Under normal circumstances, I try to write columns that are optimistic and uplifting. I am, after all, a motivation and goal pursuit researcher, and thus I feel a duty to provide readers with information that will help them achieve their goals. But, dear readers, these are not normal times, and so this will not be a normal column.
In some ways, I am incredibly fortunate. I am a scientist and professor at an Ivy League university. To many, that is the pinnacle of privilege. I’m allowed to study more or less whatever I find interesting. I teach the classes I want to teach, imparting knowledge on fantastic students who pay far more money per year to attend my university than my family had to survive on when I was growing up. It’s a pretty good life. I’m a walking example of the American dream: the poor Black boy who immigrated to the United States and worked his way up to running his own lab at one of the world’s elite universities. That is one version of the Neil Lewis, Jr., story. But there is a detail in that version that opens the door to a deeper version, the version I want to talk about today.
I am not just a scientist. I am also a Black man in the United States. My job may be the pinnacle of privilege. But in the country in which I do that job, scientists who look like me often have to wrestle with not just our research questions, but also with being seen—due to the color of our skin—as a problem.
These two streams of thought constantly run through my mind in parallel as I study racial and economic disparities in the United States and, at the same time, stay connected to friends and relatives who bear the brunt of those disparate impacts. Some of these impacts still manifest in my own personal life and career.