MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXX No. 5
May / June 2018
A Letter to the Class of 2018
Is This Any Way to Run a University?
Women at MIT
The Obligations of Citizenship
Diversity is Not Enough
The Positive Near-Term Picture
for Federal Research Funding
Engineering Enrollment Data at MIT
Student Leaders Emerge at MIT Conference
to Address Danger of Nuclear War
Looking Forward/Looking Backward
Across the Retirement Line
Promoting Mental Health
and Well-Being at MIT
from the 2018 Senior Survey
Printable Version

Diversity is Not Enough

Ceasar McDowell

On May 1, 1992, three days after an all-white jury failed to convict three white police officers for brutally beating him, Rodney King pleaded for an end to the ensuing LA Uprising: ". . . can we all get along? Can we, can we get along?"

A month later, MIT President Charles Vest reminded the graduating class that there was no greater goal "than that of restoring some modicum of tolerance and civility in this country and this world." He went on to set this charge for the audience:

"You must help to stem the centrifugal forces that would pull us apart. We need tolerance, not divisiveness; mutual respect, not disdain; love, not hate; civility, not revenge; hard work, not empty rhetoric; excellence, not mediocrity; grand strategies, not just tactics."

Two voices, 3,000 miles apart. One black, one white. One speaking to the disheartened and marginalized, the other to the hopeful and privileged. In the ensuing 26 years, MIT has pursued inclusion and diversity as the means to build a culture of tolerance, mutual respect, love, and civility, all grounded in hard work and excellence. But inclusion and diversity, while necessary, do not represent a sufficient response to the primary challenge this country and the world face: the belief in a hierarchy of human value. This is the belief that whiteness is the pure race and all other races are less valuable. Your value as a human being decreases as the pigmentation in your skin increases. It is this belief that helped fuel chattel slavery and the enduring carnage that resulted from white privilege.

MIT seeks to Make the World a Better Place. As a leading institution in science, technology, engineering, and the design and development of urban spaces there is a role for MIT in helping the world be a better and, I would add, a more just and equitable place. MIT can do this by sharing knowledge, spurring innovation, and preparing the next generation of leaders.

But MIT will only fulfill this potential when we acknowledge that, like the majority of academic institutions in this country, the Institute is at the very least tainted, if not partially propelled, by the history of slavery and the ongoing practices of racism and white privilege in America.

Professor Craig Wilder’s innovative “MIT and Slavery” class launched MIT’s investigation into its ties to slavery, reminding us that as we learn more about the historical origins of the Institute’s link to slavery we must also accept without question that the current culture, structure, and aspirations of MIT are defined by "whiteness and its corresponding privilege."

In short, this is a call for MIT to take steps to becoming an anti-racist organization. This is the first step in acknowledging and working to undo the role of white privilege in the day-to-day workings of MIT.

To be an anti-racist organization means to accept without question that a belief in a hierarchy of human value and white privilege are operating at every level of the Institute. It means developing a strategy for unmasking and undoing this in every part of the Institute. Clearly, it can’t be done everywhere at the same time, but it can be made clear that it will be done everywhere within a specific timeframe. It means providing leadership across the Institute with the knowledge and skills needed to move the institution through this work. It means doing whatever it takes to diversify across the Institute. It means being dedicated to equipping itself and those it educates to be leaders in disrupting and dismantling the daily practices that continue to uphold white privilege.

Where to start. Let me make three simple suggestions.

  • Conduct an anti-racist assessment of every School, using recommendations and the analysis of Craig Wilder and Melissa Nobles, whose work should continue and be fully funded.
  • Increase the Target of Opportunities slots for junior and senior faculty of color across all departments.
  • Over the next five years add a specialist on anti-racist practices and strategies to every Visiting Committee.

Final note. In my work I promote the concept of Design From the Margins. The idea here is that if you design an intervention or change to work for (and with) those who are most marginalized, then you inevitably cover them and those who are in the majority. Within the structure of the United States, it is blackness that defines the fundamental marginal group. The marginalization of blacks is in the origin story of this country and the current politics of this country. While I know the importance of gender-inequality and the marginalization of differently-abled people and queer folk, I ask in this instance that we focus on the victims of the original sin of this country (slavery and white privilege) and have faith that if we build an anti-racist institution it will be an institution that tends to us all.

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