Opinion guest column

The friend of racism

A call for MIT to forgo operational decentralization and employ radical centralization in its DEI efforts

The George Floyd murder trial process commenced on Monday in response to Derek Chauvin placing his knee on the neck of George Floyd in the streets of Minneapolis long enough to kill him last May. The protests of millions of citizens across the country and around the globe in solidarity baked into the world’s collective memory that racism is not the put-down beast many believe it to be: He rears his head in the most public and private places, often disguised by circumstance (e.g., state violence, voter suppression, economic exclusion, academic exclusion); he is effective in providing distractions that often lead to the temporary anesthetization of his woken body rather than outright extinction. This is not a surprise to many who have studied American history or who have been paying attention recently; however, for those in academia as students or human conduits for those students’ learning — staff, faculty, administration — a question of personal and institutional responsibility arises that deserves consideration. Refusing to give this question the requisite time it demands is the very first step of cycling through the problems racism breeds, total violence and disillusionment. It is doubly important to recognize, whether we have been taught it or whether we choose to believe it, that we are a community of human beings on this one earth. There is no room for individualism, which creates the devastating crisis of seeing the world through a lens of “I, me, my, mine” instead of “we, us, ours, together.” I mention individualism (not individuality) as a crisis because it is a weapon against the truth about the very basis of what it means to be a citizen of this country and the world: that we all share responsibility in being caretakers of the spaces we have been gifted to occupy.

What is academia’s responsibility with regard to racism? What is MIT’s responsibility in this national and global conversation? These questions are large enough to encourage discussion but may be too big to chew when read in isolation. One could reframe these questions as: How has racism manifested in academia? How has racism manifested at MIT? Although the first question is one worth a historian’s time, the second question is one I’d like to entertain as a student who has contributed to findings about MIT’s history with American chattel slavery and has spent the last three years mulling this question over.

What the streets of Minneapolis might bring to the steps of MIT is a demand for clarity. Yes, MIT may not be the place to discuss police brutality (though it should) or criminal justice (though it should). However, it is definitely the place to critically think about our founding as an American college, the initial conditions of chattel slavery which gave birth to our existence, and the lasting implications of ignoring our racist history for decades, thus strengthening the grip of racism on our institution. Operational decentralization, a system MIT prides itself on, is a supremely effective environment for racism to thrive in. Racism will thrive where control, power, and influence is in the hands of people who are racist or ignorant or arrogant (or all three). Yes, decentralization may promote innovation and encourage a sense of diversity of methodology and practice, but this innovation which thrives at MIT does not preclude racist practice. Then the question of enforcement arises. By design, decentralization resists efforts to create a cohesive vision of justice for the Institute that can be enforced. This is particularly detrimental in a racist society where decentralization functions to aid and abet the prevalence of racism.

Almost every day at MIT, I hear the words “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” or DEI. What becomes apparent is that we do not know anymore what we are saying and where we are going. Language should not stop at halfway attempts to capture an idea. Justice is the goal. There is no place better than academia to think about how we utilize language, and there is no place better than MIT to think about language as linear approximation (the approach toward the ineffable). What seems to be missing in this social Taylor expansion of a responsible and just MIT is the leading order term of leadership. The past four years have taught us the effects of bad leadership when trying to contain and extinguish a virus, and yet even a virus is more equitable than racism. How much more important is it to have not merely good leadership, but excellent leadership in the face of the most pressing question facing America and, by extension, MIT: How do we adequately reckon with our racist past and present?

As assistant officer on diversity in the Undergraduate Association (UA) of MIT, I hypothesize that the centralization of our efforts as a community dedicated to justice will improve the efficacy of our efforts in addressing systemic racism and its far-reaching implications: severely underrepresented Indigenous, Black, and Latinx students, as well as our tenured faculty counterparts; insufficient results in increasing the access and opportunities for all students to address their collective and respective needs from the material (e.g., food insecurity) to the abstract (e.g., fulfillment); and confronting the false security and failed sense of belonging which impacts all interactions one has with MIT as an institution and so-called community. The convening of the UA Diversity Council is our experiment to bring together diversity stakeholders — departmental representatives, affinity groups, and historically exclusive groups — to engage in dialogue and both coordinate and strategize together. This is our undergraduate attempt at trying to erode the silos constructed by operational decentralization. If we want to reach the aims that DEI aspire toward, the Institute must also consider employing radical centralization.

This week we will continue to watch the George Floyd murder trial and pray for the accountability of Derek Chauvin and justice for George Floyd’s family. All the while, we recognize that George Floyd is not on this side of heaven to receive justice. The failures of the Institute in our moral responsibility to deconstruct racism may not result in the physical death of students (though this is within reach), but psychological and emotional death are more common and not any less worth preventing. Let us do our job as members of the MIT community and citizens of the world to send racism and all of its friends packing.

Kelvin Green II ’22 is the Assistant Officer on Diversity for the Undergraduate Association of MIT.