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When a Student Says It's 'Easier' Not to Have Black People in Class

A student's email stuns NYU's social work school, which admits that the incident reflects institutional racism.

February 15, 2019
 

New York University has been stunned by a student's email stating that it would be "easier" for him without a "black presence" in class.

The incident has played out on social media as Shahem Mclaurin, a black student at NYU's Silver School of Social Work, described his experience. He was in France and so was going to have to miss class. He had obtained permission from the faculty member in advance to use FaceTime to be in the class virtually, but when he emailed various students in the course, they didn't respond, so he was unable to see or participate in the class.

One student sent him an email that Mclaurin then shared on Twitter:

The email said in part that the student "found it easier to lead the discussion without black presence in the room, since I do feel somewhat uncomfortable with the (perceived) threat that it poses."

Mclaurin wrote that the email made him feel like dropping out. Many responded on social media that they would feel the same way, and that this pointed to broader problems at the social work school. Given that social work schools pride themselves on training professionals who will be inclusive, the incident attracted much concern at the Silver School.

On Thursday, Dean Neil B. Guterman and two associate deans released an open letter in response to the incident. The letter said that NYU officials had reached out both to Mclaurin and the student who had sent him the email. "Both students involved in the email exchange indicated their desire to resolve the issues in the class, and the associate dean of academic affairs is working with the chair of practice and the instructor of the course to promote productive and restorative dialogue."

The open letter, speaking more generally, said, "No student should experience racism or otherwise be made to feel unwelcome here at NYU Silver. It is antithetical to our School and the social work profession. We are deeply sorry when we hear that students have experienced exclusion and bias when we should instead be hearing of inclusive, educationally uplifting, and supportive experiences."

Further, the letter said, "We recognize that this incident took place in a broader context of ongoing institutional racism at Silver, especially in classrooms. Notwithstanding efforts to actively address these issues, we clearly have significant work yet ahead. Addressing matters of racism, bias, and social exclusion require firm commitment and collective efforts of us all, and this work must be ongoing. As social workers we must continually examine our own biases as well as the social systems that perpetuate racism and other forms of discrimination and marginalization. In the wake of this painful incident, it is our hope that we will find an opportunity for self-reflection, learning, and professional and institutional growth."

Beyond the incident with the email, black and other minority students have for some time been pushing for an improved climate at the social work school. A recent "call to action for social justice" at the school noted that major discussions on these issues took place in 2010, and said that far too little had changed since.

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