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Racism Threatens Science

Jul 3 2020

Posted In:

20/20 Blog

Dear Colleagues,

We believe our program’s strength comes from the ethnic, cultural, and academic diversity of our staff. We passionately believe the science emerging from our laboratories will reduce the suffering from vision loss, but racism is a threat to our science. Racism limits our collaborations, our diversity of ideas, and our recruitment of the best and brightest from around the world. This ultimately prevents us from reaching the communities we need to serve. Our department and university are taking steps to address this threat.

Most everyone values diversity, but unconscious bias can cause us to act and make decisions that contradict our values. Our Human Resources team has assigned everyone in the department the online Stanford EdX course “Unconscious Bias in Medicine.”  I found the course instructive, and we would like to hear your feedback.

To ensure that our department is fostering the most inclusive, supportive environment possible, we created CODE-I, the Committee on Ophthalmology Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, to advise on actionable goals for the department. CODE-I is led by Dr. Caroline Fisher and composed of faculty, postdoctoral research scholars, physicians, and administrative staff from across the department.

President Tessier-Lavigne has sent a message outlining how Stanford is advancing racial justice.

At this moment, while thousands of people are protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police, America is being forced to reckon with the systemic racism that has plagued our criminal justice system. But racism doesn’t just kill Black Americans through police brutality. Black people are more likely to die from cancer and childbirth and suffer from diabetes, hypertension, and depression. Black people are more likely to suffer from diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and cataracts.  

COVID-19 has revealed the inequities in our healthcare system. Black people in Wisconsin make up half of the COVID-19 deaths, but only 6% of the population. In Chicago, Black people account for 70% of the deaths, but make up only 30% of the population. This is because Black people are more likely to be essential workers, but it is also because of preexisting conditions resulting from disparate outcomes in healthcare and environmental factors.

Educating more Black doctors and scientists is one very important way we can address the ongoing health crisis that plagues the Black community, but this won’t happen unless we address the underlying structures, often times unconscious, that exclude Black people from these professions. Currently, only about 6% of physicians and surgeons are Black and about 5% of scientists are Black.

If we can address the harmful prejudices that affect our Black communities, all of our people of color, people with disabilities, women, and LGBTQ+ communities will benefit. Our collective effort to create an equitable workplace will make our science stronger and our teams more productive.


Vinit Mahajan M.D., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Ophthalmology

Vice Chair for Research, Department of Ophthalmology