Bridging the Gap: A Biologist Considers the Legacies of Slavery

Our guest contributor today is Jennifer Lanni, associate professor of biology at CIC member Wheaton College (Mass.). The opinions expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else at Wheaton College or the Council of Independent Colleges.

Prof. Lanni at work in her lab and participating in the Legacies of Slavery faculty seminar in June 2022.

Scientists can no longer continue to ignore the impact of racism on our disciplines. This is why I, a molecular biologist working with zebrafish, attended the Legacies of American Slavery faculty seminar at Yale University in June 2022. My duty became clear to me shortly after the murder of George Floyd. While reading Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How To Be An Antiracist (essentially required reading for college faculty in 2020), I realized that teaching in a historical vacuum was injurious to my students and helped perpetuate systemic racism in science. For example, as I began to engage with the historical underpinnings of biology, I realized with horror that our department had unknowingly named a teaching laboratory after a famous scientist who was also a virulent racist. How would any student aware of this history have felt when walking into that space?  

The Legacies seminar opened a window for me into the practice of historical scholarship as applied to slavery. Through challenging readings and discussions with other attendees, I began to appreciate how elevating chosen voices in the historical narrative disguises the poisonous residue of slavery in all aspects of our society, including science and medicine. Dr. Carolyn Roberts, one of the outstanding guest speakers, traced the troubled relationship between many African-Americans and the health care system today back to the brutality of the Atlantic slave trade. Until we take time to learn about this history, we are ill-equipped to recognize the racism underlying today’s health care inequities.

For instance, some clinical calculators have traditionally included race as a factor in tools designed to estimate kidney filtration rates and other medical applications. The net effect of these calculators is often to decrease the access of Black patients to treatment, and thus, they are now rightfully being scrutinized and revised by medical professionals. However, for decades these calculators and their implicit biases went unquestioned, silently affirming biological fictions about racial difference. Only by attuning ourselves to ask the right questions–Who created this tool, and why? What were their motivations and beliefs? — can we trace the threads to find racialized beliefs hidden in our scientific and clinical practices.

My most important realization during the seminar was that my science courses must include and confront our legacies of slavery. Our country’s history of slavery has shaped every academic discipline, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. My students are the health care providers and scientific researchers of tomorrow. As I develop my courses I will ask: How can I bring historical perspective into my courses in a way that will feel meaningful to them? Who among my colleagues in history, sociology, anthropology, or other fields will reach across the disciplinary aisles to help me create this content and facilitate these discussions? Now more than ever, we as faculty members need to collaborate and create new curricula to bridge the gap between scholars who are addressing (or at least studying) racism and scholars who have considered their fields immune.

My hope is that the future health care providers and scientists who pass through my classes at Wheaton will be able to recognize pervasive racism in science, and will work to dismantle the legacies of slavery in our field. Our students will then be empowered to do better than we have done.