The wounds of racism, stereotyping and disrespect are bleeding again making the second half of 2014 a difficult one for many around the nation and at MIT. The death of police officers protecting the public in New York, and of unarmed black people in several cities around the U.S., has led to anger, protest, and a fresh opportunity for transformative conversations. The end of the year seems like a good time to reflect on where we have been and are going as a society and as a diverse campus community.
Four months ago over 100 people congregated just before freshman orientation to discuss the impact of the shooting of Michael Brown. The summary of the #MITFerguson event seems as relevant now as it was then. Back then the racial gap in perceptions about the significance of the shooting was dramatic: a Pew survey showed a 43% difference in how Black and White Americans responded to “This case raises important issues about race.” It would be very interesting to see the difference now, after months of street protests and the shooting of two police officers. I suspect that most Americans, and many people around the world, would now acknowledge that there are important unresolved issues about race in America that have been brought to the fore by black/white violence in 2014.
Earlier this month, over 400 people attended an event to discuss the effects of racism at MIT as well as nationally, at our #BlackLivesMatter event. I encourage you to view the panel discussion. Following the panel discussion, several hundred participants gathered into small groups to discuss this issues of racism and social justice at MIT and to provide ideas on how we can advance as a community. These ideas are being refined into a summary with recommendations to be released in time for the Institute Diversity Summit January 29.
Many people are uncomfortable with participating in these conversations or in hearing or reading the sometimes harsh rhetoric. This discomfort is perhaps nowhere more evident than in New York City, where two police officers were murdered by a madman who wrote in social media of his intentions to kill police in retribution for killing of black men by police. Angry rhetoric has filled the media. At the same time there have been many valiant efforts in peacemaking, notably those of NY Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.
These discomforts exist at MIT, too. Our police officers serve with valor and dedication every day. Less than two years ago one of them was also killed by a madman, and the MIT community came together then to honor Sean Collier’s memory. This spring, a memorial to Office Collier will be completed on our campus. Like him, every police officer at MIT is a valued community member who deserves our respect and appreciation. Blue Lives Matter just as much as Black Lives do.
As in NYC, the way of progress at MIT is to have more dialogue, not less. We must use empathy, not equations. The assignment is difficult – to increase respect and caring across barriers of injustice and mistrust – but we don’t settle for easy psets.
For 2015, let us resolve to talk openly with each other about differences and to see them as valuable data. Let us acknowledge that human issues are as important, and sometimes more important, than technological issues. No, I’m not suggesting that we rename MIT to MIP. But I am saying that until we can embrace our diversity, exercise empathy, and advance caring and respect, we will never be more than the sum of our parts and will never achieve our full potential as either individuals or an Institute.
In a month, at the fifth annual Institute Diversity Summit we will broaden this discussion to include a vast range of human challenges facing MIT and we will work together to construct solutions. We need you to join this effort. Think of the Summit as a Hackathon to strengthen the MIT culture using conversation, not coding. You will be impressed how far dialogue goes in solving some of the most difficult challenges facing us. The Summit will be a major event worthy of the time and effort of everyone at MIT. Everyone.
For a preview, see our new diversity website.