Campus News

To build racial equity, Americans need to face their implicit racial biases, urban sociologist says


Published April 9, 2021

Waverly Duck.
“Whether or not we have implicit biases, we participate in racist outcomes. ”
Waverly Duck, Distinguished Visiting Scholar
UB Center for Diversity Innovation

Interactions across racial lines often lead to misunderstandings that cause people to speculate and retreat into racial stereotypes, according to Waverly Duck, who was the keynote speaker at UB’s second Inclusive Excellence Summit, ‘Living Our Commitment.”

The day-long summit, which took place on April 8, was presented by the Office of Inclusive Excellence. The summit consisted of 25 virtual sessions and workshops highlighting practices, research and initiatives across the university that support diversity and inclusion.

Duck, an urban sociologist, is a Distinguished Visiting Scholar with UB's Center for Diversity Innovation and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of “No Way Out: Precarious Living in the Shadow of Poverty and Drug Dealing” and “Tacit Racism,” co-authored with Anne Rawls. His research involves projects focusing on gentrification, displacement and food apartheid.

Duck’s presentation, titled “A Nation Divided — The High Cost of Tacit Racism in Everyday Life,” was drawn from the second book.

Duck’s cumulative address looked at several heavy topics around the issue of race and racism. In his address, he provided a sociological and cultural understanding of the meanings of race.

“Race is not a biological fact, but a social convention,” he said. “It is socially constructed. Race is often associated with things like ancestry and genetics.”

He outlined the history of the concept of race in America, which he said dates back to the 1720s.

“The idea of whiteness is fluid and has changed over time, but it points to who was allowed to be a citizen, who was allowed to vote, who was allowed to own property,” he said, noting that the history of race has implications especially for communities of color regarding housing, health and employment.

In writing “Tacit Racism,” Duck and Rawls explored how systemic racism has been coded into the structures of daily life. “Whether or not we have implicit biases, we participate in racist outcomes,” he said. But when people become aware that they are doing things than can be construed as being racist, they will change their behavior, he said.

“Once we start to highlight those issues, it is our belief that we will do better in terms of equity and justice,” he said.

Duck also noted that employment, housing, literacy, hunger, social integration and access to health care are all subject to the systemic racism permeating our society.

Disparities in health care are especially troubling, as illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. Health care workers have biases against Black Americans and treat Black bodies as different from white bodies. In addition, the lack of health literacy in marginalized communities complicates the issue, he said.

In order to build inclusivity in these communities, it is crucial to “understand communities on their own terms,” Duck said. People who have been left behind know what they need to thrive, but too often we as a society go into a community and impose what we think is needed, instead of asking what would be best for residents. Doing that would go a long way toward building equity, he said.

Despina Stratigakos, vice provost for inclusive excellence and professor in the Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning, moderated a 30-minute question-and-answer session following Duck’s talk.

Prior to introducing Duck, President Satish K. Tripathi spoke about the importance of the summit.

“In reviewing today's sessions, I was so impressed with the variety of themes and disciplines represented. Clearly, our university committee appreciates that the work of diversity is not restricted to one office, one department or one school,” Tripathi said. 

“Diversity is everyone's work. Each of us have a stake in cultivating a just, equitable scholarly community. Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we are stronger by the virtue of our diverse identities and perspectives,” he said.

Among the summit programs was a session about hiring practices that can reduce barriers to racial inequality and create a fair and equitable search, as well as one that discussed best practices for improving the campus climate for underrepresented graduate students. Others covered the importance of lived experiences; the concept of democratizing knowledge in community-university collaborations; UB’s plans for increasing inclusion for students, faculty and staff with mental health challenges; the future of inclusive restrooms at UB; universal design on campuses; and many additional topics.