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Facing Racism: A Critical Challenge for Information Professionals
By
Volume 44, Number 6 - November/December 2020

Information professionals have always been essential in the research process, in education as well as in industry. That hasn’t changed. However, this is a very critical period in our history, and it’s time information professionals stepped up to the challenges that we face.

Academe has many traditions: the cap and gown, grassy quads, large lecture halls, small seminar rooms, sororities, fraternities, and so much more—including the evolving role of research libraries. Nearly 20 years ago, Stephen Pinfield described the libraries’ shift this way: “Greater emphasis on liaison with users; advocacy of the collections; adopting new roles; dealing with user inquiries in new ways; working with technical staff; selecting electronic library materials; carrying out more information skills training; having a greater involvement in the implementation of educational technology; team working and project working” (journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/096100060103300104).

However, there are other traditions which persist that require the attention of all information professionals. One of them is racism.

I was honored, both in the private sector and while at a major university, to be able to work deeply with subject matter and researchers in ways that were often seen as occurring outside the traditional academic box: Critical Disability Studies, Asian American Studies, and American Indian Studies. Working as a consultant in high-tech areas was equally challenging. My role was to explore potentials, possibilities, markets, and technologies. Honestly, I’ve loved every minute of it!

Today, new attention and energy focus on our shared future at a time of global crisis. For many researchers, however, the future is clouded by a difficult past.

MILES TO GO BEFORE WE SLEEP

The evidence of a failure to serve the basic needs of academe are all around us. “11 African-American Academics” wrote individual essays in the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 19, 2019, on “Being a Black Academic in America: No One Escapes Without Scars” (chronicle.com/article/being-a-black-academic-in-america). A June 2020 Nature article painted a grim picture as “Black scientists grieved openly on social media, calling for action on racism in society and in science” (nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01705-x). As author Nidhi Subbaraman writes: “With the hashtag #BlackintheIvory, hundreds described ways in which they had personally faced prejudice in science because of their identity.”

Subbaraman’s article references Columbia neuroscientist Bianca Jones Marlin, who posted a very compelling Twitter video addressed to fellow Black scientists in which she encourages others to speak out and share their stories: “your presence in science is important … your purpose in science is seen. I’m here to hear your stories, because I get it” (twitter.com/bjmarlin/status/1266837757336399875).

The academy itself, along with all of its component disciplines, is currently in a period of deep questioning and reflection. Not only long overdue, this offers great optimism for the future of research, learning, and our world.

Texas A&M sociologist Wendy Leo Moore’s Reproducing Racism: White Space, Elite Law Schools and Racial Inequality (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007) provides a deep examination of the ways in which “elite law schools” (which could probably be said of libraries or any other major academic division) operate as white institutional spaces, reproduce white racial norms and values, and are justifying the norm of white power, privilege, and wealth.

PHYSICIANS STILL LACK CONSENSUS ON THE MEANING OF RACE

With a bold title of “Hidden in Plain Sight—Reconsidering the Use of Race Correction in Clinical Algorithms,” physicians Darshali A. Vyas, Leo G. Eisenstein, and David S. Jones looks at how U.S. physicians control access to patient care in every aspect of healthcare (nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMms2004740). There is strong evidence that these decisions are often racially biased.

Malika Fair, an emergency physician and senior director for health equity partnerships and programs at the Association of American Medical Colleges, describes this study as a major step in the right direction. In a June 2020 State News article by Sharon Bigley, Fair, who was not part of the study, says, “I am delighted that the use of race in medical decision-making is being questioned in such a thoughtful analysis. As a medical community, we have not fully embraced the notion that race is a social construct and not based in biology” (statnews.com/2020/06/17/racial-bias-skews-algorithms-widely-used-to-guide-patient-care).

Washington University in St. Louis sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield clearly explains the case for change in a July 2020 Science article (“Systemic Racism Persists in the Sciences”; science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6502/351.summary). When it comes to health, Wingfield notes that access to treatment, preventative medicine, and other resources creates imbalances, even though illnesses are not, in and of themselves, discriminatory. Further, algorithms used in healthcare decision making incorporate unconscious biases that limit care for Black patients. She believes that systemic racism is endemic in higher education, although it’s not intentional.

MOVING PAST THE LIMITATIONS OF THE NORM

In Nobody Knows My Name, James Baldwin notes in what has become a famous quote: “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” This may seem like an oxymoron, but Baldwin’s insight is still at the heart of racism today.

“The concentration on market discrimination and avoidance of the role that discrimination (racism) plays in the larger social context is an unnecessary limitation on the role that economic analysis can play in understanding racism (discrimination),” asserts Marcus Alexis in his essay, “The Economics of Racism” (Review of Black Political Economy, Dec. 1, 1998; journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1007/s12114-999-1026-z?journalCode=rbpa). “If racism is not an end in itself but a way of achieving a larger end, emphasis on the consequences needlessly limits the economist’s role as a commentor on social phenomenon and a designer of public policies to correct undesirable consequences.”

Aldon D. Morris’s The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (University of California Press, 2015) is a blistering examination of the deeply rooted prejudices that have existed in academe. Today, Morris is the Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University and president of the American Sociological Association.

These examples are not complaints of a few. The experiences of academics such as these remain front and center as our country continues to reel from the upheavals of the past year. They challenge not only the traditions of academe, but also the very fiber of every research establishment.


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Nancy K.Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries. 

 

Comments? Email the editor-in-chief: marydee@xmission.com

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