Cornel West: “Speaking Truth to Power”


AUSTIN: Thank you
all for coming. We’re going to go ahead
and get started here. So I think this is a great
way to start the semester and not only start the semester,
but start Black History Month by speaking truth
to power and understanding the different contexts of what
exactly does speaking truth to power mean, right? So I think I want to start off
by saying when a reporter asked me the other day– they asked me,
well, what exactly does institutional
provincialism mean? And I asked the reporter– I said, well, what do
you think it means? What’s your definition of
institutional provincialism? And when he read
the definition– because it reminded me so
much of our institution, how, again, we’re very linear,
very baseline, bottom line, exactly what the different
text and formula says. And he read it. He read that it’s the
idea of narrow mindedness from a small place
into a big metropolis. And I said, well, if
you’re able to context that and the notion of people
and identity, what do you get? And it clicked with him. He said, ah, okay. I see what you’re saying. And I think that’s
what we’re going to try to do tonight
is look at how when we bring all of ourselves,
we bring a sort of identity. We all bring a sort of bias
or some sort of mindset into this vast metropolis
of higher learning. But what happens
when we continue to bring more of the same,
more of the same identity, more of the same like-mindedness and
narrow-mindedness, to the point that the very institutions that
are set to broaden the horizons and advance technology
and society, advances only the benefit of the
few by marginalizing the many? And so what we hope
tonight is to start to define what it means to
not only institutionalize, but what it means to
soul-search, right? What exactly does it mean
to normalize oppression? What does it mean to normalize
marginalization to the point where we, ourselves,
censor ourselves from the very
institutions that we are supposed to provide insight to? So with that, we’re going
to go ahead and get started. So our guest of the
night is Dr. West. So it needs no
introduction, but he’s made his film, and the debut– by the way, I had to write
this down because it’s a lot. But he made his film
debut in The Matrix. He was the commentator with Ken
Wilber in the official trilogy, released in 2004. He’s appeared in over 25
documentaries and films, including Examined Life, Call to
Response, Sidewalk, and Stand. Last, he has made three
spoken-word albums, including Never Forget. So I would like to bring to the
stage the Professor of Practice at Harvard Divinity, and as well
as a close mentor to myself, Dr. Cornel West. [applause] AUSTIN: I love you, man. WEST: Good to see you
there, [inaudible].. Good to see you [inaudible]. AUSTIN: [inaudible]. WEST: What a blessing
to be back to MIT. I want to begin by saluting
my dear brother, Austin. Ty Austin, I know we’ve
had wonderful times there at Harvard in
Cambridge in classes on Du Bois, and Levinas,
and Alfred North Whitehead, and a host of towering figures. And when he asked me to come
to MIT, I said, oh my god. It’s been a while. It’s been a while. I used to walk down the
street as a graduate student, to take courses from my
dear brother Noam Chomsky. He’s such a towering figure. He will always
remain in my heart. I know he’s moved to Arizona,
I think, recently, I saw. I said, wow, everybody
likes sunshine, I guess, sooner or
later, which is not to say there’s not
some sunshine at MIT, even in the winter time. But we’re here to talk about
institutional provincialism, of course, so– [laughter] We’ll get into that. But I also want
to salute, for 29 years of high-quality service,
Assistant Dean Ramona Allen. Where is she? Give it up for this
sister, 29 years. [applause] Absolutely,
absolutely, [inaudible] be able to set eyes
on Professor McDowell. We were in Berlin– how many
years ago was it, my brother? MCDOWELL: 10? WEST: Is it 10 years now, and
you haven’t changed one iota. [laughter] [inaudible] we had a great
time, and you represented MIT in such high-quality fashion. But each and every one
of you connected to MIT really are forces for good
in a significant way– thank each and every one of
you for coming out to see me. This is going to be much more
dialogical and conversational, really. I’m not here to pontificate. I don’t know that much about
the internal dynamics of MIT. If it’s in any way similar
to Harvard University, then we all got a
lot of work to do. [laughter] — very much so, because
this is, like Harvard, one of the great institutions
of the American empire, with a variety of different
viewpoints, visions, voices. That’s what liberal
education is all about. How do you come to terms
with the quest for truth and goodness and
beauty in such a way that you can engage
in disagreement and still mediate
it with respect, but recognize that
much is at stake? It’s not a game. It’s not a puzzle– talking about the future
and destiny of the species, of human beings and sentient
beings and so forth and so on. Now, I know this is
Black History Month. And for me, when you
talk about black history, you’re talking
about sacred ground because you’re talking about
my mother, and my father, and my grandparents. I am who I am because
somebody loved me. Somebody cared for me. Somebody attended to me. Before I arrived at Harvard
and Princeton and so forth, I already had folk who had
engaged in the shaping of who I am and provided a certain
mold of soul-craft– it’s the Irene and Clifton
West, and Shiloh Baptist Church, and Reverend Willie P.
Cook, and Deacon Hinton, and Sarah Ray, my
Sunday-school teacher. I was already fortified
before I was then able to study with
the Hilary Putnams, and the John Rawls and
the Robert Nozicks, and others in that
illustrious philosophy department in the early ’70s,
and then on to Princeton with Richard Rorty, and Sheldon
Wolin, and Walt Kaufmann, and Tim Scanlon and then Thomas
Nagel, and Gregory Vlastos. These are all towering figures. They mean the world to me, the
Israel Schefflers at Harvard. In fact, when I think about
them, I have to just pause. But they are part of
the same continuum as my family, my church folk,
members of the Black Panther Party. I couldn’t join the
party, because I’m a revolutionary Christian,
but they were my comrades. They were radically secular,
atheistic to the core. And so they could be
my allies, but they wouldn’t allow me to join,
and I can understand that. Everybody’s got their
dogmatism and provincialism and parochialism. [laughter] But no, when I arrived
here at Harvard, I went straight
to Jamaica Plain, where we the breakfast
program for the Black Panther Party and the prison
program at Norfolk, where I taught for every
Sunday for the three years that I was here. Why is this important? Not because it’s about
me, but because we live in one of the bleakest
moments in the history of this empire, and it’s
really a testing of who we are, what kind of heart,
mind, and souls we really have. It’s not just a matter
of what we talk about. It’s not just a
matter of chit-chat, but what we’re willing to risk. What kind of choices do
we make in such a way that we’re willing to
actually pay a cost? Antonio Gramsci called
it a critical historical self-inventory, but I begin
with the legacy of Athens. And Socrates says,
“The unexamined life is not worth living
for a human,” at line 38a of Plato’s Apology. And I take that
very, very seriously. But you can hear echoes in
Black History Month to Socrates. The unexamined life
is not worth living. The examined life is painful– very, very painful. Montaigne said to philosophize
was to learn how to die. And Seneca says he
or she who learns how to die unlearns slavery. See, for me, any serious
talk about an educational institution– and I draw a
fundamental distinction between what Greeks call
paideia, P-A-I-D-E-I-A– that’s deep education. It’s very different
than cheap schooling. And I know cheap schooling
is not what MIT’s about. You’re all about paideia. [laughter] But all of you
about paideia, that learning how to die
in order to learn how to live, to engage in that
Socratic self-examination, self-interrogation in
such a way that you can engage in the
formation of attention that tend to the things
that really matter, and turn your back to those
things that are distractions. We live in a culture with mats
of weapons of distraction, and you turn away from
the superficial things on the surface. Deal with life, death,
joy, sorrow, justice, trust, those non-market
values, those values that are
preconditions for markets, but they’re also far beyond
simply the meritocratic, because I come from a
tradition of a people who, after being terrorized
for 400 years, still taught the world
so much about freedom. Frederick Douglass
could have said, I’m not against slavery, per se. I just want to
enslave other folk, because I don’t
like being enslaved. No, he wanted freedom
for everybody. That’s a certain
kind of soul-craft. Ida Wells-Barnett, and she was– when they put the bounty on her
head for thousands of dollars, she had to leave the
country and go to England, fighting against American
terrorism called Jim Crow and Jane Crow and lynching. She could have
said, I will engage in lynching others who
are lynching my friends. No, she said. I was shaped in such a way that
I want freedom for everybody. And after 400 years of being
chronically and systemically hated– black bodies, black character,
black mind, black beauty– hated, demonized, we
black folk at our best– we’ve taught the world so
much about how to love. And I could just put on John
Coltrane, “Love Supreme,” and just sit down– [laughter] — and let you take it in. [laughter] Listen to those notes. Listen to Marvin Gaye’s
“What’s Going On,” every note, every silence between the notes. Has there ever been
a figure on the stage in this country with
more love than Mama, written by a genius on
the south side of Chicago named Lorraine Hansberry in
her 20s, A Raisin in the Sun? It doesn’t take anything away
from other towering figures, the Arthur Millers, and
the Tennessee Williams, and the Eugene O’Neills. But there’s never been that much
love on the American stage– same is true with James
Baldwin’s love-soaked essays same is true with Toni
Morrison’s Beloved, same is true with Stevie Wonder,
same is true with Erykah Badu. And Brother Kendrick’s
working on it, isn’t he? [laughter] Oh, I love that brother. That’s Socratic wrestling,
paideia in the sonic mode. Brother Malcolm knows
what I’m talking about. It’s a blessing to see him. It’s two brilliant brothers
sitting next to each other at MIT, and his beloved mother’s
a very distinguished professor as well. But the same tradition, though,
Brother Malcolm– and you know who you were named
after, that Malcolm X, who was a gangster when he was a
teenager, a Malcolm Little. But that love transformed him,
the love of an Honorable Elijah Muhammad transformed him. And what did he do? He shattered his provincialism. He shattered his parochialism. He kept growing. He was Socratic to
the core, and he learned how to die in
order to learn how to live, by scrutinizing
himself and allowing, through a formation
of attention, and the cultivation
of a critical self, and the maturation of a
loving soul, to bear witness, to be a truth-teller. And he echoed line 24a
of Plato’s Apology, where Socrates says what? Parrhesia, P-A-R-R-H-E-S-I-A,
parrhesia was the cause of my unpopularity. What is parrhesia, Socrates? Frank speech, plain
speech, fearless speech, unintimidated speech– yes,
it will get you in trouble. [laughter] But just not any
speech, but it’s got to be rooted in
the best of paideia. It’s got to be rooted in
the best of deep education. But the soul-craft
that I already was shaped in before I arrived
at Harvard 48 years ago was one that engaged a
kind of culture shock, because even then, I was running
into young brothers and sisters of different colors who
were thoroughly convinced that the end and aim of
life was, for the most part, to be the smartest in the room. And I said to myself, we come
from a different tradition, you see? I don’t fetishize smartness,
just like I don’t worship meritocratic formulations. Now, I’m not
promoting stupidity. [laughter] I want to be clear about that. But no, no, we got to
let the phones be smart. We’ve got to be wise. Let the computers be smart. We’ve got to be courageous– nothing wrong,
technological ingenuity; nothing wrong with
magnificent breakthroughs. But the question is, in the
end, what kind of human being are you in your short trek
from your mama’s womb to tomb, and are you willing to engage
in paideia at the deepest level, which has to do with
your soul, your character? It has to do with the
kind of person you will be and what will be said
about you when your body is in that coffin or
after your ashes are spread over whatever body
of water that you so desire. [laughter] What does it mean to be human,
that Latin humando, which means burial, on
our way to burial, for the culinary delight
of terrestrial worm. What I love about
the black tradition is that we always believe
in trying to keep it funky, which means we’re
highly suspicious of deodorized discourses. That’s crucial– sanitized– look at how they sanitize
Martin every January, sterilize Malcolm, mainstream all
of these freedom fathers. Never confuse a love warrior
and a freedom fighter with a polished professional. The most polished
professionals fetishize smartness and end up being
well-adjusted to injustice and well-adapted
to indifference. Rabbi Abraham Joshua
Heschel used to say, with such tremendous
insight, indifference to evil is more insidious
than evil itself. It doesn’t matter
how smart you are. No matter how rich
you are, if you’re not willing to engage in parrhesia,
frank speech, a plain speech– it doesn’t have to be public. It could be micro-social– on the job, in your
synagogue, in your mosque, in your trade union,
in your university– a force for good, in the
language of John Coltrane. That’s what it means to bring to
bear the best of black history. And I keep saying the best,
because black history includes black gangsters, black thugs. Every community has is– black haters, black
xenophobes, black patriarchs, black homophobes,
black transphobes. I’ve got many in my family. People ask me all the
time, how could you call Donald Trump a gangster
on TV every two weeks? I said, because he is. [laughter] But I’m not engaging
in name-calling. A gangster’s not a
subjective expression. That’s an objective condition. [laughter] It’s true. If you’re grabbing private parts
of somebody, that’s gangster. Another country got
oil, and you say you ought to get
it, that’s gangster. See, as I said before, I’m a
revolutionary Christian, which means that I was a gangster
before I met Jesus. And now I’m a redeemed sinner
with gangster proclivities. [laughter] So when I call Trump
a gangster, I’m talking about
something inside of me. Trump is American as cherry pie. It’s misogyny, and white
supremacy, and transphobia, and class arrogance,
and obsession with smartness,
obsession with riches, ignorance flowing in the name
of his claim to be smartness. He doesn’t have a
monopoly on that. It comes out of a long
history, and black folk always keep track of it. And this is one
of the challenges to a place like MIT
and Harvard and others, because one of the
distinctive features of most American institutions
is that we’re in denial of the
catastrophic and obsessed with the problematic. So everything is reduced
to a problem, rather than a catastrophe. There’s never been such a thing
as the race problem in America. There’s been a series
of catastrophes visited on black people. That’s not a problem– no such thing as
a women’s problem. There’s been a catastrophe,
a series of them visited on women. Working-class people,
the labor problem– no, no, no, that’s from the
vantage point of capital. That’s from the vantage
point of Wall Street. We’re talking about
the workers themselves, dealing with daily
life, wrestling with catastrophic circumstances. No such thing as an
immigrant problem– I was in Arizona just
a couple of days ago, and everybody’s so upset. Mexicans coming in– shoot,
Arizona used to be Mexico. What you talking about? They’re just coming home. [laughter] The Mexican War, one of the
most trumped-up, unjustified– and that’s from the memoirs
of Ulysses S. Grant. We’re not talking about a
radical anti-imperialist like Mark Twain. We’re talking about somebody
who fought in the war. He said this was a bogus war. This was a land
grab, a power grab. That’s what imperialism is. That’s what the expansion
of US empire is. That’s what it has
been at its worst, and we always want to keep
track of the best and the worst, any tradition, any group– best inside, the best
of me, the worst of me. Now, what does that
have to do with institutional provincialism? It means that from
the very beginning, as we enter the
dialogue, we first enter the dialogue
with what we could call loosely hermeneutical
humility, that the various interpretations
that we put forward ought to be put forward in
such a way that we recognize that we could be wrong
as well as right. And we take each
other seriously when we acknowledge that each one
of us could be wrong or right. That’s what it means to be
a jazz woman or a blues man, to learn how to lift your
voice, but also to listen– not just hear in the abstract,
but listen, because paideia, education, is about what? Transformation– cheap
schooling, just information– never confuse the two– information, indispensable;
information, necessary– not a sufficient condition
for paideia and hermeneutics, interpretation,
self-invested interpretation. So when you talk
about catastrophe, you begin with
ecological catastrophe– impending, escalating every
day; nuclear catastrophe, increasing, especially
with both Kim and Trump, two gangsters, possibility,
pushing the button. And we haven’t even talked
about Russia and other countries with nuclear arms. What a bleak moment. Economic catastrophe–
what is it now? The top three individuals
in this empire have wealth equivalent to
50% of our fellow citizens, 160 million people. Well, Brother West, they’re very
smart, and they worked hard. Oh, please– [laughter] Please, salute their
smartness, their intelligence. We’re talking about structures. We’re talking about
institutions in place. We’re talking
about policies that generate massive
redistribution of wealth from poor and working
people to the well-to-do. When I was the age of
many of the young brothers and sisters who are
undergrads right now at MIT, and we were struggling
against the 1%, they had 21% of the wealth. Today, 1% got 41% of the wealth. That’s a massive redistribution
of wealth upward, and it continues. Under Obama, 1%
of the population got 95% of the income growth. People ask me why I was upset
with the black president. Please– I love blackness,
but not enough to blind me and render me insensitive
to the suffering of poor and working people. I don’t care what color. And I’m stuck with the
old-fashioned view that a precious baby in Yemen,
or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Somalia has the same value
as a vanilla baby in Newtown, Connecticut; or a red
baby in Standing Rock; or a brown baby the east
side of Los Angeles; or a black baby in Dorchester– same value, same
righteous indignation, same moral outrage when innocent
people are being killed. It could be a drone strike. It could be a
policeman or woman. It could be a fellow citizen. Innocent folk killed, and
a precious Jewish baby in Tel Aviv has
exactly the same value as a precious Palestinian
baby in the West Bank or in Gaza and vice versa. And if you really
believe that, then it’s going to pitch you over
against much of the mainstream discourse. And I think that’s exactly what
paideia, at its best, does. So that’s why we love
Socrates, at a distance. We love the
intellectual operation. We don’t love the
hemlock moment. That’s why we love Amos,
and the legacy of Jerusalem and Jeremiah. That’s why we love
Jesus and Mohammad– in the world, but not
of it; willing to keep track of forms of
provincialism and parochialism, narrow horizons,
narrow mindedness, the lack of what the great
Jane Austen called constancy. What is constancy? Moral and spiritual
consistency– so you’re not obsessed with
just one issue, concerned just about racism, but can’t say a
mumbling word about misogyny and sexism; concerned
about patriarchy, can’t say a mumbling word
about transphobia [inaudible] trans folk; or
concerned about America, and can’t say a mumbling
word about imperial policies, the 4,857 military
units that we have, the 857 around the world,
the 145 countries we have US special operations in. And keep track of
what they’re doing, from detentions, to night
raids, to so forth and so on. That’s a major challenge. It’s a crucial challenge. All of us fall short. Samuel Beckett is right. If you try again, fail
again, fail better. As he puts in his
last piece of fiction, Worstward Ho, try again,
fail again, fail better. But right now, at the
moment of this empire, we are witnessing colossal,
escalating failure– failure of imagination,
failure of a sensitivity, failure of a concern
with the vulnerable. And yet, certain institutions–
the Harvards, the MITs, the University of Chicagos– flourishing, flourishing,
so the question becomes, MIT, what’re you going to do? [laughter] And by MIT, we’re not talking
about abstract institution. We’re talking about the folk
who constitute this place. What kind of human beings are
you going to choose to be, what levels of discipline,
what kind of attention? William James, the most adorable
of all public intellectuals in the history of
this empire, he used to say experiences very
much define what you attend to. There’s a wonderful book by
Tim Wu called The Attention Merchants. It was just published
a couple of years ago, and all of the
institutional efforts to try to make sure that we
don’t attend to the things that matter– the advertising,
enterprises, and so forth, all tied to money-making, all
tied to profit-maximizing, all tied to growth without
necessarily defining what the moral and spiritual
quality of that growth is, vis-a-vis the planet in which
we find ourselves or vis-a-vis those Frantz Fanon called
the wretched of the earth. Catastrophe– I used to
acknowledge to my beloved colleagues in the
philosophy departments– I said, if somebody
dropped down from Mars and talked about the crisis
of the American empire, would your subject matter
have anything to do with that? Civil war, Civil
Rights movement, Charlottesville today,
white supremacy, escalating, running amok– are these departments wrestling
with the vicious legacy of the white supremacy? Oh, well, we’ve got somebody
teaching a course on diversity. Well, that’s not– [stammering]. [laughter] No, that’s not what
I’m talking about. No, no, diversity is part
of the deodorized discourse I’m talking about. [laughter] AUDIENCE: There you go. There you go. WEST: Nothing wrong with
it– all bureaucrats need constructs. [laughter] But on the ground, diversity
is about male supremacy and its vicious effects. It’s about white supremacy
and its vicious consequences. It’s about class privilege,
which even in a highly colorful silo, a highly colorful context,
the issue of class cannot be downplayed. Same is true with
an empire, you see. Catastrophe– for
me, someone who teaches at Divinity School
and Afro-American studies, the issue of
soul-craft, the issue of moral and
spiritual dimensions of our individual lives,
of our collective lives, sits at the center
of it, because there will be no fight-back. And I’m very much
concerned about fight-back. There will be no
fight-back if we don’t produce people
who are willing to take a stand, willing
to take a stand. Emerson talks about
this in “Self-Reliance,” the aversion to conformity,
the willingness to stand out and stand for, over against
a status quo that so often is so preoccupied with reproducing
itself that it takes a major catastrophe or crisis for it
to acknowledge, lo and behold, it ought to come to terms with
some realities that are being hidden and concealed, you see. Moral and spiritual
dimensions, and that’s a challenge to all of
my brothers and sisters here of all colors
at MIT, you see. How do you not
just talk about it, but enact a sensitivity to the
vulnerable in your curriculum, in your own praxis, in your
organizational affiliations? No one of us can do everything,
no one of us a Messiah. We’ve got one life
to live, but it’s got to be part and
parcel of the soul-craft. Now, Walt Whitman called
it democratic soul-craft, vis-a-vis a
market-driven soul-craft. I would submit that the
neoliberal soul-craft has become so hegemonic
these days, it’s hard to think outside of it. And the neoliberal soul-craft
is what I said before– the smartest and the richest. That’s all you need. You notice, for example,
when you watch television, how many times people
use the word obviously? Obviously, obviously
this, obviously that, obvious– and it’s not
obvious sometimes at all. I said to myself,
some linguist needs to engage in an
anthropological investigation at the deployment of that word,
because it’s a word of in-crowd smartness, because if
it’s not obvious to you, then you’re the one
that feels dumb. And it’s not just a word
to connect other words. It’s a way of wanting to be
included in the smart crowd. And I thank God
that I was raised in such a way that I have a
deep suspicion of folk who are just smart, because
there’s a whole lot of smart misogynists out there,
a whole lot of smart folk who hate Jews and hate Arabs. And you got a long history
of smart white supremacists– very smart,
sophisticated, well-read– [laughter] — but crushed my grandmama. And I said, oh, I got my
hermeneutics of suspicion– not just hermeneutics, humility. I’m very, very Socratic
in terms of my willingness to question what kind of
assumptions and presuppositions are being put forward
by those who are denying catastrophic realities
and claim to be so smart, involved in problem solving. And I’m not against
problem solving. Now, I come out in
some ways of tradition of American pragmatism
of a certain kind that’s obsessed with problem solving. But I come from a people
whose first experience in the modern world was
massive catastrophe, and it’s been at work ever
since, continues today. And usually, the country
doesn’t attend to it unless there is a
major challenge, often of a violent sort. When I arrived at
Harvard in 1970, they admitted 91 black students. Four years earlier,
they admitted six. And you say, oh, they had
an intellectual Renaissance in the black community, huh? All of a sudden, they just start
admitting all these black folk. No, you had massive
rebellions on April 5, 1968, when Brother Martin Luther
King, Jr., was shot down like a dog on that
porch in Memphis, 150 cities burning,
almost shut down the White House or de-whiteified
the White House, or black-enized the White
House– first time they had to use the National Guard
to protect the White House since the 19th century. And then these
institutions said, I think we really
do have a problem. We’re going to have to
do something about this. [laughter] We need some diversity
programs, oh my god. These black folk
running out of control– and then what happens
the next month? September, New York Times
Magazine, model minority, Asian brothers and sisters– oh, we like them. They’re so silent and
seemingly deferential. And they’re not like
Jamal and Letitia. No, no, uh-uh, Brother Kim– no, no, sister, no– well, they don’t know
nothing about the history of Asian peoples, just
a construct juxtaposing and contrasted with
this rebellious folk, angry black people. No, no, we want those minorities
that come in very, very quiet– don’t want to raise
too much hell, just want to fit
in and assimilate. Now, you don’t know what they’re
doing when they get home. They say, oh, bring in the
Indian brothers and sisters in Indochina, Japan, and Korea. You’re going to
put all– they’re going to put the Koreans
and the Japanese together? Please, read the history. [laughter] Ugh, oh, imperial,
vicious, all of them under the same construct
in America– that’s the deodorized discourse. Asians– no, they
got specificity. They got heterogeneity–
vast diversity, going to put them all under,
but juxtapose it to these black folk, because they’re
the ones out of control– how come? Because they will
straighten their backs up, and they’ll tell some
truths at their best. Now, that doesn’t
mean we don’t have a long history of black
assimilation, long history of black folk
getting in, so glad to get in, smiling and
laughing when it ain’t funny, scratching when it don’t itch,
wearing the mask just to fit in. Paul Laurence Dunbar
talked about that. We wear the mask just to fit in. No, no, we got a history of
misfits, a history of those who are oppositional–
not for opposition’s sake, but because they are
fundamentally committed to a form of
democratic soul-craft that puts a premium on
integrity, constancy, honesty, courage, fortitude. Fortitude, according
to the Romans, is the fusion of
courage and magnanimity, of courage and greatness
of character– fortitude. Now, I would argue, in
fact– and I’m going to stop, because we’re going to
have dialogue on this– that when you talk about
soul-craft in this country, you have to talk about the arts. I was glad to see
the arts program. I saw the arts
program here at MIT, because the last thing you
want is a lot of nerdy brothers and sisters running around,
being smart with no access to the arts. [laughter] That is a dystopia
of grand proportion. [laughter] By the arts, I’m talking about
the music, the paintings, and so forth and so on. They’re not ornamental
or decorative. They ought to be constitutive. And you can’t talk about the
history of white supremacy in this country without
talking about resistance to white supremacy, and
the musical tradition has been the grandest example,
because it’s there where you get more of the truth-telling. Is there where you
get the vulnerability. It’s there where you get the
risks and so forth and so on. That’s one reason why when I
began talking about Coltrane, I could have talked
about Donny Hathaway. I could have talked
about Aretha Franklin. I could have talked about
Mahalia Jackson or Curtis Mayfield– it’s hard these
days to keep track of the enhancing impact of black
music on black folk and others. There’s been a spiritual warfare
against young black folk, especially to make sure
that the music is not sweet and kind and gentle. We just lost Dennis Edwards. You all know who Dennis was,
from Alabama, my dear brother. AUDIENCE: Temptations? WEST: There you go. Give it to him. Brother, you’re
looking sharp, though. Give it up for this brother. He’s looking sharp. [applause] He’s looking sharp– comes out
of Alabama, from the Mighty Clouds of Joy. And he replaced a David Ruffin
from Whynot, Mississippi, who sang lead for the Temptations. Well, what was it about the
Temptations or the Miracles? What was it about [inaudible]? What was it about the Delfonics,
or the Dramatics, or the Jones Girls? What was it about the Hutchison
sisters of the Emotions? What was it about the
groups who sang in tune with a sweetness and a kindness
that stirred the soul, rather than just stimulated the body? And these days, the
dumbing down of the music is part and parcel of the
dumbing down of the soul that makes it difficult to
produce persons who are willing to fight, who
are willing to sacrifice, because if it’s all about
stimulation and titillation– you see, when Otis
Redding said, “Try a little tenderness,” that’s
not say my name, say my name, say my name. It’s a very different
disposition toward the world. It’s a very different
orientation toward the world. And there is no black history
without a love of truth, and the condition
of truth is always to allow suffering to
speak, anybody’s suffering. There’s no black
history without a love of goodness keeping
track of the evil, the undeserved harm,
a love of beauty. And Rilke is right– beauty is, in fact, produced
wrestling with tear and trauma, and transfiguring your
pain and suffering into a sound, a
painting, a building. And there’s certainly
no love of the holy, for those of us who are
religious– be you Muslim, or Buddhist, or Christian. Whatever you are, there’s
no love of the holy without wrestling with
the degree to which we are aspiring, but fall
short, tied to something bigger than ourselves. One of the reasons why I spend
a lot of time in studios with hip-hop artists is to try to
convince them that to fall in love with truth and
beauty and goodness, to be a love warrior at the
highest level and then master your craft, then
master your technique, then be as smart
as you want to be, acknowledging the
limitations of smartness, spilling into wisdom– then we have a chance to
deal with the catastrophe. That was what was beautiful
about the Occupy Movement, that was beautiful about the
various marches we’ve had recently, against Donald Trump;
beautiful about the movement, Black Lives; and
beautiful anti– oh, what would be
the right words? The rich ecological movement, my
dear Brother McKibbon and Naomi Klein and the others– I know many have played
an important role here at MIT as professors,
and staff, and students. But the challenge is, given
this institutional context, can we wrestle with the forms
of provincialism, parochialism? Can we be true to the best of
the Socratic legacy of Athens? Can we be true to the best
of the prophetic legacy of Jerusalem? Can we be true to the best
of the democratic legacy of, not just the United States,
but other social experiments, as we keep track of empire,
white supremacy, misogyny, transphobia, all
of those ideologies that lose sight of the
preciousness and pricelessness of each and every one of us? Thank you all so very much, and
we’ll have a nice little time to talk. [applause] Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Thank you so very much. [inaudible] MCDOWELL: Whoo, that’s
what I have to say. [laughter] WEST: Professor McDowell. MCDOWELL: Hi, everyone,
I’m who’s Ceasar McDowell, a professor here at MIT. And I have the distinct
honor of serving as moderator in this conversation. And I suspect there’s not
going to be much I have to do. We actually have,
joining us today, three soul-warriors here at
MIT, who are really fighting the battle in different ways. I want to introduce
them, and I’ll start here with Jennifer Light,
who’s department head, professor in Science,
Technology and Society program here at MIT. And next to Jennifer, we
have Joy Buolamwini, who’s– well, what is this? The Algorithmic Justice
League, which I just love– a poet, artist,
and she’s currently in a PhD program, also, in
comparative media studies. And at the far end,
my dear friend, Sasha Costanza-Chock,
who’s associate professor of civic media in
comparative media studies. Our goal today is actually
to have an open conversation, particularly as it relates
to what Dr. West talked about and how it fits into you and
your experience here at MIT. And I guess, Joy, I
want to start with you. I want to start with
you, mainly because one of the last things that
Professor West said, talking about the arts and the needs
of the arts and the context as a way of looking
into things– but in particular,
from your perspective of being here the
student, but also having your presence in the external
world here outside of MIT, where do you– you as an individual, where
do you find your own grounding in a place like this? Where do you start
the conversation? Where do you start the work? How do you find the
balance between being in a place that is a very
old institution, very provincial, and still
coming at it, really, as a warrior in the
work that you do? BUOLAMWINI: I tend
to find my place on the dance floor, which isn’t
always going to be at MIT. [laughter] And that is, for me, a place
where I feel I can be free, and I can express myself. And one of the
things I’ve really enjoyed about being a
student at the Media Lab is the opportunity to
explore artistic expression. And it’s actually in
exploring artistic expression that I ended up starting the
Algorithmic Justice League. So my first semester
here at MIT, I took a class called
Science Fabrication. We’d read science
fiction, and we’d try to build something that
would be whimsical and probably impractical otherwise. So I wanted to see if I
could transform my body. I realized with the
two months we had, I wasn’t going to
change physics. So instead, I built something
called an aspire-mirror. So an aspire-mirror was
to take on a smart mirror. Instead of a smart mirror that
could tell you the weather or something like that– I could check my phone– I wanted a mirror that
could turn me into a lion. Or if I wanted to be Serena
Williams that morning, that could happen as well. So I was working on
building this mirror, and it was kind of working. But it had one problem. To track the face to project
Serena Williams onto mine, I had to use computer
vision software. And that computer
vision software usually didn’t pick up my
face until I wore this. This is the white
mask that I wore, so I could literally
be detected. And so you mentioned
Fanon earlier, right– black skin, white mask. It was literally happening
in this place that is the epicenter of innovation,
for a class project, which was meant to be for
artistic expression. And in that very space,
that’s where I’m coming up against something I
called the coded gaze, a reflection of the male
gaze and the white gaze, in terms of what the priorities
and the preferences of those who have power
choose to focus on. Who’s visible? Who’s rendered invisible? And so that’s how
dancing, in terms of playing around with
ideas and so forth, led to the Algorithmic
Justice League. MCDOWELL: Wow, thank you. Sasha, how about you? Where are you in this space? I think I first met you
when you were in California, so that’s a long time ago. But anyway, here we
are in this place. You’ve moved through
different identities. You’re really doing great work
around civic media and the way we’re using these
technologies and stuff. And, again, we’re
in this institution that we’re all kind of pushing
uphill, and at the same time, have to keep ourselves charged
as we’re doing that push. So how are you
managing this place? COSTANZA-CHOCK: I think, for
me, one of the ways that I think about MIT as a provincial
institution is in what can slide very quickly into the
technological solutionist ideology– that smart people sitting in a
lab will be able to solve these hard problems that are
out there in the world, but without ever considering
the maxim that people who experience oppression at the
intersections of all of these systems that you so clearly
articulated– white supremacy, hetero patriarchy, capitalism,
settler colonialism, ableism, the way that they
interface and intersect– people who live those
intersections already have traditions and cultures
and histories of resistance, have tacit knowledge
and explicit knowledge, have solutions and
strategies for how to deal with this stuff. And so I think that one of
the things that MIT needs to do to be less provincial
is in this process of problem solving, as you were
describing– to think about, how do we say, well, I
may be a brilliant person, and I may have a certain
set of skills and knowledge in one domain, but how do I
really work in partnership with or even in service to
people who are living at that intersection of what
Patricia Hill Collins calls the matrix of domination–
all of those systems that I just named,
as they intersect. And use those talents and
skills, be they technical or whatever the case may
be, to build on, support, and amplify the knowledge, the
strategies, the solutions that are already coming out
of those communities that are experiencing
the lived reality of intersectional oppression. And I try and do that in the
classes that I teach here. So I teach a collaborative
design studio, where I work with MIT students. And we go and partner with
community-based organizations and social-movement
organizations around the city of
Boston, usually, although sometimes
they’re elsewhere. And we try and
develop work together. And to answer the question,
what gives me energy and hope, I think, in that
context as an educator is seeing those
moments where I feel like it’s moved from me just
saying the things that I just said about how important
it is to listen, to a student really
internalizing that and building on it and,
through this practice, getting a shift in their
vision about what it means. So we were working on a
project about gentrification and displacement
in the Boston area. And we should talk
about, if we’re going to talk about calling out
institutions and speaking truth to power, we need to
talk about MIT’s role in the gentrification
and displacement process of working people
from the Cambridge area and the broader Boston area. So we were working on a
project, focused on that. And we went to a meeting of the
City Life/Vida Urbana, which is a community-based
organization that actually has worked closely in partnership
with Harvard Law School to try and defend people’s
right to the city, as David Harvey
articulates it, right? And in the City
Life/Vida Urbana meeting, there was an intake
process, where there was a young
woman who was talking about her experience
of being made homeless through the rising rents
in the Boston area, and how she had to
sleep in her car with her young daughter for
a period of several months before she was able to
get housed again, partly through the efforts of City
Life and that whole network. And afterwards, when my
class was debriefing one of the students who was a
[inaudible] student was kind of thinking about this whole
process and was saying, there’s just– there’s something really
wrong with the system that would require someone to
have to sleep in her car with her 3-year-old. And she was thinking of it from
the perspective of a systems engineer. She didn’t mean
system, and she wasn’t just like– it wasn’t
ideological-speak that she was just repeating. She was like, how is this
system configured that would put this person in this position? And so that type of moment
gives me hope and energy. MCDOWELL: Wow, thank you. LIGHT: Yeah, so I
think I come at it as the head of a
department at the sort of meta-institutional level. And one thing I want to
clarify, because not everyone in the room has taken a class
in the Science, Technology and Society program, is that
many of us in the department are somewhat annoyed with
the name of the department, because it suggests
that you have science and technology over
here and society over here, instead of the foundational
argument of the field, which is that science and
technology are society. And we see that in
the knowledge that’s produced in research design
and in the implications of technological systems,
once they leave the lab. So, for example, it’s
not a coincidence that in the middle of
the 1800s, biologists at Harvard and other
eminent institutions decided in their research
that African-Americans and Caucasians were
separate species. This was a very
convenient idea if you wanted to perpetuate the
system of slavery as natural. Or only until, really, the
1990s, medical studies, for example, or
psychology research was all based on males
as human subjects. In the same way that we talk
about mankind, chairman, it was presumed that if
you study men, of course you’re going to find
out about everyone. Now, of course, now we know
this is completely false. Women metabolize
drugs differently, and so on and so forth. But so the way that we
think in STS is quite– it resonates quite a lot
with what Joy is doing. And we see the algorithmic
bias that you talk about and are trying to eradicate. That is one example
of something that has been around, essentially,
since the dawn of science and engineering, because
science and engineering are done by people in
particular times and places. And so the goal in our
very small department is to help students develop
what you were talking about, Dr. West, critical
self-reflection. What does it mean to be human? Well, they are humans working
in a particular time and place. And if they realize that
the Harvard and Princeton professors of the 1920s
thought immigration law should be shaped around
eugenics, because there were certain populations that
were better than others, smart people have
lots of bad ideas. And history can be a tool
to understand that and then take to your own present. So that’s how we think
about these issues in STS. MCDOWELL: A question I want
to throw out to everyone– one of the things about MIT
that I’ve known in my years here is, what actually
qualifies as proof, right? So you take and you
ask the question, how do we make a change here? What’s needed here? What is the evidence
that one needs to garner, in order to convince
the institution and others in institutions? And, by and large, that evidence
is pretty driven by numbers and technical, right? So my question
is, how do we move to get people to consider
other forms of evidence in an institution like this,
because I don’t know how we move the provincial
question without acknowledgment of other ways of knowing
and other means of proof? BUOLAMWINI: Well, with my work
with the Algorithmic Justice League, I really looked
at poetry and narrative as a way of pointing
to the fact that right now, artificial intelligence
is dominated by supremely white data and
that, as a result, a lot of the progress that’s
been made by the Civil Rights Movement, by the women’s
movement as well, risk being reversed under the
guise of machine neutrality. And so when I– again,
I had that experience coding in the white mask. I realized that story
would bring more attention to the issue, which, again– STS, this is foundational
to fields of study that already exist, so it
wasn’t something novel. But it was, how do you
tell the story in a way where people pay attention? And so that’s been one
way of offering proof through personal experience. And that can also
be in narrative with the empirical evidence
that comes in numbers. So, for example, if you
look at what we considered a standard or maybe what you
might call the curriculum for an algorithm, which is
based on machine learning, is the data. So we assume that the
standards for a benchmark are going to tell us how
well we’re performing on a specific task, but we don’t
always question the standard. Why bring this up is,
after my experience, I started looking at the
benchmarks or the standards for facial recognition. And I looked at the
most prolific standard for facial recognition, and it
was 77.5% male and 83.5% white. And so this is the benchmark
by which we’re saying there’s progress in a field. But it’s not even
reflective of who I like to call the
under-sampled majority, the majority of the world. LIGHT: I think your
comment about poetry just triggered a thought, which
is in some of the classes I’ve taught in the past, I invite
students to consider how a scientific article, like
a sonnet or a Limerick, is a particular mode of
written communication. And we analyze it
like a literary text. What does it hide? A lot of messy stuff– what doesn’t get published
in scientific journals? These are the sorts
of questions that get students realizing not
that I’m going to give them a new kind of proof,
but maybe what they have taken as truth
unquestioningly might be a little more complicated. COSTANZA-CHOCK: Thinking about
your question about evidence and what counts as
evidence, and I’m thinking about Amelia Perry,
who some of you in the audience may have known her. She’s a doctoral
student in mathematics who is a trans woman– actually, a non-binary
trans-femme person– who just took her
own life a week ago. She was a student here at MIT. And the reason I’m
thinking about her in response to that
question is, so I’m a non-binary trans-femme
person, like Amelia. And so we’re part of
a community of people. There are very few of
us in the world, right? So as a matter,
statistically speaking, between 1 in 1,000 to
1 in 10,000 people– the conversation keeps changing,
and depending on definitions, but that’s the order of
magnitude we’re talking about. And so it can become
very, very hard to try and gather and
mobilize quantitative evidence to convince institutions
to make shifts, if you’re a member of
a community with very small numbers. But Amelia was a person
who was constantly organizing, and pushing, and
mobilizing with the queer community around and
throughout MIT to try and push the Institute to make
changes, to make it a more gender-inclusive space. In the building that I work
in, for example, my office is in the old Media
Lab complex building, and there are still no
gender-inclusive restrooms in that building. And until this year,
just now, there’s about to be a trial of
gender-inclusive restrooms. Now, there are some around
campus, but they’re not enough. They’re not in
all the buildings, and for many students
and faculty and staff who maybe gender
nonconforming, it becomes part of daily process. But it also– it’s a sign of,
does the institution see you? Does it care about you? And so for Amelia, who was
struggling with depression, I think on the one
hand, she was– MIT is a gender-inclusive place. It wins awards for
being very inclusive, and so I’m not
trying to say that. I’m trying to say that there’s
always more that can be done. And so for her, she felt she
was mobilizing and pushing, and she was achieving things. And so there were slight shifts,
slow shifts, small steps, baby steps in moving
the institution. But there’s still so
much to be done there. And the last thing I
want to say on that is just that it’s so crucial
to understand with her and to call her into this
space in this room right now. She recognized and actually– I was just on her
Twitter feed before this, sort of reflecting
on what to say here, and reading her tweets from
last week, when she was trying to get access to the
mental health care that she needed and was not
getting access to it– not at MIT, but at another
medical institution, because they were not
trans-inclusive in their policy around giving her a room that
she could be in and receive the mental health
care she needed. But she was– even
at that moment, when she was in the depths of
an attack of depression and was trying to fight for
what she needed to survive and was not getting
it and did not get it, she even then was
tweeting and talking about how she knew
that as a white woman and with educational privilege,
she had access to so much that trans women of
color do not have. And that’s why 80% of the
murders of trans and gender non-conforming people are women
of color, trans women of color and black trans women, who are
being killed in record numbers, even at the moment of the
so-called trans tipping point. So the mass media visibility of
Caitlyn Jenner and of Laverne Cox and of Janet Mock, who
are doing amazing work– well, maybe not Caitlyn,
but the other two– [laughter] Even at the moment that
these incredible, powerful, beautiful, black,
trans, radical women– and if you haven’t watched
Laverne Cox in dialogue with Bell Hooks, go
Google that after this. MCDOWELL: At the new school. COSTANZA-CHOCK: —
at the new school. They’re doing this work,
but trans visibility is not translating directly
into trans survival, especially when we’re talking
about poor and working-class trans women of color. And so that idea that you
can hold solidarity and love, even at the moment when
you’re facing so much– I just, I wanted to call that
into the space here tonight. MCDOWELL: Mm, thank you. WEST: There was a
towering intellectual who was my teacher. His name was Thomas
Kuhn, who taught here at MIT for many years. But he taught at Princeton
before he arrived here. And I’m sure students still
read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Is that right? MCDOWELL: Yep. [interposing voices] WEST: Is that required reading? LIGHT: I think it’s on
their graduate generals list in my program. WEST: A long ways
to go higher than that– it needs to go
higher than– you need to, and the reason I say that is
because it’s issue of evidence arguments, trying to deduce
various kinds of conclusions, follow through on
valid inferences. The evidence, usually, on
the most crucial issues is under-determined,
so it’s polyvalent. It’s subject to a variety
of different descriptions and interpretations. And Kuhn and Nelson Goodman and
others used to make this point. But what Thomas Kuhn
pointed out was– scientific practices
or social practices that are tied to different
institutions and structures, what gets studied has
much to do with who has access to the money. Where is it coming from? US government contracts
have a certain set of priorities that go with it. Private business, corporations
have a certain set of priorities that
go with it, so that the whole
conception of what it is to have a normal
paradigm and then a critique of the normal
paradigm in those institutions that understand
themselves as scientific is something that needs
to be contextualized, which is not to
relativize or not to say that evidence does not matter. It’s just that usually
it’s under-determined, which means a whole host of
other factors and variables that come into play
regarding new breakthroughs, new developments. Just saw this movie
called BPM, I think it is. It’s about the ACT UP
movement in France, 128 beats per
minute, and the ways in which the activists, building
on Boston ACT UP and New York ACT UP in the ’80s,
put pressure up on scientists to engage in
the kind of investigation, such that they could make
more widely available these various kinds of
medications and vaccines against vulnerable
members of their society and vulnerable
fellow human beings. And at that point, it was a
matter of social movements shaping what was studied. And so I think that’s
very much something that we ought to
take very seriously, especially in light of the
struggles that so many have. MCDOWELL: Some years ago,
I was involved in a study. We were looking at,
basically, a study about cognitive
scientists and people who really look at how children
learn different phenomena. I won’t get into
the details of it, but it was particularly
looking at how kids actually develop their understanding of
particular natural phenomenons, like why does the moon rise? Kids, what are the mental
models they derive out of that? Two things were really
interesting about the work. One is no surprise
to anyone here, that 98% of the people in the
studies were white [inaudible].. And it was done
because researchers tended to actually
research the places where they had access, which
were usually the schools that their kids went to. And that’s how the
theory gets developed. But the more
interesting thing for me was that there were a
number of researchers they interviewed who were
actually researchers of color. And one of the things
that was interesting is, how do they pay attention
to issues of race and gender and intersectionality
in their work? And it was a small
number, but every one of these researchers of color
said, I don’t look at it, because our theories
are not robust enough so that when
I find a difference, it will not be used
against people. [interposing voices] Right, and I think I wonder
how we silence ourselves because of the structure we’re
in, the methodologies that we have, the ways things are
going to be interpreted, that it ends up actually– even in wherever we
are, it’s another form of how we find
ourselves locked in. WEST: That’s very real. That’s very real. LIGHT: Then there’s something,
kind of like the flip side, because I took a lot
of neuroscience classes when I was at college. This was in the ’90s, and one
of the leading neuroscientists in the news at that point
was this guy, Simon LeVay, who was trying to
find, essentially, a region of the brain where
homosexuality could be located. And the reason he
wanted to do this was because of US
civil rights laws. If it’s an immutable
characteristic, you’re protected. If it’s not
biological, you’re not. So this is the opposite
of the silencing, but it’s a way that the larger
social and political structure literally determined
what the guy was studying, what he wanted to
find, and so on and so forth. BUOLAMWINI: In thinking about
policy structure, when we’re thinking about fairness,
accountability, and transparency within
AI, oftentimes there’s a lot of talk about
protected classes, right? But there isn’t an
intersectional view. And so when Kimberle
Crenshaw was talking about
intersectionality, she was talking about
loopholes in the law where, as a woman of color,
as a black woman, you might be able
to reach, maybe, a 4/5 threshold to
say this thing that happened to me was unjust. But if you were
lumped with all women, or if you were lumped
with all blacks, it didn’t necessarily
meet that threshold. I was finding the same thing
within algorithms and also within data sets. And one of the things
that I’ve been doing is doing intersectional analysis
of the data that we have, which is still largely
pale and male, right? So going back to
another benchmark I was looking at
recently, when I did an intersectional breakdown
of this benchmark that’s used by the US
government to determine how well a facial-analysis
technology works, if you did an intersectional
breakdown to look at the representation
of black women, it was 4.4% of a
government benchmark. And if you consider that people
of color are 27% of the US, that’s severe
under-representation, where you wouldn’t
even know there is a problem to begin with. But then, going back to
what you were saying, what happens when you
point these things out? And this is something I’m
always wrestling with, with the Algorithmic
Justice League, because it might be helpful if the
cop doesn’t see my face. And you currently
have a situation where one in two adults,
over 117 million people, has their face in a facial
recognition network that can be searched by the police,
unwarranted, using algorithms that haven’t been
audited for accuracy. That’s going to most impact
communities of color, right? So my work isn’t just about,
let’s make this technology better, where it can
be used in any way, because in the hands of
authoritarian governments and personal
adversaries, whatever, it can be used against you. MCDOWELL: Yeah,
absolutely– were you going to say something? AUDIENCE: Go ahead. MCDOWELL: Oh, okay, I was
just– just on this point, I have this friend, who
I won’t mention his name, but he’s a head of security for
a large housing development. And they have cameras in the
housing different developments. And they have a lot of
them around the country. And it’s all monitored
by one place in Virginia, so it doesn’t matter where
the housing complex is. It’s all monitored by one place. And he did this test
himself once, where he– it sends out alarm messages
to be aware to local security, to the security
guard who’s present, if they think there’s
something going on that’s a little bit of a threat. And the little
test he did was he would vacillate between
having four black guys stand outside the front door
and have four white guys do it. And it never sent an alarm
when the four white guys were outside, right? So it wasn’t counting
the number of people, just the number of people. It was also doing something
about the color of their skin to send the alarm. The good thing about it–
he was in the position to pull that contract,
which was a good thing, and localize that system,
which still has its problems. But I think what you’re
pointing to is just really true, and it happens. It has real implications. I think sometimes
in our universities, and particularly
places like MIT– and this is one of the things
I have a real concern with. So you may or may not
know this, but one of the things MIT is really
pushing and really getting at is the whole thing
about innovation. We want people to innovate. We want people to
take things to market. And things can go very
quickly from concept, to a sort-of-tested idea, to
let’s put it out in the market without ever having
to be tested, in terms of these other
kinds of issues, right? It doesn’t have to be. So it makes me
wonder, what would it be like for a place like
MIT to say, actually, we have another set of
standards around things that we are going to
do innovation around? If students are going to be
doing DesignX, or this X, or that X, they’ve got
to meet these criteria, in order for something
to go out the door. But I don’t know if
we can get there. Do you think we can move
that issue in this place? COSTANZA-CHOCK: I think it’s
going to be a long battle. I’d like to say
yes, of course, we can do anything we want to,
because we’re human beings. And we can transform the
systems in which we live, even as they are
constantly shaping us. I’m given courage and heart
by a lot of the activism that I’ve seen the MIT
students doing over the last– especially the last couple of
years, especially kicked off during the wave of
social mobilization around the Occupy
Movement, and then through [inaudible]
for Black Lives, and now through the
Me Too movement. I think that MIT students
are engaged in and responding to some of these broader social
movements that are operating and see them and
participate in them. The student activism
coalition, SACO, has been involved in doing
some really interesting stuff. A couple of years ago,
the climate coalition, the student activists sat in
outside the president’s office for 138, 6– I’m not sure exactly the
number, 130-something days– sorry? AUDIENCE: 116. COSTANZA-CHOCK:
Thank you, 116 days, so I inflated a little
there, but thanks. [laughter] So 116 days is a long time
to have an ongoing sit-in outside the president’s
office, demanding divestment from the petroleum industry. Now, what was the
ultimate response? Well, we’ll set up a committee. We’ll consider it, and at
the end of the committee’s deliberations, they said,
well, we don’t think that we’re going to divest. We think that we can
have more of an impact on the transformation of the
energy sector by accepting a gift of– how much is it? MCDOWELL: [inaudible]. COSTANZA-CHOCK: Does
anyone know the amount of the MIT Energy Initiative
received from the petroleum companies? It’s in the hundreds of
millions, if not more. So yeah, go look for that. But they received
at least several hundred million dollars from
the petroleum industry to say, we’re going to launch a
new Energy Initiative. And so what can you say? The students mobilized. They forced the administration’s
hand to do something. What came out the
other side of that was an investment in innovation
around renewable energy, but one that was funded by
these same actors who are– they see the
writing on the wall. They know that they’re
going to have to figure out how to shift their profitability
strategy, eventually, from petroleum extraction. And so they want to be
the ones to monetize the innovation in this sector. So anyway, that’s a
whole other ballgame, is when you move an institution
to do something, what comes out the other side isn’t necessarily
what you were gunning for. But does that mean that we have
to just give up and throw up our hands and say, no,
we can’t shift things? Of course not. We can, and we are
shifting things. And the gender-inclusive
bathrooms are being trialed, and we have Melissa
Nobles, a black woman who is a dean of the School of
Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, who’s creating
a database of the history of lynching and
encouraging us to take a cold look at our
history, right? So there are shifts. There are things
that are happening. We have Craig Wilder, who
just taught a class about the history of MIT’s– the embrocation of
MIT, as an institution, with slavery and
the slave economy, and MIT being
created, initially, partly out of the need to create
technical knowledge so that we could create factories to
process the raw materials, cotton and sugar, that were
coming from the slave South. And that’s part of the
birth of this institution. And so there are movements,
and they’re baby steps, but they happen. And we have to keep
doing them, right? BUOLAMWINI: Another path
for inclusive innovation is having more inclusive
people building what the future of
technology will be. Earlier, you mentioned
BPM, Beats Per Minute. And I had an
opportunity of working with Alicia Chang,
who’s currently started a company called
Bloomer Tech, which is focused on women’s heart health. So cardiovascular disease
is the number-one killer of women in the US. One in three women who die,
die of cardiovascular disease. Yet, less than a quarter
of research participants for cardiovascular
disease are women. The way in which the symptoms
are taught in med school follow a male model
of the disease. And so you don’t even
have the data that’s necessary to really study this. So her innovation was to
use the bra as a platform. 80% of women in the
US wear a bra, right? And so they’re using that
to collect the richest data set of women’s heart
health over time. And they are about to
go to do clinical trials in the next couple of weeks. And I met her my
first semester here at MIT, which was two weeks ago. Then she went through
the delta v program. She’s now Legatum Fellow. But that’s what gives
me hope, when I– she’s a brilliant
electrical engineer who came in from Costa Rica. In addition to
doing her startup, she also has a mentoring program
for girls in Latin America, to bring them into STEM as well. So when we have more
inclusive innovators, we have more
inclusive innovation. COSTANZA-CHOCK:
I agree with you, and I’m glad that you brought
that up because I think it could also help us open
a conversation around, what does it mean to create? What does inclusion mean? I’m worried about the
slippage to the language of diversity inclusion
in the innovation space, because partly what
it could lead us to is a situation where we
have lots more innovators and creators of color
who then create– or women, or women of color,
et cetera, et cetera– who create capitalist firms
that, at the end of the day, end up extracting value from
labor from a bunch of people producing their devices
and so on and so forth. So how do we also shift
the innovation ecosystem so that we’re thinking
about models of firms– for example, the conversation
about platform cooperativism, the idea that we should
be thinking about, how do we launch firms
that have something built into their DNA,
something other than profit maximization in their
actual corporate charters? So platform
cooperativism is the idea that as all of these
sectors of the economy get taken over by
information intermediaries like Uber, who match someone
who owns a car with someone who needs a ride and extract a whole
bunch of value off the top, without ever paying an employee
or taking on any of that risk or liability, what if Uber
was owned by the drivers and so on and so forth? So if you imagine different
sectors of the economy disrupted, not by a new boss
who in some ways is worse than the old boss, but actually
by worker-owned platforms– and we need to think about,
what does that look like? How do we shift the
innovation ecosystem at MIT to support triple-bottom-line
firms, and worker cooperatives, and other types of
exchange that don’t only respond to the profit margin? MCDOWELL: So Brother
West, I’m really heartened by what
Joy and Sasha just said, because I think there are
a lot of people who are coming into the Academy who are
really trying to do things differently. But at the same
time, it makes me think– it makes me
wonder, but is that enough? Is it enough to have
individuals trying to do things, or is there a need, just like
the platform cooperative, is there a need for people
to be working collectively, out of a sense that their
work is about liberation, and they’re in the dialogue
with others about their work and about their own
movement to do this? So I see a lot of
people doing things. But I don’t see us necessarily
connected in an ideology in doing the work that it
takes to make that happen. WEST: I think one is, you have
to have a broad enough vision that allows for solidarity. Work across a number
of issues, because even among so-called
progressives and leftists, they tend to be highly
Balkanized when it comes to very crucial issues. But one of the distinctive
features of what I call loosely the neoliberal soul-craft is to
convince the younger generation there is no alternative to
the status quo and the system under which you live. So you can be as creative,
innovative as you want. But you’re still a tinkerer,
because the overall structure cannot be changed. So you come in with
truncated imagination, and that truncated imagination
has a limited vision. And all of that
rich creativity gets filtered within that context,
that there is no alternative. I think what was exciting
about my dear brother, Bernie Sanders– and Bernie Sanders
is no revolutionary. I love my brother. He’s a Brooklyn brother. [laughter] He’s no revolutionary. But as someone who
talked about coming from a socialist
tradition that carried with it a notion that there
is an alternative, that we can think and authorize reality
outside of the existing framework, and the tremendous
impact he had– and we know that, fellow citizens in this
country, if the only persons could vote were under
30, Bernie would be in the White House right
now, rather than Donald Trump. Now, that says something
about the younger generation. The same is true with
the poll now, right? You’ve got more young
brothers and sisters of all colors who prefer
socialism over capitalism. Now, you ask them, what
does socialism mean? Well, things get vague. [laughter] What does capitalism mean? They’re talking about
predatory capitalists. AUDIENCE: Yeah. There you go. WEST: They’re talking about
the highly Wall Street-driven lack of accountability,
escalating wealth inequality, no serious focus on
poverty, wage stagnation, and so forth and so on. So we’ve got to be very clear
that these polls are very, very loose and vague. But there’s this sense of
the need for imagination. And this is true not just
here, but all around the world. There are alternatives
socially, economically. They’re very difficult. They
do build on what’s in place. You don’t work
with a clean slate. But at the same
time, you have to be able to think more broadly. And we’ve come out
of a period where– and it was just almost– it was very, very difficult
to convince young people that there was an alternative,
as opposed to just fitting in to the system and status quo. Things are beginning to
become broader and looser, but we just hope
it’s not too late. The problem is is that
these catastrophes that I’m talking about,
they are impending in such an intense way. And the authoritarian populisms
that are taking over Turkey, and Kenya, and India, and USA– these are neo-fascist folk,
emboldened everywhere you go. It’s not just the United States. We just hope it’s not too late. But whether it’s
too late or not, we’ve got to commit ourselves
to go down fighting. I come from a
tradition that says, it don’t mean a thing if
it ain’t got that swing. And it’s got to be some
sting in the swing, in terms of hit, bite,
analysis that keeps track of the least of these. And then you go down swinging. And you pass it on to
the younger generation with a smile,
gotta keep a smile. [laughter] You gotta keep a smile,
because you’ve got to– there’s got to be
some joy in it. If it’s just done
out of joylessness, then you’re not going to
be a long-distance runner. You’re not going to be a
long-distance– you’re not going to stay in it
for long, you see. MCDOWELL: So I’m actually
going to try to open this up to the audience. We do have some mics. There’s one here and one there. And so we would ask that
you come up to a mic if you want to join
into this conversation. And just introduce yourself,
and try to keep your question brief, and let’s go. AUDIENCE: Thanks,
my name is Will. I have two quick questions. Do you think under
capitalism you can abolish special oppression,
like racism and transphobia? And what’s your
definition of revolution? WEST: What is my
definition of [inaudible]?? AUDIENCE: Yeah,
you call yourself a revolutionary Christian. But what does that mean? [laughter] WEST: Well, revolution,
in its generic sense, is the transfer of power, the
transfer of power from one set of individuals,
group, or class to one that has to share
power, or a new emerging class or another group–
a transfer of power. So the American Revolution
was not a transfer of power when it came to the
social structure. It remained the same. But it was a revolution, because
the imperial elites were driven out, and you ended up with
post-Colonial elites who raised the question,
can we govern ourselves? That was a transfer of power– George III and
his cronies, gone. AUDIENCE: Yeah,
I’m glad for that. WEST: But that’s a
political revolution. There’s different
kinds of revolutions, so transfers of
power in that way. There’s cultural forms. There’s economic forms
and so forth and so on. AUDIENCE: Cool, yeah, so that
brings me to my first question, I guess, which is– so the American Revolution
is a great example. It obviously didn’t
abolish racism. WEST: It didn’t
involve what though? AUDIENCE: It didn’t
abolish racism or any sort of special [inaudible]. WEST: Oh no, it’s predicated
on white supremacy and slavery. Go right ahead. AUDIENCE: Clearly,
so in your mind– WEST: And indigenous
people’s land– that was the first one. AUDIENCE: Of course,
of course, so that was in the context
of capitalism, right? So under capitalism, can
you abolish these things like racism,
transphobia, poverty– things that we interact with
everyday, which we feel like– WEST: Well, the problem
there, my brother, is that– again, you’ve got to talk
about institutional racism, versus interpersonal
racism and so forth. There’s no doubt that
certain progress can be made, in terms of
interpersonal racism, in a capitalist civilization. You end up with a black
president– there’s no way. But the Ku Klux Klan has
a Catholic running it, and they used to–
the Klan was founded against Jews, Catholics,
and especially black folk. So that’s upwards
mobility, American style, when you get a Catholic
head of the Klan. [laughter] And when I was there
in Charlottesville, I saw some black folk
marching with the neo-Nazis. So America’s a strange place. [laughter] You see what I mean? So I think generally
speaking, when you talk about forms of
transphobia, homophobia, patriarchy, and so forth, these
are systems with domination that cuts so deep that
they can be manifested under capitalist conditions,
socialist conditions, communist conditions,
and so forth and so on. I just think that if we have
a radical, democratized, de-centered form
of engaging power, so that we don’t have
accountability of elites at the top, the lack of
accountability of elites at the top, we can
at least attenuate white supremacy, male supremacy,
homophobia, transphobia, and so on. But these structures
of domination are not just so
tied to capitalism, as soon as you
overthrow capitalism, somehow they disappear. But certainly, under this form
of capitalism, deeply wedded historically, in terms
of its genealogy, and the ways in which
it reproduces itself– oh, very much so, I
don’t think it can be attenuated in a serious way. AUDIENCE: Thank you. WEST: But that’s a long
answer to your question. I appreciate it. MCDOWELL: Yes. AUDIENCE: Hi, my question
is primarily for Dr. West. Thank you for your talk. I thought it was really,
really insightful. And, as always, your
rhetorical power is really kind of overwhelming. [laughter] WEST: [inaudible]. AUDIENCE: So I very
much agree with the idea that the American
university in general is a very provincial place. But it hasn’t actually always
been that way in this country. In the ’60s and ’70s,
one example would be– there was an organization called
Committee of Concerned East Asian Scholars that actually
played a key role in supporting the people’s struggle against
US imperialism in Vietnam. But the wider
situation in the US was very different
at the time too. You had the Black Panther Party. You had Vietnam Veterans
Against the War, tons of other
large revolutionary and political organizations. So my question to you
is, is there actually any hope for an
institution like MIT, which just in the
past few months launched its own startup
accelerator, which does all this shitty, sketchy
defense research, which trains foot soldiers of US
capital at the Sloan School, et cetera, if we
don’t actually have a large-scale revolutionary
movement in society? Or to put it another way,
what’s the relationship between political developments
in the university and outside? WEST: [inaudible] outside,
or the relation between town and gown, community and
the Academy in that way– and thank you for your
kind remarks, so– [laughter] That’s very kind. But, well, one is that it’s– one of the wonderful things
about educational institutions of higher learning
is that they all make claims to be involved
in a quest for truth, even when they’re
unwilling to be truthful about their
quest for truth. But it lends itself
an openness, so that you can have courageous
voices inside of MIT, telling the truth about some
of MIT’s down-low activities. That’s what scholarship
is all about. And that’s one of the great
glories of liberal education, because liberal
education is not a site for fundamental
transformative activity. See, MIT and Harvard and– these places will never
be fundamentally involved in the fundamental
transformation of the status quo. It’s like asking
the Catholic church to be somehow all
followers of Dorothy Day. It’s not going to happen. It’s like asking for synagogues
to follow Rabbi Heschel– not going to happen. But the voices– the Heschels,
the Days, the Chomsky’s, and so forth and so on–
these magnificent voices up here, very much
part of MIT, right? You all represent MIT, just
as much as anybody else. But the dialogical
clash takes place. So the truth that you
talk about, let’s tell it. But when it comes to
fundamental transformation, you never look to
a Harvard and MIT. You’ve got to look
to social movements. You’ve got to look
to social movements. And those who are
sensitive, those who care, they will respond to
the social movement and become a part of it and
play a crucial role in it. And those social
movements can learn a lot from some of the
smart folk at MIT, because the folk at
MIT who are very smart, they’re not wasting their time. Smartness has its role. It just has its limitations. AUDIENCE: [inaudible]. WEST: See what I mean? And social movements need some
MIT folk who do their homework. [laughter] I assume everybody does, but you
got to add that, just in case. But you see the
point I’m making. No, absolutely, absolutely,
so you’re never– again, you don’t want to
homogenize any institution, the variety of different
voices, perspectives that are contesting here. And this is true for
any place, [inaudible].. MCDOWELL: I’d like to
actually open that question up to the panel. WEST: Sure,
absolutely, absolutely. MCDOWELL: [inaudible] might
have some comment on that from the inside, or maybe not. [laughs] Okay– [laughter] SHARRIEF: They’re like,
I’m not going to speak. My name is Sultan Sharrief. I want to thank all of you
and Dr. West for speaking. What you’re describing
is what my life is. I think about these
things everyday. I’m from Detroit,
ran a youth program for 12 years and a media
company, filmmaker, and then realized a lot of
the problems in the system. And so it’s like, I
need to go somewhere where I can design at a higher
level and then came to MIT, so a bit of a nontraditional
graduate student. But to that last– I wanted to address the last
point you made, where you said, one, I hope it’s not too late. It’s not too late. There are a lot of us here. I’m here. The world has not seen
what I’m capable of yet, and I came here to
develop that and to learn from people like Sasha
and yourself and others. So it’s not too late. I work with youth in
Detroit, and there’s this– I think we’re on the edge
of a new type of revolution. I call it immaculate
conception, because you have these kids who– they’re on social media. They’re on their phones,
but they’re not stupid. They see more,
and they’re taking in more than any generation
in human history. I’ll watch them sometimes,
so about five 16-year-olds, and they’ll go through
Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, da, da, da, onto the
news, back to this, and then be texting
the whole while. That’s doing
something, actually, to their brains,
the way they process and the way they internalize. They see themselves differently,
through Netflix and Amazon and having access to content. Underlying, I see these– what I see, and you
said someone needs to have a vision
that’s broad enough to be inclusive of a lot
of different parties. And that’s essentially
what I’ve been working on, because I travel around
the country doing workshops with youth. I’ve seen this
development all over, but we’re isolated
in tiny little silos. And Detroit’s doing their thing,
and Philly’s doing their thing, and Pittsburgh’s
doing their thing. And so I want to see– one of the challenges
I see here, as I even try to articulate
this to my professors, I’m coming from real-world
experience and something that’s almost instinctual. People who work
with youth, you have to rely a lot on your instincts
and street instincts, in a way. And it doesn’t always easily
translate into this world where it’s like,
oh, well, you’ve got to slow down and
learn Foucault and learn this theorist and
learn that theorist. And I’m like, yeah, while
you’re learning that, though, this stuff is
playing out, and it’s moving at a different rate. So what I struggle with
is, how do you balance– and I’m still actively involved
and fly back to Detroit every month– how do you balance that
fast-moving and keeping your finger on the pulse of
what’s happening, particularly around youth and youth of color,
while simultaneously existing in and navigating the spaces
that don’t even sometimes have rules to accommodate
your very existence, if that makes any sense? WEST: Mm, yeah, that
was eloquent, brother. You laid that out. Cicero [inaudible] wisdom, speak
ye the definition of eloquence. In a way, your own wisdom
answers the question, because you have to
be improvisational. You’ve got to be a jazz man. The man that you are, you move
from one context to the next. Preserve your integrity
in each context. Squeeze out the best
of that context. Hold at arm’s length the
worst, and keep moving. In that sense, it’s far
beyond multicultural. Being multi-contextual
is much more important than multicultural, because you
can be multicultural and still find yourself in the same
class silo, the same folk who are similar to you. They’re just more
colorful, but they still have their own parochialism. But if you’re multi-contextual
across community, across neighborhood, across
class, across gender, across sexual orientation–
and part of that has to do with just being in
solidarity, because you see trans folk done it. Show up at the rally. What you doing here? You’re supposed to be straight. Hey, this is a moral and
spiritual and political issue. It’s not a matter of
my sexual orientation. I’m here because
I care for you– same is true of patriarchy
or whatever it is. If a Jewish brother
gets trashed, I’m here, because I
believe Jewish brothers and sisters ought to be
treated with dignity. How come you put
power to Palestinians? Because I believe
occupations are immoral, no matter who they are– it’s a moral issue. It’s a spiritual issue. That’s why, but that’s
multi-contextual. That’s not just
cultural, you see. And that’s exactly what you’re
able to do in the Academy, back to Detroit. And yours is, I guess,
a bit transgenerational. I don’t know how
old you are, but I know you’re a little older than
some of these young brothers and sisters you’re working with. SHARRIEF: [inaudible]. [laughter] WEST: I’m old
school– you middling. [laughter] And they new schools– is that fair? SHARRIEF: Yeah, yeah. WEST: That’s what
I’m talking about. So you’ve got to
be multi-contextual across generation, absolutely. No, so I salute
you, [inaudible].. I salute you. MCDOWELL: Yes. DANIEL: Hi, my name
is Phillip Daniel. I’m in the mechanical
engineering department, first year in the PhD program. My question is
primarily for Dr. West. Thank you again for taking
time out to come speak with us. I think you’ve touched on– and thank you, Ty, for
organizing this event. WEST: Austin. [inaudible] DANIEL: But so my question– I think you’ve touched on
this point numerous times, but I maybe want
a focused answer. The definition that I’ve found
of institutional provincialism is that it’s an
established system of concern for one’s own area
or region, at the expense of national or
supranational unity. And I think that unity is
hard to define objectively. I think its meaning
changes, depending on a person’s moral values. So with the definition of
institutional provincialism, how do you define unity
in a widely acceptable way in a secular nation? And so by secular,
I mean divided by people’s individual
moral compass. How do you define
unity in this nation, so that institutional
provincialism can be tamed to optimize this unity? What does this unity look
like, for example, at MIT? WEST: Ooh, I know I can’t
answer that last question. I just got here a few hours ago. [laughter] [inaudible]—- I can hardly
answer that question in my own house, and I’ve been
working on that for decades. [laughter] But I love the question because
it has to do with the interplay between the R-O-O-T-S and
the R-O-U-T-E-S, our roots. All of us are thrown
into time and space, under provincial circumstances–
particular mom, particular dad, particular language
or languages, particular culture
and so forth– religious institution, civic
institution, whatever it is. And we have to be rooted
in that provinciality and dig deep enough to find the
universality in those roots. And that’s where the routes,
the R-O-U-T-E-S, comes from. So when you’re deeply grounded,
like Martin Luther King, Jr.– he’s a good example. Now, Martin Luther King,
Jr. was a Negro to the core. In fact, he was a
petty Bourgeois Negro preacher, which is not the
best way to start life off, you know? [inaudible] preacher’s
kid, privilege– then petty Bourgeois,
– that’s a particular
slice of black community. That’s not Louie Armstrong,
on the street, orphan, a Jewish family
that picks him up and so forth– different
class position. Both of them had the courage
to dig deep into their roots to generate
universal routes that embraced every corner of
the globe, all peoples of the family that we call
human beings, you see. So that we’re not calling for an
empty universalism that somehow ignores our roots
so that when we talk about institutional
provincialism, you know we’re talking about
MIT in the [inaudible].. This is a professional
managerial formation site for elites in the science,
technology, and sometimes military industrial complex. The way right down the
road, my institution, is a place for the
professional managerial elites, usually tied directly to
ruling-class formation, but then produce
the [inaudible],, the Du Boises and the other
revolutionaries, right? So it means, then, what? That there’s nothing wrong with
being grounded in your roots– but you don’t want to
become blinded, such that you can’t make the
connections with other people to learn from other people
and listen to other people, so you end up a
internationalist, grounded in your particular roots. Now, there was a wonderful
essay by Josiah Royce, who is probably the
only great philosopher to emerge out of California,
my native state, who taught Harvard for 42 years. He wrote an essay called “In
Defense of Provincialism.” Now, he’s worth
reading, because based on what we’re talking about,
he defends provincialism against parochialism,
because he’s crazy about Grass
Valley, California. He wrote a novel
on it at Harvard. Now, you’re writing about
Grass Valley at Harvard in the 1890s– it takes a lot of courage,
because Grass Valley is just a place for gold miners
and so forth and so on. And William James said, why
are you wasting all your time on Grass Valley? Hey, I’ve got some roots that
the world needs to know about. We’ve got something
to teach the world. That’s true for all
of us in our roots. But if they’re so narrow,
so truncated that they can’t be broad enough
to embrace others, then the provincialism
sets in, in a negative way, in a very negative way. And that’s, of
course, what we’ve been in part talking about. But good luck in your
graduate work, though, man. AUDIENCE: Thank you. WEST: Good luck, yeah, good
luck in your graduate work. AUDIENCE: Hello,
my name is Selma. I’m an undergrad here at
MIT in the Material Science and Engineering Department. My question is more
maybe personally driven. I’m pretty young, so I grew up– when I was 10 or 11,
Obama was elected. And I grew up in
Houston, Texas, so it’s a very, very diverse city. And I grew up– my middle school
and high school was spent really believing that,
wow, America is breaking through so many barriers,
and racism is behind us because we have a
black president. The next president
could be a woman. I really grew up– a of the education
I had in high school was very liberal,
because Houston is a pretty liberal place. And I grew up really
feeling that we were on the way to a better America. But the whole last year has
. I really, when I
first came to MIT and pretty early in my MIT
education, Trump was elected. And it was a huge– it was a big deal, because I
know I was sobbing that day. And it was hard for me
to convince myself– it’s taken a long time
for me to convince myself that I wasn’t living
in the reality that the average
American lives in. And so I came to a personal
point where I was like, I need to get past this
depression of realizing the reality I live in is
much worse than I thought growing up. And I’m wondering if you all
got to that point in your life, and what bolstered you to
continue moving forward, despite so many things
that seem wrong. WEST: Mm-hmm, and I think we
can open that to the wise ones here. I’ll say a word about it, but
we’ll open it up [inaudible].. It’s a powerful question. MCDOWELL: Who wants to jump in? Wow, you’re quiet
for some reason. WEST: Well, what about
you, Professor McDowell? You’ve got wisdom too. [laughter] MCDOWELL: Yeah– [laughter] There’s this wonderful term,
Aztecan term, called [aztecan].. And the whole notion
of it is, it’s about living in the
spaces in between. And what it really
means is that often when you are on the verge of change,
that you have to do two things. You have to support the thing
you’re trying to change, as you hold onto the dream for
what you want it to become. And you don’t live
in either one. You live in that space
in between, right? And what I find for us,
particularly in this country, is we actually don’t
have a good way of holding each other in
that space in between. We want people to be in
one place or the other. And so most of us,
and I find myself a lot of the time like
this, yearn for support for being in that
transitional space, that there are other people who’ll
say, whatever you’re doing in that space, that is
exactly what we need you to be doing, holding on to that. But our language
isn’t like that. Our language is about– we have
great language for critiquing the past, great language for
what the vision of the future should be. But we don’t have a language for
being in the transition, which is where the change happens and
where the work and our energy has to be. So in these spaces, like when
Trump got elected, that’s– what it made really clear
for me is that, wow, there’s a bunch of us that are
going to be deep in that space, because that’s where we
really need to be right now. And we have to find ways to
connect and support each other. So that’s my answer to that– others? WEST: I think in
our lives, we have to have something that is
unconditional, in terms of the love that we have. We love our mamas,
daddies, unconditional– up, down, drunk, not
drunk, whatever it is, we still love them. We’ve got to love
justice like that. No matter what the
circumstance, no matter what– as America moves
toward neo-fascism, we still have the same love. We just have deeper sacrifice. And we lose at the moment,
and you pass on the tradition. Under Obama, it was
certainly better than Trump, but that’s not saying
a whole lot, now, because Trump’s got about as low
a bar as we can imagine, right? But even under Obama, you
got Wall Street executives not going to jail. But the poor and working
class is filling up the jails. You got him, siding
explicitly, “I’m on your side,” at Wall Street in that meeting
he had in March of 2009. “I stand between you and the
pitchfork, but I’m with you.” No, you say that to
working and poor people. You don’t say that
to Wall Street if you are a freedom fighter. I don’t care what color you are. So even though under
Obama, it looked like things were so wonderful– 45 drone strikes under George
Bush, 563 under Barack Obama. And some of us called George
Bush a war criminal with 45. What does that make
Brother Barack? A war criminal too, you see– now, when you say that,
it’s unpopular and so forth. I said it. Who cares? I just try to tell the
truth, keep moving, try to love everybody. But you have to be honest
about other people’s nightmarish reality,
so that the realities that we’re experiencing now– folks in other
parts of the world, in other parts of
the country were experiencing nightmarish
realities under Obama. And we were just
walking around thinking, oh, it’s so nice to have that
brilliant, poised, black face as head of the American empire. Now we got that know-nothing
misogynist, racist face, head of the American empire. But it’s still an empire. The structure’s still in place. Hierarchy is still in place. Wall Street’s still
in the driver’s seat, in terms of the highly
financialized form of predatory capitalism
that we’re dealing with, the lack of serious
accountability. So in that sense, even when you
think back as a younger person, you say, oh, god, we all have
different ways of waking up. And the wake-up can’t be just
woman president, gay president, black president, more
black professionals. Those are all positive things if
they’re a certain kind of folk. But in the end, we’ve
got to look deeper, in terms of the
realities that people are living, in regard to some of
these systemic issues, you see. And in that sense, I think we
can then still be buoyed up and say, oh, even when I really
should have been mad under Obama, I wasn’t. Shame on me. I’m not going to
visit that again, and I’m going to be a
stronger fighter, even under this escalating
neo-fascist sensibility that we’re seeing
in White House, tied to public bureaucracies,
tied to courts and so forth, undercutting the
de-legitimating of rule of law, all the things that
go hand-in-hand with neo-fascist projects. But that’s just beginning to
get at your question, though. The important thing
too is here at MIT, you want to get
some good friends. Study hard. Party hard, because
you’ve got 18 to 22. Those are certain years. You don’t want to lose out
on some of the good stuff. [laughter] MCDOWELL: So this is– I really enjoy being
asked to be moderator, but this is the worst
part of the job, which is to tell all you wonderful
people who are standing in line that– thank you for standing in line. [laughter] But we’re about to
close out, but before we move to our closing, which
Duane’s going to do for us, I just want to go down the
line and let each of you say a last piece. And, Jennifer, I’ll
start with you. You seem to be in a
meditative space, so– LIGHT: I am hopeful. I arrived at MIT
a couple of years ago from another
institution, which had a lot of issues
about gender and race, but nobody talked about it. MIT has a history of
talking about these things, as I was saying to Dr. West
before our conversation. We are optimistic engineers. We see a problem– we try to quantify
it and then solve it. So I’m really happy that
we’re having this conversation tonight. For all the conversations before
and all those that will follow, I am more optimistic
about being here than many other institutions,
that we can actually do something. BUOLAMWINI: Well,
progress is being made. The Media Lab hired
Dr. Danielle Wood, which made me really excited. She has three degrees from MIT,
a brilliant satellite engineer. And she’s starting a new
group called Space Enabled, so using satellite imagery
to try to pursue justice. So we’ll see where that goes. And she’s, to my knowledge,
the first black female or just black professor to be
on the faculty at the Media Lab. So she’s one of one,
and I’m also one of one, as the only black PhD student
in my Media Lab cohort. But it takes more, but
I’m also encouraged to see the doors are opening. COSTANZA-CHOCK: Yeah,
I feel the same way. And I’m also– I’m encouraged by
some of the actions the MIT community has
taken in recent time. And in answer to the
young woman’s question about the things
that give you hope, I would say that young
people give me a lot of hope. The social movement
organizations that are led by young people and
by young queer people of color, in everything from
the movement for Black Lives to UndocuQueer,
a movement being at the forefront of fighting
against the detention and deportation policies, both
under Obama, who deported more people than any
president in US history, and Trump, who is now increasing
the rate of deportation as well. But so the MIT connection
is that this community came together to really try and
mobilize and push to get Francisco Rodriguez-Guardado,
the MIT janitor who was detained by ICE and put
in jail for six months– people came together
to try and get him out. And he is out now, waiting. He’s still waiting for
his case to be resolved. But just the fact that
the community does gather and tries to move things forward
is cause for hope, certainly. And a lot of that work
is led by young people. WEST: Absolutely,
absolutely, we’re going to hear from our
dear brother Duane Lee. He’s a sign of
hope, right there. But I’ve never been an optimist. I don’t believe in optimism. [laughter] I don’t. I read too much Chekhov. [laughter] Seen too many Stephen
Sondheim musical theater, but I’m not a pessimist either. I’m a prisoner of hope. But I don’t like
to talk about hope. We talked about this before,
because all of these terms get colonized by the mainstream. Peddling hope– you know that
wonderful moment in Thucydides, his Melian Dialogue
when he talks about hope as dangerous
comfort that renders us naked and leads toward our
self-destruction. That’s the blind hope that
Prometheus talked about in Pandora’s box. Certain forms of
hope are dangerous, very dangerous– other forms
of hope, indispensable. But most of the forms of
hope that are indispensable are the examples
of those persons, institutions, and movements
that are enacting hope, without necessarily
talking about it. So I’d rather see somebody
be a hope than somebody talk about hope. And when you choose
to be a hope, you’re moving in that same
direction of integrity, honesty, decency,
vision, service to others, truth telling,
self-critical orientation. And that, in the end, is
what sustains all of us. That’s the wind at our back,
that cloud of witnesses. And we’ve got a
significant number in this room who have
enacted hope in their lives, in their own distinctive ways,
whatever traditions or genders or sexual orientation. And that, for me, is a
way of helping sustain us. But even if there was a
chance of a snowball in hell that black people
would ever be free, I would still be
a free black man and go down swinging,
because that’s how I like to be in the world. AUDIENCE: [inaudible] MCDOWELL: I’d like to ask– [applause] It’s been a great conversation. And I want to turn things
over to Dr. Duane Lee to close this out. Dr. Lee is an MLK post-doc
fellow, an astronomer here. And he’s also–
when I read this, I kind of said, oh, I
didn’t know that existed. He’s a galactic genealogist. [laughter] Now, I love that. So, Duane, thank you so
much for closing us out. LEE: Thanks for having me. I want to say it’s
such a great honor to be a part of this event, to
talk about issues surrounding diversity and inclusion
in STEM, but, of course, in society as a whole
and understanding that interconnection. I was thinking about
what’s the best way to summarize
what was discussed, and the thing that kept
popping into my mind was that diversity is
necessary, but it’s not sufficient to achieve inclusion. In fact, I find, when I
think about things in terms of equations, that you have– diversity does not
equal inclusion, and, in particular, in the
US or in the West, because of the notion of assimilation. It tramples on, it diminishes
what diversity could be. And a lot of that was discussed
rather brilliantly by the panel here. And so in closing, I
just wanted to touch on a couple of situations in
my life being a scientist, where often, as
Dr. West has said, that we are always in
search of the truth. That’s our North Star. And often at times
we delude ourselves that we are immune to
all of the natural biases that all human beings have. And because of that, we
don’t search ourselves to try to uproot those biases. And so the cool thing
about being an astronomer is that historically,
there’s been certain accomplishments
in terms of making the field more diverse– that is sort of led in
the sciences, at least in comparison to certain
other sciences, like physics– and, in particular, with
women and, more particular, with white women. So one of the things
I thought about is, even as you’re positioned to
make advances in the sciences, in any part of society,
that it actually really does matter who you have in mind. And so what was interesting is
that it’s nice that, indeed, we actually– we say now that
in astronomy we’ve reached parity amongst white
women in higher education. And so the missing piece to
getting to a 50% in astronomy is women of color. And so what’s great
about the situation now is that actually many white
women in the field have– it’s dawned on
them how crazy that was, that there was
this whole push, this whole movement
to reach parity, to really get a more
diverse, rich system by which we can study the cosmos
and be more inclusive. And they forgot this
very crucial segment. And so I was at a conference
a couple of years ago, and we had a diversity and
inclusion discussion, a talk. And after the talk, we had
a little town hall meeting. And during that discussion,
what came up, always comes up, is that some white professor
says, male professor says, well, it’s a zero-sum game. If we increase
diversity and inclusion, we have to lower the standards. And I really respect this guy. He’s always treated
me kind personally, but I turned to
him, and I said, I think you’re missing the point. This generation isn’t going
to tolerate that world view. And there are plenty of jobs
that pay at least three times as much, particularly with
the rise of data science and the way technology is going. They’re more than happy to go to
those fields, make more money, and know that many of
their other colleagues feel the same way. And so after I had
made that comment, I’m leaving the conference,
getting ready to get back on a flight back home. And another professor in
my field came up to me, and she’s very sweet. She’s Canadian, so
she’s like, I hope you don’t mind me
asking you this about your comment
the other day. But I was talking to my
daughter about what you said, and I asked her, so, what do
you think about what he said? And she said, well,
yes, of course. There’s no way I would
deal with that situation. And so that’s– some people are
talking about this generation, of course, brings hope. You And to me, it
absolutely brings me hope. Something that’s somewhat less
hopeful, although it’s also part of this issue, is something
closer to home, so here at MIT. And there’s a discussion– I’m not going to focus on where
it happened– but a discussion amongst physicists about
trying to understand the climate in the department. And there were some
scenarios discussed, and one was a scenario
surrounding sexism. So basically, a woman
gets up to speak. She’s often interrupted. She’s often ignored,
versus a male that gets up and is asked inquisitive
questions and is applauded. And so it was easy
to say that that’s a bad climate for a department. So everyone agreed on that. But, once again, one of the
fellow post-docs, a white male, felt the need to bring up
the fact that, well, yes. But we don’t want to, once
again, lower the standard– that science has been
done for a long time, and we’ve had these great
achievements, and what’s the common denominator? It’s been mostly white males. And so the interesting
thing to me was– I turned to him,
and I said, well, that’s only one– you only have
one example of a system that works. You don’t have any
alternatives, so you actually don’t know if science would
proceed at a much more rapid pace if we were more inclusive. But I’m willing to bet that
that would be the case. And so I also– he also made some other
comment about the sensitivities of the women in
those situations. And I turned around to him, and
I said, well, you know what? If white males in the
field stop being assholes– [laughter] — then perhaps you wouldn’t be
hearing so much about the ways in which people
don’t feel included. And so I just wanted to share
those points to say that it– certainly, it’s a struggle. This is something that’s
been deeply and longly rooted in the way that
we think about the world, but particularly
in the sciences. And that while it’s
scary to speak up, that, as other people
have spoken on this, MIT does have that tradition of
people willing to engage you. And I just encourage us,
as we leave this talk, to keep that in mind,
to really speak up. And know that there’s a whole
new generation of you guys that see things differently. And things are moving
in the right direction. So thank you for your time. [applause] Oh, last but not least, I
have to thank Ty, Ty Austin, for putting this all together. Thank you very much. [applause] Okay and with all that said I
think we’ve all been here a
long time right? So heh no but wanna just say
real quick special thanks
to our sponsors. Special thanks to all five of
our schools, they all stepped up
and helped support this event. Special thanks to some of the
select administrators who gave
us the platform to speak here; to the Institute of Community
equity office, most notably my school,
the school of architecture
at planning. And I wanted to point out
somebody and it’s her birthday
today, So special thanks to you
Ramona Allen. Thank you so much. This could not have happened— She’s gonna kill me later for
doing this but I just have to
say that. And I want to sum it up with
just two words which is: what’s next? Right?
What’s next? Now that we’ve had this
discussion, now that we’ve spoken
truth to power, let’s see what we can do about
putting action to power. Thank you all,
have a good night. [Applause]

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