On Science and Racial Violence: A Letter to Lynn Cooley

Over the past month, students at Yale—among many other universities—have been in uproar after a range of racist behaviors, incidents, and comments on campuses across the nation. On Wednesday 18 November, Yale Dean Lynn Cooley hosted an open forum for graduate students to discuss issues of race, racism, and diversity. This letter, which has been signed by over 160 graduate and professional students, responds to statements and claims Cooley made during the meeting.

Dean Lynn Cooley,

Throughout your afternoon forum with Yale graduate students on Wednesday 18 November, a great many things were said. Sadly, we—a number of the graduate students in attendance—were left with the distinct impression that our voices largely went unheard, that the university will continue problematic practices with impunity. For instance, even immediately after one of our peers cited a study demonstrating clear and pervasive racial and gender biases in Ivy League hiring committees, you brazenly argued that systemic racism and sexism are absent from Yale’s job searches, as though empirically verifiable facts are things that magically vanish whenever one willfully ignores them. For ourselves and many other attendees, however, the greatest slight came when we asked how the university intends to make critical race studies a more central component of its undergraduate curriculum. In turn, you asked your own question: “How would you teach race and ethnicity studies in a science course?”

Many of us were shocked not so much by the question itself, but the tone with which it was asked—as though teaching young scientists and engineers to be racially conscious would be both wildly impractical and utterly ridiculous. But is it so ridiculous for future doctors to recognize that groundbreaking medical advances were often only possible through experimentation on enslaved people? For public health experts to know that their predecessors in California and Texas not only regarded the myth of the “dirty, unhygienic Mexican” as scientific fact, but also used said myth to concoct medical justifications for segregating, regulating, and controlling nonwhite bodies? For geneticists to understand the historical significance of eugenics and forced sterilization campaigns? For medical researchers to be able to explain what the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was and why it was unethical? For biologists to fathom that race is a social construct? Throughout history, racial violence has enabled scientific discovery, and important scientists, in turn, used their expertise and political influence to propagate further racial violence. Is it so unreasonable to expect modern scientists and engineers to know the histories of their own professions?

We do not mean to berate or revile you. We would, however, urge you to familiarize yourself with the long, troubling association between scientific practice and racial violence. Below are a few books, articles, and other studies relevant to this topic; perhaps they will illuminate for you why critical race studies can and should be an integral part of scientific training.

Warwick Anderson, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines

Karen Fields and Barbara Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life

Spike Lee, If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise

John McKiernan-Gonzalez, Fevered Measures: Public Health and Race at the Texas-Mexico Border, 1848-1942

Jonathan Metzl, Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease

Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939

Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge

Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination

Susan Reverby, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy

Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century

Samuel Roberts, Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation

Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown

Sara Spettel and Mark Donald White, “The Portrayal of J. Marion Sims’ Controversial Surgical Legacy,” Journal of Urology 185 (June 2011)

Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America

Helen Tilley, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950

Racism is not a problem exclusively for historians and sociologists; each and every one of our professions—including those in the science and engineering fields—has been complicit in white supremacy’s proliferation and enforcement. As inheritors of its painful legacy, we must all reckon with racism not just as a matter of personal principle, but of professional ethics. This antiracist process must take place in our classrooms, in our libraries, in our research labs, in our job searches, and in our faculty meetings. We must hold each other—and ourselves—accountable. We hope that you and your fellow administrators do not take this responsibility lightly.


Authored by Viet N. Trinh, GSAS, History PhD, 2020

Edited by Amanda Joyce Hall, GSAS, African American Studies and History PhD, 2021




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