A graduating senior walks on the campus of Columbia University in May. (Amanda Voisard)

 

Carl L. Hart was surprised when a student in one of his classes at Columbia University wrote an essay for The Washington Post about the effect of having him speak frankly about his past and the importance of having non-white faculty members.

Hart took the opportunity to respond with his thoughts on race and higher education, in the midst of the national debate over police violence. 

(Hart writes of cases such as the 2012 shooting death of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham, who had fled from police during a drug investigation in New York, and the 2014 death of another unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo., which set off nationwide protests.)

Hart is the chair and Dirk Ziff professor of psychology at Columbia University. His book “High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society” was given the 2014 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. He tweets at @drcarlhart.

— Susan Svrluga

Carl Hart Carl Hart (Eileen Barroso)

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.”

Faced with this wretched reality, every Monday and Wednesday morning, I stand before my Columbia University students honored to have the opportunity to present information that challenges society’s views about black people as well as the perceptions held about drugs, their effects and their role in crime.

I speak candidly about my past and who I am. In fact, “High Price,” my science memoir, is one of the required readings for the course. In it, I detail my imperfections and past drug use and sales. I also lay out a blueprint for how one can succeed as a scientist and academic in a world that despises one’s people.

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.

And, as a part of my research, I have given thousands of doses of drugs, including crack cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine, to people. By the way, I have never seen a research participant become violent or aggressive while under the influence of any drug (at doses typically used recreationally), as police narratives frequently claim.

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.

Initially, I was excited to participate because I thought the goal was to increase the number of faculty from those groups historically excluded from the academy as a result of discrimination.

It turns out that the term “diversity” can be anything from black faculty to military veterans. Well, I am both, but have yet to be subjected to discrimination because I’m a veteran.

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.

This responsibility also requires me to impress upon my students that they must obtain the necessary critical-thinking skills to be informed and that they should be courageous, especially in the face of injustice.

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.

 

Dennis A. Mitchell, vice provost for faculty diversity and inclusion at Columbia, sent a written statement in response: 

Columbia is committed to being a leader in diversifying its faculty as demonstrated through the focus on best practices in recruitment and hiring, the scale of the resources we have devoted, and the percentage of faculty here who are underrepresented minorities. 

Yet never has progress relative to our peers obscured the fact that, as Professor Hart points out, the percentage of African American faculty and those from other underrepresented groups remains too small.  We are working every day, in a host of ways, to change this.