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Opinion Columbia student on dearth of black faculty: It’s ‘the chinks in our armor that give us the courage’

The Columbia University campus in New York City in 2013. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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As a student at Williams College in Massachusetts, Zach Wood stirred up controversy by inviting guest speakers whose views would make many students uncomfortable.

Williams College president cancels a speaker invited as part of a series designed to bring in provocative opinions

Now beginning his junior year at Columbia University, Wood, who grew up in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, was surprised to hear one of his professors talk frankly about his past. Here, he writes about what he has learned from Carl Hart, the Dirk Ziff professor of psychology and department chairperson at Columbia whose 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.

(Hart responded to this with his own thoughts about race, drugs, policing and academia, which you can read here.

— Susan Svrluga

When most Americans hear the phrase, “Ivy League professor,” they don’t think of a black man born and raised in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Miami who went from carrying a gun and selling drugs to conducting pioneering research that has transformed America’s understanding of drug addiction.

Despite growing up in a neighborhood where the threat of violence and crime were constant companions, Dr. Carl Hart avoided familiar fates of addiction, incarceration and early death.

This fall, I’m taking his course, Drugs and Behavior. While I’ve found many aspects of the course stimulating, some of the more important lessons I’ve taken away thus far have come not from the textbook, or the content of the lectures, but from his story and his example.

As a black student from a disadvantaged background who has attended predominantly white schools since fourth grade, I’m accustomed to feeling keenly aware of aspects of my experience that are unfamiliar to most of my peers.

I’ve often thought to myself that if my peers knew about some of the scarier experiences I’ve had — like when, in fourth grade, my mom’s husband was shot at while chasing a burglar out of the house — they’d see me differently. I feared that if my peers knew more about some of the obstacles I’ve faced, they would make negative assumptions about my family or my upbringing.

I’d inferred that what many of my peers liked and respected about me was my character, my intellect and what I contributed to the school community, not the personal details about my life that caused me anxiety whenever a friend’s parents would ask me questions at their dinner table about what part of the city I lived in, or my parent’s levels of education, occupations and marital status.

While most of the questions were genuine, they sometimes felt invasive and judgmental, as if being black and intellectually driven and not coming from a family of means made me more interesting, if not harder to understand. So I mastered crafting my answers carefully, so as to satisfy their curiosity just enough to preclude further questioning and yet elude anything that might ignite what I perceived to be the subtle contours of their inner feelings about black people.

Though my circumstances changed considerably going from high school to college, I still felt a fear of judgment when probed with personal questions in casual conversation.

We can caution against it and resist it, but most of us, in some measure, naturally worry about the perceptions of others.

I certainly worried and was taken aback when asked not long ago, “Is the reason you care about poverty so much because you’ve lived in it?”

While most people who think that would not say it, it is precisely those kind of judgments that have kept me from saying more about my background, even when doing so may have lent insight or an alternative view to the perspective of others.

That is what first stood out to me about Dr. Hart: Nothing of the sort has stopped him from writing a compelling memoir about some of the most painful and challenging experiences of his life and then assigning the book as reading for our course on drugs and behavior.

He’s the only professor I know who used to sell drugs.

Now he’s the first black professor tenured in the natural sciences at Columbia University.

Yet I’m sure there are still those who walk into his class on the first day and think he’s teaching them only because of affirmative action.

But that is deeply mistaken and invidiously discriminatory, as it uses race as a justification for questioning Dr. Hart’s character and credentials.

To have a black professor at Columbia whose very story sheds new light on conventional ideas about race, poverty and drug addiction does more for students of color and Columbia as a community than many may realize.

Often academics who write about and lecture students on issues of poverty and racism have not actually experienced poverty or racism themselves.

Having a professor such as Dr. Hart adds to the intellectual community a faculty member who, in addition to possessing expansive knowledge of the issues, has lived experiences with many of the problems universities seek to prepare their students to address in society.

What is more, Dr. Hart serves as an intellectual model and mentor for students who may have difficulty finding their niche on a campus full of people who don’t share a similar background.

His story and witness serve as a poignant reminder that issues of racism and poverty are not reducible to theoretical complexity or intellectual abstraction, that behind the statistics and body of scholarly literature are people who often do not have a voice.

His example shows students such as me that sometimes it is the chinks in our armor that give us the courage to make a difference in the communities we come from, by sharing our experiences with those far removed from the places we call home.