Could just tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to the work that you do now?
I teach at Columbia and I’ve been here since 1998—mostly on the medical campus. I came on this campus, the Morningside campus, in 2003. My work deals with drugs. I started studying drugs because I wanted to work on drug abuse and drug addiction, and try and come up with treatments that help people who are experiencing drug problems. I thought that drug problems were one of the main reasons that were keeping people, particularly Black people, poor and marginalized. I thought that this is how I can contribute: by coming up with treatments and shedding light on drug addiction.
The real problems are the same problems; they’re not related to drugs, they’re just the universal typical problems: racial discrimination and power.
Turns out that was so wrong, and that was just a distraction…The real problems are the same problems; they’re not related to drugs, they’re just the universal typical problems. It’s related to racial discrimination and power, and people having control whereas other groups don’t have control and power and they’ve been systematically shut out. And things like drug addiction, violence, all of those kinds of things serve as convenient distractions…
When you study a broad range of drug effects you start to see that many prominent white people in our country really indulge in drug use, and they are fine. They are productive members in our society and people respect them. So, we can’t say that drugs uniquely cause people problems, because it just is inconsistent with the evidence. Now that you can say that, you can start digging into trying to find out, “why are these people really having problems if it’s not drugs?” And so that’s what I’m trying to discover.
Are you teaching classes on this topic now?
Yeah, I’m teaching this semester. I’m teaching an undergraduate class called Drugs and Behavior. And I’m also teaching a class in Sing Sing Prison similar to this class—Drugs, Brain, and Behavior.
I do want to talk about the experience of being Black in college. Many people expressed to me that when you come to college you start to gain a very different perspective on racial issues. I was wondering if you experienced this shift when you first entered college, or if it was later on in your education, since you did say it wasn’t until you started studying drug addiction specifically that you found that that wasn’t even really exactly the problem. So, could you talk about what your experience of race was when you were going through undergrad and graduate education?
I was always race conscious. You know what I mean?…If people are coming to college to learn that there are racial issues in the country—serious problems related to race and the country—it’s too late. It’s far too late. And it says something about the lies and the miseducation that we engage in in the country because this is so clear in this country at a very, very early age, and people’s parents are not telling them or teaching them these things. They’re doing them a disservice.
Given that so many people are coming into college—especially white students—and aren’t aware of these kinds of issues, what do you think needs to change in America’s education system in order for this to be like more widely recognized? Would you have anything to say to that?
Huge huge question. So we think about students coming to college, and you say white students, but it’s not only white students. I think at Columbia we select students of color who also share that same view as those white students.
Well, let’s go back to Black Lives Matter. I think this is the beauty for me of Black Lives Matter. It is this generation’s protest movement. When you have these kinds of movements, you provide a baseline level of education for the whole entire population. And I think that’s what Black Lives Matter is doing. It is re-educating large segments of the U.S. It’s a beautiful thing. Black Lives Matter is helping us to identify unacceptable behaviors.
If people are coming to college to learn that there are racial issues in the country, it’s far too late.
I’ll just share with you a quick story from me working out in my gym at Columbia at the medical school. In our gym, we have to put in our special unique code in order to gain access. So, you just type it in and it means you’re a member if you have a code. And we also put our IDs up—we hang them up when we walk in the gym. And sometimes, I don’t bring my ID.
I didn’t bring my ID one particular day, and there were about six or seven other white guys in there working out and we were all just members working out. And one guy came over to ask me if I had my ID. Now, I’m a faculty member. Most of these guys are medical students, and I’ve been a member of the gym for about fifteen years, and longer than anybody in the gym. But the guy came over and said, “Oh, can I see your ID?” I was like “But I put my code in. Why do you need to see my ID?” But I was the only black person in the gym.
Black Lives Matter has raised our country’s consciousness to a level where it gives people a language to speak about these things and everybody gets it.
And then I said to him “You know, I am troubled by what I see. You came over to me, the only Black guy in the gym, to ask me for my ID, and we all need to put our passcodes in in order to gain access. What difference is it to you?” I said, “You have, I know, racially profiled me.” And he was horrified. And I said, “In the context of Black Lives Matter and the problems and concerns we have in the country, this is unacceptable. And you are a member of the Columbia community. And you were not sensitive enough to even think about how this looks. And first of all, I’m not doing anything wrong—I’m just sitting here working out.” He was horrified but he got it. And I think he got it so quickly and he apologized quickly and was so concerned in large part because of the actions of people like Black Lives Matter. It has raised our country’s consciousness to a level where it gives people a language to speak about these things and everybody gets it. And I think they made it a lot easier for me to say to him, “I am horrified by what you have done.”
I agree that Black Lives Matter has put these issues out front and center, and that’s really exciting to me. But I think also it’s stirring up a lot of shit and people are getting really uncomfortable.
I think so.
And because of that we’re getting all kinds of different kinds of push back…With the protests that are going on on college campuses now, the pushback that we’re seeing is centered on free speech and centered on students being over-sensitive. People are making this argument that by demanding sensitivity or empathy towards these issues, we’re somehow putting the project of college education in danger. So, what is the goal of a college education? And how do the demands by these activist groups interact with whatever the goal of college is supposed to be?
How do the goals of these activists interact with the goals of an education? I think that they interact in that both of them are interrogating information presented to them—particularly evaluating everything, challenging everything that stands before us. And that’s what an education is. Education is not to teach you what to think, but teach you how to think, and how we think is that we evaluate the information before us. We were told that “the world works this way because x, y, z.” We can evaluate the methods that helped us arrive at that conclusion. If these methods don’t stand up to critical analysis, then we can say the world doesn’t work that way, and we have to figure out how it works…It’s a beautiful thing and that’s what Black Lives Matter, these activists are trying to figure out.
Education is not to teach you what to think, but teach you how to think.
Why is it at Columbia then that we the faculty are so white? Why is it that way? “Because it’s always been that way.” But that’s not good enough. We have to make sure that we are being more represented throughout the United States. If all things were equal, it should be representative, right? Not just, “that’s the way it’s always been.” Well if that’s the case, we’ve got to do something about it. And I think that’s part of it. We question everything. That’s what activists are doing. They’re questioning everything. And sometimes, you know, activists will be wrong. Just like sometimes with professors and what we thought was right, we were wrong. And we will make mistakes. That’s what humans do.
What would you like to see change at American college campuses that you think would improve the experience of Black students?
You know, when you say “improve the experiences of Black students,”I think that goal is too low. That wouldn’t be my focus.
When we think about improving the experience we have to figure out what are they experiencing that’s so bad that I would want to improve. Because some of these things are whiny bullshit. And there are other things that are real, and it doesn’t only impact Black students, it impacts our Native brothers and sisters. It impacts a number of people, right? And they’re real. And so I would think more about, “how do I improve the experiences of people who have been historically shut out?”
I think I would first of all get rid of this bullshit diversity thing. I wouldn’t even focus on that. Because diversity has become a replacement for justice. And I would put the focus back on justice and redress.
We have done some horrific things in the United States to some specific groups in the United States. And we have systematically shut out specific groups. And that’s reflected on our faculty in college. That’s reflected in our thinking. That’s reflected on the names that you see on Columbia Unversity’s Butler Library.
“How do I improve the experiences of people who have been historically shut out?”
So, I would change the focus to be not just on diversity. I would get rid of that diversity stuff, and think about justice. How can we bring about more justice in our society, especially for those that have historically not seen the level of justice appreciated or seen by other communities?
I don’t disagree. But then what are some concrete things that you would want to see happen?
Let’s think about diversity—what we do. We say, “alright, this person who has a Spanish surname, they could be from Spain or wherever. They will be included; they will get priority hiring and those sorts of things.” That wouldn’t happen with me…I would re-evaluate how we are giving preference to people and what the focus will be in terms of who we are hiring. That’s where we start. In terms of, who’s on the faculty? Do you have people on the faculty simply because they have this sort of [ethnic-sounding] surname, and you are not concerned about redressing past injustices? That’s where I would start. The goal is to redress past injustices.