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Apology to My Husband re racial justice activism

Posted on 16 July 2018 by Barbara Beckwith (0)

Apology to my Husband re: his racial justice activism

In the final session of the White People Challenging Racism workshop I co-lead, I shared my appreciation for a couple who attended together and could support each other in carrying out the action plans they co-created and committed to.

To heighten my appreciation, I added: “I’ve been co-leading this workshop since 2001 and I can’t even get my husband to take it!” My flourish got a good laugh. But I’d embarrassed myself, knowing that I’d dissed my husband simply for effect. So I sent the participants a mea culpa, since the truth is that my husband, Jon, has been a racial justice activist in every sphere of his life for many years.

His racism awareness dates back to the 1960s, when he worked as a researcher at Paris’ Pasteur Institute. At the time, he also hung around Paris cafes and jazz clubs. By developing friendships with expatriate African American writers and musicians, he came to understand their political concerns. When we returned to the U.S., especially after the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Jon became engaged in issues of racial discrimination.

As a molecular biologist (PhD, not medical doctor) at Harvard Medical School, he fought with others to increase black admissions to Harvard Medical School. Later, when his department head opposed the recruitment drive, declaring that African Americans were unqualified and “a danger to patients,” Jon and other faculty members successfully pressured the dean to replace the man. Dr. Harold Amos then became the med school’s first African American department chair.

Jon is actually a shy person, but aware of the influence wielded by Harvard, he felt compelled to speak up (reminds me of what Che Guevara said about living “in the heart of the beast.”). When the Harvard Education Review published psychologist Arthur Jensen’s claims that Blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, and therefore compensatory education programs were doomed to failure, Jon and other progressive biologists critiqued the flawed twin studies Jensen used to back his claim of Black genetic inferiority. They also refuted the claims of Harvard scientists E.O. Wilson (Sociobiology), and Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (The Bell Curve), when they proposed genetic and evolutionary justifications for classism and sexism. And when a Harvard-affiliated maternity hospital began screening newborn baby boys for XYY chromosomes, Jon protested the faulty research and took the “born bad” issue public, after which Jon faced Medical School pushback, including demands for the removal of his tenure.

And when Harvard, intending to expand into the racially mixed Mission Hill, started buying up residential property and driving out tenants, my husband organized faculty, staff and students, and led a protest occupation of the dean’s office. The dean then agreed to go with Jon and the head of the tenants’ organization to see how real estate agents, acting as fronts for Harvard, were using slum landlord techniques to force people to leave their homes:  buildings were allowed to deteriorate, and when people did move out, buildings were boarded up or rented to rowdy groups such as motorcycle gangs. As a result of the protest and the tenants’ perseverance, Harvard was forced to negotiate an acceptable promise: much of the housing would be saved and rehabilitated; and Harvard would help the tenants build and run Mission Parks, an attractive housing project in the same neighborhood.

When Jon received the 1970 Eli Lilly Award in Microbiology (for isolating the first gene), he went from being seen as a rising star to facing anonymous death threats because he announced publicly that he was donating the prize to the Black Panther Free Health Clinic in Roxbury and to the defense fund for the imprisoned Panther 13; he did this in part because his friend from Paris, biochemist and Panther activist Curtiss Powell, was one of the detained, jailed for two years before being released without charges.

ln the mid-1980s, he introduced  social/racial issues into his Medical School genetics class, and in 1983, he started teaching a full-length course in “Social Issues in Biology,” to get budding scientists and doctors thinking  about the social and racial impacts of their work, and how they can be proactive in countering them. He taught this course for 35 years, adding a science journalism component out of concern about the increasing amount of available genetic information that could be used to stigmatize and discriminate against people. He’s recruiting people to continue the course, now that he’s retired.

Jon was active for 30 years in Science for the People, a progressive organization whose mission was to expose ways that science could be and was being used to the detriment of the less privileged. When Science for the People folded after 25 years, Jon continued meeting with its Genetics and Society Working Group subgroup.

More recently, he worked with a theater group and with undergraduates (spearheaded by a Black student) to develop and perform plays around controversial genetics issues. In 2011, he organized a joint project between the Harvard Medical School and the ARCUS Center for Social Justice Teaching at Kalamazoo College (MI), led by an African American professor, to identify, connect, and coordinate science and social justice teaching around the country.  He is retiring but will continue with the working group, the ARCUS project, and with a project (if funded by the National Science Foundation) to explore how the content of human genetics curricula affects the development of racial bias.

As much as Jon has done, he always feels that he could be doing more. Even though for 20 years, he participated in a summer program to give minority students experience working in his lab, he now feels that although he followed their work, he might also have actively mentored them instead of leaving that to his post-doctoral fellows who usually mentor students.

But he’s clearly been a racial justice activist in every sphere of his life, so I figure that he doesn’t need to take the WPCR workshop. In fact, to make up for my dissing him in our class 5, I will add his inspiring memoir, Making Genes, Making Waves: A Social Activist in Science (Harvard University Press, 2002).

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