason, I served on Columbia’s Task Force on Diversity in Science and Engineering, working to increase the number of diverse faculty in the sciences.
I now cringe whenever subjected to meetings or speeches about the importance of having a diverse campus community. I’m even more appalled when I hear some vacuous university administrator touting their school’s diversity accomplishments. Of the nearly 4,000 faculty members at Columbia, only about 4 percent are black. Yet, we have been honored for our diversity achievements.
When compared with similar institutions, our low number of black faculty looks impressive. But when you consider that black people make up 25 percent of the population of New York City, where Columbia is located, 4 percent seems meager. I recognize that New York City might not be the most appropriate comparison, but neither are other exclusive universities whose numbers of black faculty are abysmally low.
Teaching university students affords me the opportunity to demonstrate to young adults that they don’t have to be perfect to make contributions to their country.
If only more of our university and national leaders did the same, I might not have to look out into the sea of predominantly white faces and hold back tears as I think about the fact that Ramarley Graham and Michael Brown would have begun their junior and senior years, respectively, this semester.