Help eradicate the virus of racism

As scientists and engineers, we have an obligation to focus on solving this big societal problem.

Robert Scott (BSE, Computer Engineering) is the project manager for special diversity initiatives, Sara Pozzi is the director of diversity, equity and inclusion

For over two months, we have been dealing with the coronavirus, a pandemic that has shaken the core of our institution and the world. It has been a lot to deal with; and has at times felt overwhelming. Yet during the past week, another virus reared its ugly head. Like COVID-19, this virus is deadly, invading every facet of our society. This virus is called RACISM.

Racism has been in the fabric of the country since its inception. It is so tightly entwined in our socialization that it has been second nature in driving behavior. Yes, progress has been made since the days of slavery, but that progress can quickly unravel during times of social or financial stress. It was easy to assume that we had finally “overcome” this crippling issue after the election of President Barack Obama. But in our minds, this was a catalyst for social and economic backlash. The result has been a surge in hateful attitudes and the retreat of the gains of racial progress that we have made as a nation.

Systemic racism is very much like a virus. Much like the COVID-19 virus, racist attitudes spread very easily and are very damaging. Yet, in this country, we respond to it more like the way we deal with the common cold; we just accept the notion that we must live with it. People get sick, they take something to alleviate the symptoms and they hope they will get better soon. We don’t respond with the kind of urgency shown in dealing with the coronavirus. 

As engineers, we are trained to think systemically and then develop innovative solutions to problems and challenges; we work to improve the common good. Our tools are applied technology: technological discovery and invention combined with an engineering design methodology that enables the creation of novel solutions to improve the world. As scientists and engineers, we have an obligation to focus on solving big societal problems.  

It strikes us that we should acknowledge the pervasiveness of prejudice in our society as a major social problem that is adversely impacting the community we serve. Technology can mitigate these issues… or magnify them. It all depends on our intent and will to make a difference. 

Rather than hiding from the history of our racial divide, we should embrace it, incorporate it into what we teach and how we do research.

We strongly believe that it starts with engineering students, faculty and staff developing the skills and experiences to work effectively with others REGARDLESS of differences. Research shows that diverse teams make better decisions than teams of homogeneous composition. We need to formalize our commitment to invest in learning experiences that counter toxic socialization and encourages interactions across the different dimensions of diversity. Rather than hiding from the history of our racial divide, we should embrace it, incorporate it into what we teach and how we do research. 

You may be wondering how you can help. We believe that the process starts with empathy for our fellow humans. We urge you to read and educate yourselves about the history of our country. Work to better understand how to eradicate the virus of racism. Aim to understand overt and covert racism, including how to counter unconscious bias. Familiarize yourself with the concept of white privilege. Seek opportunities to interact with a diverse set of people. Express your support for your Black colleagues and friends. Learn to recognize and stand up to help when you witness an act of incivility, bigotry, or racism. Engage in conversations with both allies and detractors. Through these types of actions, you will become not only a better scientist and engineer, but also a better person.

Tackling the virus of racism is hard. It won’t be accomplished in a semester or a year. It’s a multigenerational project. This is a learning journey every bit as challenging and difficult as mastering an engineering discipline. But, as a premier institution, we commit to this challenge and have hope for the future.

Join us for the virtual “EnginTalks: The Unsilenced Voices of 2020” event led by the Student Advisory Board on Tuesday, June 16 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

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