A Personal Perspective on Being Black in America and Academia

A call to address racial injustice as a community

Written by Stacey Finley - June 16, 2020

The recent murder of George Floyd at the hand (knee) of a Minneapolis police officer has served as another tragic reminder that many people in this country place a Black life at a lower value than their white or non-minority counterpart. Unfortunately, Mr. Floyd’s murder is not exceptional or unprecedented - it is the latest in a long list of Black men and women who have been killed. His death was caused by a police officer, which has also been a recurrent theme over recent years. Not even the video evidence makes this case different; there are numerous other incidents where the murder of a Black person was recorded for the world to see.

But what seems to be different in this instance are the widespread protests and civil unrest that have occurred over the past two weeks. People across the globe have spoken up and demonstrated their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. To understand some of the reasons why the Black community is especially enraged by Mr. Floyd’s death, it is important to consider the history of racial injustices in America.

I wrote a blog post last year about leading a new research center. The topic today is infinitely more important. My goal in writing is to provide some historical context for the ongoing events, give my own perspective as a Black woman in academia, and think about practical ways to move forward.

Brief history of Blacks in America

Racism and the mistreatment of Black people are deeply embedded into the very fabric of this country. Millions of Black people were taken from various African countries and violently forced into slavery. Black African slaves are documented to have been in present day St. Augustine, Florida dating back to 1565. Slave trade enabled the boom of the cotton industry, and the United States’ great wealth during the 17th and 18th centuries was due to the work of slaves.

There was little motivation to end the institution of slavery, as it was very lucrative and justified as a necessary evil. However, abolishing slavery began with President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, during the Civil War. Then, approximately 4 million slaves in total were officially freed with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865. The end of the Civil War signified the beginning of the Reconstruction era, which lasted from 1865 to 1877. Blacks could vote, serve in government, and attend public schools. However, African Americans’ labor was tightly controlled by “black codes”, laws passed by southern states where White supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, continued to oppose the slaves’ free status through systematic violence. When federal troops used to protect the rights of freed slaves and control resistance were withdrawn from southern states in 1877, the progress that Blacks made during Reconstruction was completed wiped out. In fact, the period from 1877 through the 1930s is thought of as the “nadir of race relations”, a time marked by extreme racism, including Jim Crow laws (oppressive policies used to restrict Black rights) and the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” ruling. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, nearly a century after slaves were made free, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first major civil rights law to be passed since Reconstruction. Other laws aimed at addressing racial inequities were also passed, including contesting poll taxes and limiting voter literacy tests (Voting Rights Act of 1965) and preventing housing discrimination based on race, sex, national origin or religion (Voting Rights Act of 1968).

Ongoing effects of discriminatory policies

The effects of the longstanding, systematic oppression of Blacks in the U.S. continue to be felt in several aspects of life – education, the justice system, health care, politics. There have been, and continue to be, laws, policies, and structures put in place that disproportionately work against Blacks, other minorities, and poor people. For example, redlining and discriminatory practices in home loans in the 1930s negatively impact home values, homeownership rates, and credit scores even today. Mandatory sentencing policies, such as the “Three Strikes” law, led to harsher and longer sentences for minorities. These policies also contribute to the alarming statistic that Blacks account for nearly 40% of the prison population, despite being only 13% of the total U.S. population (based on the 2010 U.S. Census). This criminalization and mass incarceration significantly disrupts the Black family structure.

Personal reflection

Thankfully, I have not been subjected to the cruelty that some African Americans face. I grew up in a middle-class family, and my parents worked hard to ensure I received a strong education that would propel me into a viable career. I attended a predominantly White school for Kindergarten through 7th grade. I then went to a science-based magnet high school that was fairly diverse. I saw teachers, counselors, and administrators whose skin looked like mine and who encouraged me to do well in my studies. I felt empowered to succeed. This feeling of confidence and empowerment grew exponentially as I completed my undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering at Florida A & M University (FAMU), a historically Black university. FAMU was founded in 1887, when Blacks were prohibited from attending other schools due to segregation laws. FAMU is one of 107 such institutions of higher education in the country established to educate Black people.

But, after graduating from college, I began to experience microaggressions and biases that are often rampant in higher education. I faced people who tried to deter me. Some subtly suggested and others blatantly screamed that I was not qualified to pursue a Ph.D. in engineering, or a postdoctoral fellowship at an elite institution, or a faculty position at a research-intensive university. For example, during my first year in graduate school, one of my classmates made it clear that I could not be in his study group because he did not think I would have anything to contribute. He thought I would only take other people’s answers because I did not attend what he thought was a good college. During my postdoctoral fellowship, another researcher said that he did not want to work with me or the more-than-qualified female undergraduate student who was interviewing to work in our group, because “women cannot do math well.” And I am routinely asked “whose group are you in?” when I meet new people at scientific conferences. The default is never that I run my own group, presumably because people are not used to seeing researchers who look like me holding faculty positions at research institutions.

When considered in isolation, these can seem like minor incidents. But when they happen over and over again, they erode one’s sense of belonging and self-confidence. And since the non-minority researcher’s presence in the academy is rarely questioned in this way, the divide between us grows.

On an even more personal level, I think about my husband, school-age daughters, and infant son who are all Black. It pains me to think that in the not so distant future, some people will see my son as a threat, simply because of the color of his skin. The fact that mothers still worry about their Black sons’ safety in 2020 is heartbreaking.

What’s next?

Mr. Floyd’s murder is not the spark of a new crusade. Black people, and our allies, have been upset, protesting, and speaking out for decades. The Black Lives Matter movement is embarking on its 7th anniversary. But this case has provided an even greater awareness of the issues Black people in America face, and there have already been some changes as a result.

  • Education: People from all races and walks of life are seeking to educate themselves about the plight of Black people in the United States. Movies and books on racism and equality are in high demand.
  • Communication: I have talked with my trainees, individually and as a group, to help them learn more about the context of the current events and to hear their perspectives. Similar conversations about racism are happening amongst families, friends, and colleagues, and I hope they continue.
  • Police reform: Several cities have already changed some of their policing policies, including banning chokeholds, eliminating no-knock warrants, and reducing the emphasis on the use of deadly force.
  • Removal of racist emblems: Statues heralding racist leaders are being taken down in cities across the country. The confederate flag is now banned at all NASCAR events.
  • Public awareness: Businesses, universities, and professional organizations are sending statements that publicly acknowledge the recent events and speak out in support of Black people everywhere.
I am thankful for allies and advocates who speak up for more racial and ethnic diversity in academia, but more must be done. This includes intentional and targeted hiring in academia, grooming minorities for leadership positions, and increasing the number of fellowships and opportunities for trainees of color. In addition, far more fundamental actions are needed, such as investing in public education for minorities and students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

I urge everyone to take some time to really think about what has transpired in the United States over the past month. What will you do to combat the racism and discrimination that still exist in this country? Because whether you are Black or not, you must do something. Let me offer a few suggestions.

  • Educate yourself about where racist and discriminatory practices come from.
  • Volunteer with or contribute financially to social justice organizations that work to break down barriers, empower the Black community, and fight against racial injustice.
  • Find out where your government leaders stand on policies that disproportionately impact minorities, and use your vote to make an impact.
  • Talk to those in your sphere of influence (colleagues, trainees, children) about racism, and call it out when you see it happening.
  • Hold your employer and professional organizations accountable for reducing biases.
You can use your position, big or small, to fight against racism.

The Black community is strong and resilient. Like many generations before me, we will persist through the recent targeted and violent acts, and the next iteration that may come. I am personally committed to using these current events as motivation to learn more about my history, to being an educated voter and to volunteering my time and financial resources to organizations like Black Girls Code and the Equal Justice Initiative.

What I will NOT do is remain silent. Neither should you.

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