Opinion: Anti-racist efforts in academia must be authentic, not tokenistic

As academic institutions grapple with systemic racism following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, they need to do more than tick off a list of surface-level actions, according to Tony Reames, JPB Environmental Health Fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Reames, also an assistant professor at the Urban Energy Justice Lab in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, wrote in an October 26, 2020 column in Nature Human Behavior, “Until there is recognition by those who inherently benefit from a system designed for some to excel and for others to fail, what we are witnessing during this moment of social unrest and reckoning will be for naught.”

To foster authentically anti-racist change, he wrote, the academic community must consider four points:

  • Are Black scholars being sought out for collaboration and guest lectures, and are their writings being assigned in courses?
  • Are Black faculty, students, and community members being treated as equal partners?
  • Are Black students, faculty, and staff being recruited and supported?
  • Is anti-Black racism acknowledged?

Reames called for U.S. institutions to continue to be pushed on the topic of race in ways that may cause discomfort. “Otherwise, we will be unable to authentically confront and defeat the systemic anti-Black racism that so deeply corrupts our nations, schools, workplaces, healthcare system and environment,” he wrote.

Read Nature Human Behavior column: A call for authentic Black engagement in the academy and beyond