SWM016: A Free-wheeling Discussion of Race-related Topics, with Carl Hart and Courtney Cogburn

June 26, 2015 @ 8:17 pm

“To be [black] in this country and to be conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”James Baldwin (quoted by Carl Hart)

Social Work Matters podcast cover To be a professor of color at Columbia University and to be studying race-related topics is to be thoughtful almost all the time—about what is meant by “diversity”, about the best way to communicate findings that threaten a privileged class, about the need for self-care. That’s how I might paraphrase James Baldwin after having been a fly on the wall during a conversation between Carl Hart, one of the first African American professors to be tenured in the sciences, and Courtney Cogburn, a newcomer to the School of Social Work.

It turns out that Hart and Cogburn have a lot more in common beyond the fact that both are professors of color in an Ivy League school. Both are fundamentally interested in psychology, for a start. An expert on drugs and drug abuse, Hart is a trained neuropsychopharmacologist with joint appointments in Columbia’s Department of Psychology and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Cogburn studied psychology as an undergraduate and again for her Ph.D. research. And, though she has an MSW and sits in the School of Social Work, her current research uses psychological instruments for measuring stress.

But even more strikingly, both professors have chosen to perform research in hopes of alleviating the psychological and physical sufferings of their fellow African Americans. Cogburn is interested in the stress African Americans feel when learning about, and listening to media depictions of, racial violence. She further aims to measure the extent to which this stress contributes to health disparities between blacks and whites, given that the former have significantly shorter life spans.

Through his findings on drug use, Hart contends that today’s war on drugs is destroying black communities through disproportionate sentencing while most social ills—unemployment, racial segregation, underfunded schools and dropout rates—are being ignored. Two years ago he wrote about the impact of drugs and poverty on his own life in a best-selling memoir, High Price, which interweaves personal anecdotes with the latest empirical evidence.

The combination of Cogburn and Hart made for a fascinating discussion. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

—ML Awanohara

Correction: An earlier version of this article wrongly stated that Carl Hart, who was tenured in 2009, is the first tenured African-American professor of science at Columbia. We deeply regret the error.


Why has the concept of “diversity” become so diluted?



  • African diaspora [1:46]: Hart’s parents are from the Bahamas, but when the family moved to Miami, they thought of themselves as black Americans—and that’s how it should be, Hart says. “It disturbs me that we might play a role as researchers in facilitating various groups’ disassociations from black Americans. I just want researchers to be mindful of this concern.”
  • Connection between academic work and social activism [3:58]: Hart says he cannot separate being an honest and good scientist from being a concerned citizen, particularly when covering a loaded topic like drugs. (Notably, on his personal website it says he is working toward a “more humane and effective criminal justice policy,” and the tagline under his name is: “Scientist. Activist. Educator.”)
  • Ivy League jargon [6:00]: “Athletically minded” when growing up (he played basketball), Hart “entered academic spaces” relatively late and was immediately bothered by the use of language to shut people out. Cogburn says it’s the “performance that happens through language” that vexes her the most. Hart agrees and says that it’s only when you speak frankly and with precision that people can see what you know and don’t know.
  • Need to revisit “diversity” [8:00]: Hart says there was a time when the conversation on race was all about “redress”—but then one day the conversation shifted to “diversity”, which gets away from the idea of compensation for historically disadvantaged people, as it includes everyone. He notes that universities often recruit researchers from Latin America to fulfill their diversity quota—some of whom are white. Cogburn says the issue is not diversity itself but how it is being framed and used—it “has been diluted in problematic ways.”
  • Advice for junior scholars of color [11:26]: Cogburn says she is committed to not diluting what she does—tells people honestly that she’s studying race—but knows it’s a treacherous path. Hart says that in his judgement, she has been successful in studying race (he became familiar with her work when she applied for, and received, a Provost’s Grant for Junior Faculty Who Contribute to the Goals of the University). Furthermore, he is glad she is someone who ignored the usual advice to wait until you get tenure before you focus on race. That said, in ignoring this advice, she has taken on the additional burden of having to be the best and the smartest in the room and of figuring out how to “meet people where they’re at.”
  • Example: Hart’s talk at Purdue University [13:38]: Hart reports that after a recent talk he gave about his work at Purdue University, a woman came up to him accusing him of being too cavalier about drug abuse. They talked and she began to see the wisdom in thinking there are other issues creating the problems, not just drugs. It’s important to be “patient and smart” about this kind of interaction, he says, adding that it also helps to love what you do. He knows his topic is controversial, but because he loves what he does, he can handle it when people shoot arrows at him.
  • Example: FBI director James Comey’s unusually candid speech [16:22]: Comey spoke out about the difficult relationship between the police and African Americans. “Good for him for speaking out, but shame on our society if we’re only just realizing it,” Hart says.
  • When professional and personal lives become inseparable [17:50]: Cogburn says she found it “incredibly stressful” to write a grant proposal at the time when the news came about the Darren Wilson verdict (the police officer responsible for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri). Hart agrees that it can be difficult to take care of yourself when you’re “in a society that denies [your] humanity, …and part of your job is to help society see your humanity.”
  • Impact of Hart’s research on drugs [20:34]: Hart says he hopes he can persuade people to look at data and not the story. If our society becomes more science literate, people will be able to understand not only the data but also the motivations of the people collecting the data, who are primarily white, and hence why the situation must change. Cogburn concurs that it’s important to ask: who is the storyteller and who is paying the storyteller to tell the story?
  • Example: APA coverage of race [22:42]: Hart says he’s always tweeting the American Psychological Association (APA) about their coverage of race—for instance, the October 2014 issue of their magazine with a black boy on the cover. The cover story was in response to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. It emphasized the need to teach black boys resilience skills when it should have been focused on: “How do we fix this society?”