Social Justice and Higher Education

On Tuesday, September 21st, 2021, the Center for Ethics Education hosted a Zoom conversation on the topic of “Social Justice and Higher Education.” This was the first installment of the Center’s Fall 2021 discussion series on Advancing Health and Social Justice. The two speakers present were Dr. Lionel McPherson and Dr. Sherry Wang. Professors McPherson and Wang engaged in discussion on on racial justice and race in higher education.

Dr. Lionel McPherson


Lionel K. McPherson, Ph.D.

Dr. Lionel McPherson is an associate professor of philosophy at Tufts University, where he is also the Co-Director of their certificate program in Ethics, Law, and Society. He received his AB and his PhD from Harvard University. While at Harvard, he was a Faculty Fellow at the Harvard Center for Ethics in the Professions. Dr. McPherson’s research covers a range of topics pertaining to ethics, as well as social and political philosophy, including moral theory, war and terrorism, the philosophy of race, white supremacy, global justice, and education.

Dr. McPherson began his presentation sharing that he is “skeptical about the very notion of ‘racial justice’,” explaining that the term is “too vague, and worse…functions to obscure fundamentally different kinds of justice claims in their urgency.” Dr. McPherson elaborated saying that in the context of the United States, it is highly misleading and confusing to speak in broader, more universal terms about race as it can shift the focus from local politics and color-conscious dynamics in politics (in the United States). Examples he gave included using ‘white’ as the only defining label when referring to white Americans, as it can imply a white person from anywhere in the world, such as Hungary, and using black in the same way when actually referring to black Americans. This led to another salient point that race conscious affirmative action does not pay attention to social, political lineage, and other similar factors. McPherson claims that race conscious affirmative action does not track where people originate from, bur rather what box they check off for race. Someone who checks off black could be a descendant from enslaved Africans who were brought over to the American colonies against their will during the transatlantic slave trade, or they could be someone who grew up in another country and immigrated to U.S. He referred to persons from backgrounds like the hypothetical one he gave as “Africa-identified persons” to make his distinction clear. This distinction of how people from very different lineages are amalgamated under the same label led Dr. McPherson to then ask how a black person from Africa is supposed to be relevant in thinking about racial justice in the U.S. For example, “what do they have to do with so-called racial justice and its history in the United States?” To highlight this distinction, he used the concept of the socioeconomic position. There was lynching, mass incarceration, and systematic legal discrimination in the workforce and neighborhoods in the U.S. for black Americans descended from slavery, culminating in what is clearly evident today as an overwhelming socioeconomic disadvantage for them. This is not a historical socioeconomic disadvantage that “Africa-identified persons” have in the U.S. Dr. McPherson included this example to highlight a critical flaw in the idea of racial justice in the U.S., and to further his point that the term is vague and misleading, and includes those whose personal history does not encompass not being granted justice in the United States. He continued to share that as a result of this term being imposed, it does not position people to understand what the problem is, what potential solutions could be proposed or what should be prioritized. Dr. McPherson referred to these ideas as “counter progressive politics.”

Dr. Sherry Wang


Sherry Wang, Ph.D.

Dr. Sherry Wang is an associate professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, where she supervises the Health and Ethnic Racial Disparities, or HERD, Research Team. Dr. Wang is also a visiting professor fellow at the Center for AIDS Prevention at the University of California San Francisco, and serves as the Chair of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Ethnic Minority Affairs. She received her BA in Psychology from Smith College, and her MA and PhD in Psychology from the University of Nebraska Lincoln. She completed her doctoral internship at the University of Illinois, Chicago Counseling Center, and was previously an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Dr. Wang began with a reflection on universities and actions taken to promote social justice within their walls. She explained that universities are now more invested in diversity, equity, and inclusion, but that they may not be contributing to broader justice work in our society. For example, university policies may reflect building equity in terms of their programs and scholarships within the institution itself, but what are they doing to “take down the fence” that separates them from the rest of society? Dr. Wang went on to discuss her own experiences and those of other people of color being represented among faculty, staff, and administrators at higher education institutions, emphasizing the challenges of “loneliness, and emotional and psychological politics” as they navigate their universities and move higher up the administrative ladder. In regards to racial diversity among professionals in academia, she shared that not only is the lack of representation an issue, but faculty of color bear the burden of representing their entire community or race. For example, depending on how one faculty of color performs, it may impact decisions on the next hire in the department because they have “somehow set a standard or mark.”

Dr. Wang continued with a reflection on the recent rise of violence toward Asian Americans. She made the claim that the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans are not taken as seriously because the violence may not be comparable to with the level of crimes committed against persons such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Breonna Taylor. She explained further that the lack of conversation around anti-Asian hate crimes may be attributed to the existence of the “oppression Olympics” in society in which different oppressed groups may argue that they have had it “worse” than others. Dr. Wang recommended that we need to educate people of color or oppressed groups that they are “are all victims of racism.” Later in her presentation, Dr. Wang explained that while Asian Americans have been painted as the “model minority,” black Americans have been thought of and treated as the “problem minority.” This, Dr. Wang continued, is an example of people being pitted against one another by white supremacy as a method to keep the current status quo in place. The solution that Dr. Wang posed in order to win the “battle” against white supremacy is the practice of cross-racial solidarity. She ended her presentation with the call that oppressed communities should come together as allies in this collective fight against white supremacy, in academia and beyond.

To register for the next installment of the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education‘s Advancing Health and Social Justice Web Series, please use this Google Doc or visit: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfjLKDcCIxSkjTzKCD2fQ6KHR5VJi3Zcpv3nraWMWv_d_hHQg/viewform.

For questions on the series, please email Dr. Steven Swartzer, Associate Director of Academic Programs, at sswartzer@fordham.edu.

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