In 1937, Vertner Woodson Tandy made this statement referring to the need for people to step up and challenge social problems that impede progress. Tandy was the first African American to pass the military commissioning exam and the first Black architect in the state of New York. He was also one of the founders of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., the first predominately Black inter-collegiate fraternity founded at Cornell University. Eighty years after Tandy made this statement, it captures how paramount the need for scholars to come out of their Ivory Tower windows and engage with the public.
Trump's 2016 presidential election marked a watershed moment in American history. Trump's incendiary rhetoric awakened a Silent Majority that is reclaiming an America that is not meant to be equal but instead aims to re-establish not just symbolic privileges of whiteness but overt racial preferences built into law. Trump's initial executive orders and cabinet picks highlight this all too well; including the Muslim Ban, the takeover of Native American land and invasion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, law and order policies that will further criminalize innocent Black and Brown people, bills that attack the pursuit of research on race, and of course the confirmation of racist politicians like Jeff Sessions.
Trump's election educes another meaningful watershed moment in American history—when Whites and Europeans, who thought overt racism was a thing of the past, witnessed Blacks being sprayed with water hoses and beaten by police for engaging in non-violent protests. Similar to that mid-twentieth century awakening, which informed us that society was not past its racists pillars that have allowed countries like the U.S., Russia, and Germany to maximize free and reduced labor to bolster the coffers of the most privileged and affluent among us, Trump’s election is our twenty-first moment.
Yet, why should we be surprised at this Trump-led watershed moment? On the heels of our first Black-identifying president, racists and those who benefit from racism hunkered down, aimed to drain the swamp of racial progress, and make America reminiscent of their granddaddies’ (and grandmas based on the voting patterns of White women in the 2016 election) America regarding legalized forms of racism. Again, why should we be surprised? Racism is a pillar of American exceptionalism and those who believe and feel they benefit from it, either economically, culturally, or symbolically, will fight to maintain it and regurgitate it into the mainstream for all to consume.
As Maya Angelou said, "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time." Now, the question is what will you do? What kind of scholar will you be in this moment?
Accordingly, I issue a challenge to scholars to channel their inner W.E.B. Du Bois, their inner Ida B. Wells, their inner Margaret Mead, their inner Angela Davis. The time is now. For too long, scientists and scholars have sat idly in the Ivory Tower with a level of security and protection. Over time, our comfort has turned into complacency and we have failed to adequately use our skill sets to inform the public about research findings and theories that correct narratives and help shape attitudes and behaviors. Instead, we passively rely on publishing companies to allow us to report on empirical findings and mainstream media to tell our stories. We do this mostly in the name of “pure” rather than “applied” research. Well, there is nothing pure about being complacent about inequality and hate.
Now, there are some very good reasons to circumvent traditional channels of research dissemination in favor of academic freedom. First, the public has a very high level of confidence in science. Comparatively, the public has a very low level of confidence in the media. Second, the public is yearning for the knowledge and information that is bottled up and housed in the Ivory Tower. Give it to them.
There are obviously other ways to have an impact besides research dissemination, but this is hopefully an idea that all scholars can rally behind. Other ways include being members of local committees and task forces where our skill sets can be utilized to analyze data and help inform findings and policy decisions. Normally we only think about these pursuits on a national level, but there are many opportunities to do this locally. For example, Dr. Kris Marsh and I are serving on committees with local police departments to examine racial disparities and progress over time to better inform policies and practices. Other scholars including Drs. Dana Fisher, Dawn Dow, and Philip Cohen as well as Audra Buck-Coleman take to the streets to make their voices heard. However, these scholars not only voice their concerns, they also analyze the mobilization and give scholars, the media, and policy makers ways to think about capitalizing on new protesters as well as reinvigorated older ones.
Regarding the Science March, let's just not make it about solidarity or safety pins. Let's make it about establishing a plan for reclaiming scholars’ ability to be activists, to use social media to connect with the public in innovative ways, and set the record straight on false narratives that plague public perception and aim to mute years of empirical research.
We are in the middle of a social movement. Scholars, act like it and act like we have a stake in shaping the future of America.