Interview: Carl Hunt, Neuropsychopharmologist

In science, we are a conservative group, in the academy and at an Ivy League institution we’re also conservative. So I worried considerably about [the professional costs of High Price]. But then I thought about my knowledge, what I know, what I’ve learned, and I thought it would be irresponsible if I didn’t share some of this stuff with people who are coming up after me. I didn’t want young Black boys, girls, to think that they have to be perfect in order to get to where I’m at, because by no means am I perfect, nor was I perfect… I hope that the story helps people to understand that you don’t have to be perfect and you can still make a contribution to this country. —Carl Hunt

This quote comes from a July 2013 interview with Dr. Carl Hunt, Columbia University’s first tenured Black science professor and author of the memoir-investigation of the US’ War on Drugs and addiction’s impact on society, High Price and first author of the textbook Drugs, Society, & Human Behavior, published by McGraw-Hill and now in its 15th edition. As a researcher, Hunt studies methamphetamine and argues that the media and public policy have exaggerated the impact of meth in the same way that they reinforced “hysteria” about crack cocaine in the 1980s.

But more than commenting on the current drug narratives, Hunt and Smiley also describe the networks of support that helped Hunt to move away from drug sales and use in his teens and gave him access to college, higher education, and the research postr-doc programming that helped him become a professor in his field.

He cites support at 3 levels of bio-reality:

  • family: 5 sisters and his grandmother;
  • community: neighborhood mentors and peers; and
  • profession: a school rule requiring him to maintain a passing GPA in order to keep playing sport, out-of-school programming for “disadvantaged” students, international opportunities via the US Air Force, and PhD-level professionals who inspired him to think of himself as doctoral material and encouraged him to apply.

At about the 17 minute mark, Hunt and Smiley address respectability politics and the additional pressure minorities can face to damp down their personal style and the ways they express their individuality: respectability politics requires professional minorities to erase, minimize, and tone themselves down to fit in with classist and racist assumptions about “what a professional should look like.”

The transcript is available on the PBS webpage. Length: 27 minutes.

Photo of Carl Hunt on Tavis Smiley PBS set

Neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart on PBS (7/12/2013)

The NPR show On Point hosted Hunt for a longer interview with Tom Ashbrook in June this year (47 mins). The extended interview and some of Hunt’s other recent media appearances highlight how access to funding and political credibility influence researchers and their willingness to report on the empirical evidence their research produces:

Do you have to use drugs to be a good scientist?
No, absolutely not. You have to be open-minded and you have to be critical, and you have to let go of your predispositions about what you’ve been told that doesn’t have foundations in evidence.

Has your funding ever been threatened because you don’t buy into “the hysteria game”?
I had two huge grants, multimillion dollar grants. They run out, and I can’t get funded anymore. I wrote a really good grant recently — I’ll keep trying. I’ve been doing this book now, but one of the critiques of my last proposal was “what are you trying to do, show that drugs are good?” And it had nothing to do with that, but I think yeah, I think that people are suspicious of me.

Is that stymieing your science right now?
Oh yeah, absolutely. You don’t have money, you can’t do science. But that’s part of the price that I pay. (Carl Hunt Confronts Drug War)


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