InspirationRacial EqualityScience

5 Black Scholars Driving Change that You Need to Know

From public health to the front lines of the feminist, climate justice and #blacklivesmatter movements, these five scholars are driving change with their work.

5 Black Scholars You Need to Know

new jim crow racism scholar

Michelle Alexander
Racism and the Criminal Justice System

Associate professor of law at Ohio State University and civil rights advocate and writer Michelle Alexander is best known for her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander is a scholar often cited in efforts by the #Blacklivesmatter movement.

In her book, she suggests that racism within the U.S. criminal justice system and other governmental policies are a continuation of historic racial discrimination. Alexander argues that the U.S. War on Drugs policy and its enforcement has had a consequential impact on the black community, creating a system of racial control similar to how Jim Crow once operated.

“Race plays a major role-indeed, a defining role – in the current system, but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry. This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility – a feature it actually shares with its predecessors,” Alexander said.

As a civil rights advocate, Alexander has served as the director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, where she lead a national campaign against police use of racial profiling.

Alexander also directed the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School, and she worked as a law clerk in the U. S. Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Alexander specialized in plaintiff-side class action suits of race and gender discrimination.


environmental justice

Robert Bullard
Environmental Justice

If you have been following the recent Flint water crisis and the climate justice movement in general, you have probably come across the insights of Dr. Robert Bullard.

Bullard, often described as the father of environmental justice research and activism, has written extensively on sustainable development, environmental racism, community reinvestment, climate justice and regional equity, among many other topics.

For the last 30 plus years, Bullard has provided expert testimony in more than 100 civil rights lawsuits. He has won multiple awards including the National Wildlife Federation Conservation Achievement Award in Science, the Sierra Club John Muir Award and the American Bar Association 2015 Award for Excellence in Environmental Energy and Resources Stewardship. In 2014, the Sierra Club named its new Environmental Justice Award after him.

Bullard has written many books on the intersections of racism, the environment and social justice. His book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality is now a go-to textbook on the environmental justice field.

In this book, Bullard argues that “To be poor, working-class, or a person of color in the United States often means bearing a disproportionate share of the country’s environmental problems.” In the book, Bullard follows five black communities engaged in climate justice work and writes about new developments in the environmental justice movement, including organizing strategies and success stories.


Brittney Cooper feminism black feminism

Brittney Cooper
Race, Feminism & Pop Culture

One of the feminist powerhouses churning out cultural commentary on U.S. pop culture and politics is Dr. Brittney Cooper, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University.

Cooper writes on race, feminism and pop culture. She has a weekly column at, and her work has been featured at the New York Times, the Washington Post,, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry Show and Al-Jazeera America. For two years in a row, has listed her as a top black influencer.

In her forthcoming book, Race Women: Gender and the Making of a Black Public Intellectual Tradition, she chronicles the history of black women’s leadership in the U.S. with the goal to ignite conversation around black feminism.

She also co-founded the popular feminist blog, Crunk Feminist Collective, with the mission to “create a space of support and camaraderie for hip hop generation feminists of color, queer and straight, in the academy and without, by building a rhetorical community, in which we can discuss our ideas, express our crunk feminist selves,  fellowship with one another, debate and challenge one another, and support each other, as we struggle together to articulate our feminist goals, ideas, visions, and dreams in ways that are both personally and professionally beneficial.”



Carl Hart
Drug Use and Policy

Dr. Carl Hart is a cutting-edge neurologist and the first tenured black professor of sciences at Columbia University. Hart studies the dynamic between recreational drugs and the neurobiological and environmental factors that impact human behavior and physiology.

Hart is a member of the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse and a scientist in the Division of Substance Abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. His work has been featured in both academic and editorial publication around the world, including the New York Times, The Guardian, and O’ Global. He has won multiple awards and millions of dollars in grants for his work.

In his book, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, Hart writes about his experience growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Miami and his mission to redefine addiction through science.

In an interview with Democracy Now, Hart argues “People get addicted for a wide range of reasons. Some people have co-occurring or other psychiatric illnesses that contribute to their drug addiction. Other people get addicted because that’s the best option available to them; other people because they had limited skills in terms of responsibility skills. People become addicted for a wide range of reasons. If we were really concerned about drug addiction, we would be trying to figure out precisely why each individual became addicted. But that’s not what we’re really interested in. We are interested, in this society, of vilifying a drug. In that way, we don’t have to deal with the complex issues for why people really become addicted.”

Hart works to bring together communities and government officials to develop effective drug policies and treatments and transform public discussion of drug addiction and use.



David R. Williams
Racism as a Public Health Issue

Dr. David R. Williams is a professor of public health at the Harvard School of Public Health and professor of African and African American studies and of sociology at Harvard University.

As a world-renowned scholar, he has published more than 300 academic papers in leading journals on the dynamics between racism, class inequality, stress, health behaviors and health outcomes. He created the The Everyday Discrimination scale that is one of the most widely used tools to assess perceived discrimination in health studies.

In his work, he argues that race and class are critical factors that shape people’s health, as they produce health and life expectancy disparities among poor people and people of color. As a result, he suggests that racism and economic inequality should be treated as public health issues.

On top of all his awards and honors, Williams is one of the top 10 most cited researchers in the social sciences and is considered one of the world’s most influential scientific minds. He was also named as one of the top black thinkers in Healthcare by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions.

Dr. Williams has been involved in the development of health policy at the national level in the U.S. and has worked closely with the Department of Health and Human Services, various academic associations, the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health, and he served as the staff director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s initiative to Build a Healthier America.

He has been featured on ABC’s Evening News, CNN, PBS, the Katie Couric Show, Al Jazeera, C-SPAN and the Discovery Channel, as well as the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Essence, Jet and USA Today.

(Author’s note: I know, how is this a real person?)


This month we will continue to cover leading black thinkers, artists and activists who are changing the world through their work.

Tell us, who you think belongs on this list?


Posted: February 4, 2016
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