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Black alumni call for action to combat Philippe Rushton's racist legacy at Western University

A group of Western University alumni are asking the university to take concrete actions to repair the hurt caused by J. Philippe Rushton, the late psychology professor who fostered anti-Black racism through his teachings in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Rushton argued that white people were genetically superior to Black people, research that is now invalid

The Black at Western Alumni group has released a set of 13 recommendations to not only help amend the harm caused by Rushton's research and teachings but also prevent this from happening in the future. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

A group of Western University alumni are asking the university to take concrete actions to mend the pain caused by J. Philippe Rushton, the late psychology professor who fostered anti-Black racism through his teachings that attempted to link race and intelligence. 

The Black at Western Alumni group, composed mostly of first-generation Black students who attended Western in the 1980s and 1990s while Rushton held tenure and was allowed to teach under academic freedom, said recent statements and apologies from the university's president and the department of psychology are not enough to mend the harm caused by the professor's teachings.

"Both statements fail to mitigate the harm caused by Western's refusal to censure an overtly racist professor during his tenure from 1977-2012. 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," a statement from the group said.

"The trauma some of us experienced while at Western continues to negatively impact our lives to this day. While any one incident involving racism is enough to break one's spirit, navigating repeated exposure, in various forms, is exhausting, diminishing, and often debilitating." 

'The cover of academic science' 

Rushton was a psychology professor who started teaching at the university in 1977. His work was widely criticized as racist as he attempted to draw conclusions between race and intelligence, fuelling beliefs that white people were genetically superior to Black people.

"We found ourselves in a position where we had to defend our most fundamental characteristics and we were being drawn into what were being called debates, when really they were simply a continuation of racist content from the colonial time," recalled Kizito Serumaga, a Black student leader who attended Western University from 1989-1992 and fought for Black students' rights at the time. 

"Basic racist tropes that you'd find in many communities were being given the cover of academic science or intellectual content."

Archival video: Rushton's research has been retracted

In an emotional debate, Suzuki and professor J. Philippe Rushton argue about race, science and superior races 1:51

While Rushton stopped teaching in the early 1990s, as a tenured professor he continued to conduct research and remained a faculty member of the university's psychology department until his death in 2012. 

The fact that the university did not reject Rushton's research until his death is troubling, Serumaga said. 

"There was a complete lack of empathy from the administration toward people of colour who were actually being called monkeys," Serumaga said. "The entire administration did not see that this was an insult and that it was damaging to our futures and our experience as young students on campus."  

'Apologies are not enough'

Last month, the university released a report of the Anti-Racism Working Group, a committee commissioned after a series of racist attacks on a Black student who called out a professor for using the N-word in class.

The report's 23 recommendations to combat systemic racism on campus include the school's commitment to acknowledge and apologize for the harm caused by Rushton's work. 

"I do apologize sincerely for that deep harm that has been experienced," Alan Shepard, the university's president, said when the report was first revealed, adding that he recognizes how divisive events that took place decades ago can still impact people to this day. 

Kizito Serumaga, who studied at Western University in the early 90s, says Rushton's work was damaging to his experience as a young student. (Submitted by Kizito Serumaga)

Additionally, the department of psychology released a statement in which it acknowledged that Rushton's work  is "deeply flawed from a scientific standpoint" and that his legacy "shows that the impact of flawed science lingers on, even after qualified scholars have condemned its scientific integrity."

While the statement condemns academic freedom when it's used to promote racism, the Black at Western Alumni group said it lacks a call to action. 

"Apologies are not enough," Serumaga said.

"Apologies are apologies and, as you can see, 30 years down the line we still have racism on campus that isn't being managed."

That's why the group has released a set of 13 recommendations to not only help mend the harm caused by Rushton's research and teachings but also prevent something similar from happening in the future. 

Some of the recommendations include; a public repudiation of the validity and viability of Rushton's work; an admission to its link to proponents of hate and white supremacy; a public statement acknowledging the damage of his work to Black student; a statement disassociating the university from Rushton and his beliefs. 

"At Western, as at other leading universities around the world, research is subject to the scrutiny of the Ethics Review Board, and to rigorous peer review. This system is designed to eliminate flawed research," a statement sent to CBC News by the university said. "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."

"As we move forward, 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."

The group of alumni, who have been in conversation with the university, are also calling for a clause preventing the acceptance of funds from organizations that promote hate, support for those conducting research that's critical to diminishing the dissemination of racist agendas in science and the establishment of a recruitment committee to ensure an increase of Black faculty members, among other recommendations. 

"We would like to see structural changes that actually make a difference and change the experiences of Black students," Serumaga said.

Apologies aren't good enough, and action is needed. That's the message from the Black at Western Alumni group. The group is calling for the university to disassociate itself from research by the late Western psychology professor Philippe Rushton. We spoke with Kizito Serumaga. 9:26

About the Author

Sofia Rodriguez

Reporter/Editor

Sofia Rodriguez is a reporter with CBC News in London. She is a graduate of Western University and Fanshawe College. You can email her at sofia.rodriguez@cbc.ca

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