May/June 2020Vol. XXXII No. 5

Challenging Systemic Racism at MIT

Sally Haslanger, Jonathan Alan King, Helen Elaine Lee, Nasser Rabbat, Warren Seering

Following the killing of George Floyd by a white policeman on May 25, protests erupted across the nation against the grotesque wrongs of anti-black racism and its long, tenacious hold on the American social structure. In this hopeful moment fraught with possibilities, it is only right that MIT aims for greater self-reflection. However, self-reflection is not enough. Deliberate and sustained action is required, not some day, not tomorrow, but now.

MIT’s long history of inaction on the issue of racism is well documented. There is a pattern.

This pattern is itself a performance of systematic injustice and is insulting both to those who have been wronged and those who have devoted their efforts to bring about change. It is an embarrassment to the Institute.

No wonder that we, along with the Black members of the MIT community and their supporters, are outraged. Their frustration is palpable. For some of their and other reflections see the special section in this issue beginning with Helen Elaine Lee’s “Heartsick. Anguished. Enraged.” and continuing consecutively. Included are “Voices from the MIT Community Vigil,” and some MIT departmental responses. We also recommend visiting the Support Black Lives at MIT website.

It is important to recognize that MIT’s history is part of a larger systemic web of racial injustice that pervades the academy. And although it should not take a mass public outcry for people to educate themselves about the inequities that have been happening around them all along, it is illuminating to read the posts made under #BlackintheIvory.

On this platform, Black people are raising their voices about the racism they have experienced and continue to deal with in academia. Once you read about these traumatic experiences, it is impossible to see racism in the abstract or as a distant phenomenon that does not affect you.

Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.

James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

Recommendations for change fall into three categories: transparency, structural change, and accountability. Demands for transparency and accountability are familiar enough, especially given challenges to the Administration’s (in)actions over the past year. We will return to them in our recommendations. But let us first take a moment to clarify the demand for structural change.

Structural change requires modifications to the organization of an institution, that is, transformation of the rules and policies affecting the distribution of power and finances, of credibility and authority; such structural change is needed in order to make the Institute more inclusive, more representative of the institution’s constituency, and more consistent with its stated mission. Of course, it is important to hire Black faculty and staff and admit Black students. But we cannot simply rely on the good will of a few individuals to make this happen, and history teaches us that we cannot trust that those who join the MIT community through such efforts will be welcomed as full members. Moreover, appointing individuals, even Black individuals, to do the work of “equity” can – in spite of their hard work – end up being no more than window-dressing in combating racism, without real effect on the broken system.

These individuals are effectively disempowered within the structure and their efforts are compromised. Obviously, changing the culture of MIT would be helpful, but a few more implicit bias workshops will not change culture; substantial structural changes, incentives for adhering to them, and strict accountability measures are necessary. We are talking about more than cosmetic change, more than changing minds. Structural change is not easy. It demands struggle, commitment, discipline, and a radical change of perspective.

In any society or organization, it is not possible to meet everyone’s needs or distribute burdens equally. In unjust institutions, the problem is not that some groups lose out, are outvoted, or suffer substantial costs; this happens even in just democracies. Rather, an unjust system is set up so that the pattern of redistribution of costs and benefits over time is skewed: one group makes the sacrifice, another group gets the benefits, over and over and over. In the United States, benefits have systematically gone to White folks. It is time now for those who have benefited to recognize the injustice and accept the price of its fixing.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

Nelson Mandela

We cannot hope to solve the problems of racism at MIT (or in the wide world) by acting on a few recommendations, but we can better position ourselves to solve the problems.

  1. The Faculty should establish a Standing Committee on Race. This committee needs to be nominated and elected by the faculty-at-large.
  2. Working with the Standing Faculty Committee on Race, the Institute Office of Research will develop a Racial Impact Assessment that must be completed by all proposed research projects.
  3. Funding for research that might be used for increased citizen surveillance, predictive policing, smart prisons, bail determination, and other efforts to control the Black population and activists supporting anti-racism, should be subjected to heightened scrutiny.
  4. The Institute should take concrete steps to achieve the objectives outlined in the BGSA petition:
    • to develop a 3-year and 10-year strategic plan to address racial bias at MIT by accomplishing the remaining tasks of the 2015 BSU/BGSA recommendations and new addendums to the recommendations, and
    • to investigate and implement new models for public safety that reduce the scale of policing and increase safety and well-being.
  5. The Institute should fully cover all unrecovered overhead for research related to racial justice.
  6. The Institute should undertake changes to the academic structure that promote interdisciplinary research on race and racism. We recommend that funding be provided to form a center or program with funded faculty lines and its own space. (This might be part of a larger center such as the one suggested by Caroline Jones and Sherry Turkle in the January/February 2020 FNL, but must explicitly include in its mission the study of anti-black racism.)
  7. Efforts should be made to increase commitment to and funding for community-based participatory research that serves Black communities.
  8. The Institute should make curricular changes that ensure that students graduating from MIT are educated about race and anti-blackness from an interdisciplinary perspective.
  9. Any department that has less than 15% POC in tenure-track positions, must have at least one senior faculty of color, in the field from another institution on the hiring committee. This person must vote affirmative on the hiring recommendation. This same process should apply to promotion and tenure cases.
  10. Policy changes should be transparent and guided by faculty, staff, and students.
    (See also recommendations for implementation from the Hammond Report.)

    Especially in this moment:
  11. We should enable our colleagues, assistants, students, and affiliates to participate in the ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations. We call upon those in positions of authority to make room for participation by allowing for flexible leave, schedule shifts, and deadline extensions.
  12. Voting in local, state, and federal elections is a right. MIT should provide time at full pay for voting by allowing for half-day leave time, schedule shifts, and deadline extensions.
  13. We should ensure that support for demonstrators, participation in demonstrations, and arrest in the course of demonstrating will not be used adversely in decisions within the Institute around employment, promotion, funding, partnership, or other support.

MIT often prides itself on being a “leader” in research and its mission requires it to bring “knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.” Racism is one of the greatest of the world’s challenges. If MIT is to live up to its mission, now is the time to uproot racism in all forms at MIT and to promote antiracism in teaching, research, and through its service to the nation and the world.

Editorial Subcommittee