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Black at Western Alumni says university must do more to combat Philippe Rushton’s racist legacy

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Just over two weeks after a town hall was held to discuss the findings of the Anti-Racism Working Group’s (ARWG) report into racism at Western University, a group of Black alumni is calling for additional, concrete actions to the institution’s “ongoing crisis of racism.”

Specifically, Black at Western Alumni says recent statements from university president Alan Shepard and from the psychology department about the racist work of J. Philippe Rushton do not go far enough to address the pain that his work caused, or to prevent his work from being used as a foundational source.

Read more: Hopefulness and commitment to change highlight Western University’s town hall on racism

“Western University allowed Rushton and other professors to teach undergraduates and graduate students that Black people were genetically inferior, of lower intelligence and more likely to be criminals and sexually promiscuous,” Black at Western Alumni said in a statement.

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“Today, his work continues to be used as foundational source material by white supremacists and eugenicists globally to justify race-based violence and acts of hate.”

In its June 28 letter to the university made public July 13, Black at Western Alumni describes itself as a “group of Black alumni, mostly first-generation university students, having attended Western in the 1980s-90s, a period during Rushton’s tenure when Western’s silence allowed racism to permeate all levels of academic experience.”

Read more: Insidious racism at Western University embedded within the institution: anti-racism working group

Rushton was a faculty member in the psychology department from 1977 until his death in 2012, and while the psychology department noted that he published on a “variety of topics in the field of personality and individual differences,” much of his work focused on trying to find “differences in intelligence between racialized groups” and explain them as “caused by genetic differences between races.”

The department stressed in a statement that Rushton’s work was racist and not only “deeply flawed” from an ethical standpoint in terms of the nature of the research and its funding (often through the Pioneer Fund, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center), but also from a scientific standpoint.

“This idea is rejected by analysis of the human genome: racialized groups are not distinct genetic populations. What Rushton described as ‘races’ are socially created categories, and do not reflect patterns of human inheritance or genetic population structure.”

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Shepard’s statement included an apology for the “deep harm that has been experienced” due to Rushton’s work.

“I acknowledge how divisive events of decades past can continue to impact the present. And I do so in the hope and conviction that Western has the opportunity to focus on the future, and to participate fully in building a better and more just world.”

Click to play video 'Western University grad shares experience with racism on campus' Western University grad shares experience with racism on campus
Western University grad shares experience with racism on campus

Black at Western Alumni, however, says those statements don’t go far enough and fail to account for the university’s “abdication of its social responsibilities or the profits it made from Rushton’s disproven research.”

“Western failed first to mitigate the harm caused by the university’s refusal to censure an overtly racist professor during his tenure,” the group says.

“It is failing again now by not acknowledging the impact the university’s policies and culture have had — and continues to have — on Black students, and by not presenting clear and concrete actions to prevent this racist and unscientific work from continuing to be used as a foundational source.”

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The group has drafted 13 of its own action items to ensure that Shepard “focuses on clear, concrete and measurable actions” with regard to the recommendations made by the ARWG in its report. Shepard immediately committed to several of the ARWG’s recommendations — including beginning the work of creating a senior role at the university to lead equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts — and added in his initial statement in late June that “all of the [ARWG’s] recommendations are helpful, and will be addressed as we move ahead.”

Black at Western Alumni says it wishes to see:

  • mandated ethics clause to prevent acceptance/use of funds provided by organizations that promote hate
  • mandated ethics clause to ensure support of indisputable, ethical, non-racist academic research
  • recognition, financial support, and amplification of research efforts to diminish the dissemination of racist agendas in sciences
  • establishment of at least five new annual fellowships for the above work
  • recruitment committees to be held accountable to increase the hiring of more Black faculty as well as faculty from underrepresented groups
  • an endowed multi-disciplinary research chair focusing on the study of systemic, scientific racism and anti-Black racism
  • establishment of a robust first-generation curriculum for Black students with resources and networks to support them through college and beyond
  • a process to review and redesign curriculum to be more inclusive of Black scholarship and Black studies, particularly in the psychology department
  • developing workshops for faculty to support practices of responding to and challenging how anti-Black racism operates in classrooms
  • more diverse representation in marketing and alumni communications to highlight the achievements of Black alumni
  • an unequivocal public repudiation of the validity and viability of Rushton’s work, and an admission to its link to hate and white supremacy via the Pioneer Fund
  • a public statement acknowledging the damage and impact of Rushton’s work and a statement disassociating the university from him and his racist beliefs entirely
  • Black presence on both the senior management team and board of directors

“As alumni, we believe true diversity at Western, and meaningful changes aligned with its mission and vision statements, cannot be achieved unless it’s reflected at the top. We are appalled at the current lack of diversity of the senior management team and the board of trustees.

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“Western needs Black professionals at all levels of the University; Black students need to see they are reflected at the University and given equal opportunities to succeed; and Black students need the support of real advocates combating the ongoing systemic racism on campus.”

Read more: How nice are Canadians, really? Reckoning with racism, police use of force tests long-standing myths

Black at Western Alumni says in addition to the letter sent to the university on June 28, it met with President Alan Shepard on July 8 and it’s “prepared to continue this conversation with him, as well as meet with the University’s Board, the Ontario Minister of Colleges and Universities, and anyone necessary to ensure these action items are implemented.”

“It is our sincere intent that these actions will break the long cycle of anti-Black systemic racism at the University, and secure a path of sustained equality and fairness in the future.”

In a statement, Western University says it “always welcomes the opportunity to speak to our alumni about their concerns.”

The university notes that both the president and the psychology department have issued apologies for the great harm that Rushton’s racist research caused, and that research is subject “to the scrutiny of the ethics review board, and to rigorous peer review” in an effort to “eliminate flawed research.”

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However, the university says that “as suggested by Black at Western Alumni, we will be looking into what changes could be made to the ethics review process to prevent racism in the future.”

The university says the ARWG’s report “is strong and will be instrumental in paving a better way forward for Western.”

“And as we move forward,” the statement concludes, “it is our hope that we can continue to learn from and work constructively with groups like the Black at Western Alumni group to move our university forward in making meaningful change.”