Translational and Computational Motor Control 2020

What i think that most white folks don't understand is that racial incidents are common. Really common.
Maurice Smith, MD, PhD

This is a lightly edited version of a message that shared with my lab members this summer in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder and the subsequent protests...

[I'm assuming you got the message from Frank about #shutdownstem for today. In general, i'm in favor of it & I appreciate the message that Rishi just sent, yet i personally do not feel the need nor inclination to shut down my scientific work to set aside today to reflect on or further educate myself on all the problematic things that "mainstream" American culture in general, or that the crazy white folks in specific, have been doing and continue to do in this country. Not that reflection or education are bad things or futile, or even ineffective, in this setting, in my opinion. But i'm forced, unfortunately, to already devote more mental effort to these issues than i should, as i think almost all Black people are in America are.]

I would nevertheless like to say a few words, including my personal experiences, in the hopes that you might find it helpful in some way, even if to a minor extent.

First, what i think that most white folks don't understand is that racial incidents are common. Really common. Only a small fraction of incidents rise to the level of murder like Tayvon Martin, George Floyd, Botham Jean, and others, or to the level of a gut-wrenching assault like Abner Louima that make the news, and that's a good thing, as even a single one of these true atrocities would be far too many (and the very fact that these atrocities can occur at all should make our hearts shudder). But most incidents are "minor" and the harm levied from any particular one could often be put aside or even forgotten; however, collectively they reveal a culture with palpable problems. And although extrapolation is always fraught, it's not hard to extrapolate that this culture would produce grave incidents not uncommonly.

I have personally been lucky to escape any "major" incidents so far in my life for myself and loved ones (and all i can do is pray that my/our luck might continue), and so I'll give a few examples of "minor" incidents, from personal or near-personal experiences, to highlight how pervasive they are:

I've (for no good reason) been harassed by police (though luckily never seriously assaulted) many times. So many that my wife (in her own good natured way laughs about it sometimes as that's all she can do i guess). It's even happened multiple times at scientific meetings. I've been pushed over onto a police car not far from the convention center at SFN while "minding my own business" on my way back to my room and patted down for drugs (although i don't even drink alcohol). I've been questioned at length by police at NCM about "what i'm doing in this [affluent] neighborhood." I've been followed suspiciously around stores, many many more times than i can remember. And ditto for being pulled out of line by TSA for "random" searches. In college, i had a professor (somewhat notorious for being a racist), who after the 2nd or 3rd lecture (when i corrected something he said), refused to answer a single question that i raised my hand for in class for the rest of the term ("Smith, put your hand down", he would say). [In my then-juvenile way of thinking at the time i "got back at him" not by reporting him to the administration as i should have, but by scoring the highest on every exam in the course]. Also in college, a couple of my best friends (who are also Black) went into the housing lottery one year as a pair and got put into a 2x2 suite with a couple white students. One wouldn't take his confederate flag down or stop his continual racist proclamations for a large fraction of the term, and the other, immediately, just moved out and found some place outside of the campus dorms to live - rather than share a suite with two Black guys. When trying to refinance my mortgage a few years ago, I finally "wised up" after several failed attempts due to clearly low-balled appraisals, and made sure that my children and I vacated the premises during the appraisal appointment, so that we could get a fair market valuation - and it worked like a charm. My son got accosted as he was walking to our car after skiing one day by a random guy asking "Are those your skis??" because they apparently seemed too nice for a black young man to have (and they weren't even that nice). My sister, in college, got accosted on multiple occasions for merely walking from campus to a nearby movie theatre with her Black friends, asking what business they had being in that [affluent] neighborhood.

The list goes on and on...

And there are many examples of even more minor, arguably harmless, incidents, like repeatedly being asked if i'm the janitor or being told by a Harvard photographer, taking a shot for a story about a paper we published, that Yohsuke and I looked more like band members than scientists (I think he was trying to be funny - but what exactly are scientists supposed to look like??). Or the fact that i got many more encouraging words from Black janitors or parking lot attendants than from white professors while in college, despite the fact that i was usually the top student in class.

And there is plenty of clear scientific evidence for rampant discrimination. For example, in employment, Black and Asian candidates who "whiten" their resumes get more interviews. And when artificially-manipulated resumes are sent to employers, so that all other factors can be *perfectly controlled, those bearing White-sounding names receive 50% more call backs than those bearing African-American-sounding names. The one statistic that keeps me up at night, which I wasn't even aware of until reading Kafui's article, is that < 1% of R01-sized NIH grants are awarded to Black scientists, amounting to a factor of 15 discount compared to the US population. There are, of course, important & well-known contributors at multiple levels, but I think that we're fooling ourselves if we don't think that the grant review process contributes as well. Relatedly, there is now pretty good evidence that research papers from authors who are Black or are women are dramatically under-cited in neuroscience, even when controlling for a slew of covariates that likely stack the deck further.

Now i relate these experiences and observations not for empathy, or even understanding - as others i know have gone through far far worse, and the sum total of these experiences has probably, for me, helped rather than hurt my development and who i am. But instead, i relate them to help you get a feel for (if you haven't already) just how pervasive these problems are. They really seem to be everywhere in this country and seem to happen all time. What a cryin' shame...


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