The considerable efforts of the academic side of the scientific team (the PI, postdocs, grad student and undergraduates) depend heavily on the efforts of a variety of technical staff in many types of biomedical research. I already discussed the value of the laboratory technician, meaning the individuals who are hired by the PI to work specifically for her within her lab. There are also a variety of institutional support technicians who work to provide needed skills and resources that are shared across many labs. Examples include scientific core facilities providing anything from specific high budget equipment to cost-effective routine assays. Other support may come from shops that manufacture custom lab equipment, animal care staff, human subjects medical support, information technology and graphic design experts.
I depend on several types of support staff in my work and find that, just as with techs in my own lab, good quality employees can be a critical difference in furthering the efficient, rapid and high quality progress of our work. So when I step back for a minute and notice that three of the most hard working, caring, responsible, smart, innovative and service-of-the-science-focused support techs that I have ever run across are no longer in the job anymore, well, I care. A lot.
This happened many years ago but I'm still a bit angry about it. Wait, what? Why angry? I mean, we're talking institutional employees here, things happen. People move around, seek better jobs or have personal issues, right? One of the points of having institutional units is so that they can provide a seamless service that doesn't depend on any one individual, ya? Sure. It's just that in this case, all three were African American men. You know, black.
These individuals did not leave their jobs because of issues having to do with their personal goals, no; they left because of having serious issues within the management structures of their support unit. Oh right, it was a single support unit. With a single ultimate head. And in all three cases the departure of the employee got ugly.
Did I mention how great these three techs were in the service of the research lab? They were excellent. One of them, perhaps I would categorize with other top-notch people in similar positions that I'd run across in my career. Two of them, however...I'm not sure I've seen their equal before or since. Now, it is true, that my focus on these cases was entirely selfish. They did a superlative job in support of the research science. Proactive. Trouble-shooting and problem-solving. In a way that is not, shall we say, universal among people working in all support units. Above and beyond the call of duty types of individuals. Of course, this is from the perspective of the research labs. Or perhaps even a limited subset (not just mine, but conceivably a bit limited) of the research labs. For all I know they were absolute nightmare cancer employees within their own units. But I doubt it. Their fellow techs had nice things to say about them, for the most part. Our research techs who interfaced with the support units didn't report anything skeevy about these guys. There are also a few other tidbits of behavior on the part of the upper echelons of this particular support unit that are supportive of a particular conclusion. Race was an issue.
Now, what does it mean to observe this? Is it calling someone out as a card carrying racist? No. No it is not. It is suggesting that someone might have some issues with bias which may be completely unconscious. Issues which are hard to even notice, nevermind prove, in such a setting. But when patterns emerge, well, people are going to draw certain conclusions. And beyond the loss of three specific and superior technicians, creating an impression of a biased unit (or ultimately an entire institution) is going to have an effect on those who seek to work for that institution. Word gets around. Many people at these levels of jobs get hired by word of mouth because someone they know already works there, alerts them to new job openings and provide a reference to their superiors. Well, one might as well apply to some other job if one thinks that career prospects in a given workplace might be affected, even the slightest, by your skin color.
As someone who wants the best available people working at my institution in support of my science, that potential and/or reality sucks. Hard. And this is just one of the reasons why it is entirely irrelevant whether the aforementioned head of the academic unit can be proved to be a conscious racist or not. It is totally beside the point. What is important is that perceptions of biased or racially unfriendly workplace practices not accrue to a support unit or a whole institution.
It strikes me that one of the many ways to combat such perceptions is to be fairly vocal and public about one's own desire for racial barriers of explicit or implicit nature not to impede the identification and participation of the best-of-the-best in the conduct of one's work. Again, it is about perception and not about proving beyond a legal standard of reasonable doubt that someone is or is not an intentional racist at heart. I can't do a thing about this latter but I damn sure can do something about the perceptions.
Update 7/22/08: Lab Lemming on taking action against offensive jokes.