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Liu ’25: The Race, Power and Privilege designation is too unclear

Beginning next fall, the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan: Race, Gender and Inequality course designation will be replaced with a more specific and explicit curriculum program called Race, Power and Privilege. Courses with the RPP designation, first recommended in a 2016 report but not implemented until now, are meant to examine national and international structures of power and privilege with respect to race, ethnicity and other forms of difference. This switch from DIAP to RPP was a decision reached by the 2021 College Curriculum Council’s Working Group on Diversity in the Undergraduate Curriculum following the increased visibility of national racial inequity and violence in recent years. In theory, taking a course in the RPP program could offer students valuable insight into power differences based on race. In practice, however, I worry that RPP will become a performative label the University puts on its courses to convey the illusion of progressive learning, especially because the guidelines for how a course is designated as an RPP course are so vague.

According to the Task Force on Diversity in Curriculum’s 2016 report, which originally proposed the designation, RPP differs from DIAP in its centering of race and racial difference over other forms of difference, like gender, sexuality and class. RPP more explicitly focuses on the ways that race works intersectionally with these other identities, without equating them under the overarching label of “diversity” the way that DIAP does. As a result, RPP seems to be both more direct than DIAP was, making clear its specific prioritization of race in curricula. The University states that in order for a course to become RPP designated, the syllabus “must explicitly (contain) at least one of the required elements … (in) the intentional design of the course.” These elements, while varied, all consider racialization and structures that produce racial disparity and the reasons for and implications of these phenomena. 

Yet, I struggle to understand how this designation will work in practice. While a course must be approved by the College Curriculum Council to become RPP designated, nowhere does the University specifically state how exactly a course is examined to determine its eligibility. Without clear guidelines, there is no guarantee that every course with RPP designation will meet the intended purposes and goals of the program. As a result, there is a risk that the RPP label will be applied to courses too liberally — and this looks to be the case with at least one course offered in fall 2022. 

I was recently scrolling through Courses@Brown and noticed that ECON 1070: “Race, Crime and Punishment in America,” an economics course taught by Professor of the Social Sciences and Economics Glenn Loury, was RPP designated. Having heard controversial reviews about this specific course in semesters prior, I decided to look through the syllabus from this semester. The fall 2022 syllabus has not been released yet, but the course description on Courses@Brown for fall 2022 is identical to that of previous semesters. While the course syllabus may change, course descriptions are important indicators of courses’ direction. So there is good reason to believe that the fall 2022 course — including its syllabus — will be remarkably similar to past versions of the course. 

Although the syllabus mentioned that it would examine racial inequality and social movements like Black Lives Matter, it did not include explicit mention of any RPP required elements, which the curricular program’s website says must be in the “intentional design” of a course. In addition, much of the syllabus includes Loury’s own writing. One such reading is his article Why Does Racial Inequality Persist?: Culture, Causation and Responsibility, in which Loury argues that racial inequality is a result of both racism and the “enemy within — namely, behavior patterns inhibiting African Americans from seizing … opportunities.” In opposition to the idea that racial inequalities and their manifestations — higher incarceration and worse economic outcomes within communities of color — exist due to historically-ingrained white supremacist power structures, Loury persists that “mass incarceration” is “mainly a sign of the pathological behavior of criminals who happen to be Black” and that “ascribing (higher crime rates) to white racism is laughable.” 

The RPP designation fundamentally deals with structural forms of race and power — the task force’s 2016 report first defined it as examining issues of “structural inequality, racial formations and/or disparities and systems of power.” Thus, the RPP curriculum program does not simply prioritize the discussion of racial inequalities but also of power structures and systemic racial disparity. In its emphasis on systems of power, the RPP designation makes clear that structural racism does exist. Loury’s course, by rejecting the notion of structural racism and attributing inequality to individual choices, does not reflect these aspects of race and power. Although the course does examine racial inequities and the reasons behind them, the current syllabus does not study power, privilege and racial hierarchies with the historical perspective RPP promotes. 

Another example of a fall 2022 course that does not allude to RPP’s tenets is CLAS 0320: 21st Century Classics, a classics course taught by Professor of Classics and History Graham Oliver. Although its fall 2021 syllabus mentions the course’s intentions of considering race, social inequalities and elitism within its study of classics, there is no mention of the structural racism or systems of power that RPP is designed to study. Courses that bring discussions of race in collaboration with academic departments typically bare of these conversations are important. However, not all such courses should be RPP designated. Simply because CLAS 0320 prioritizes “cultural sensitivity” and discussions of “race and identity,” as its syllabus says, does not give me reason to believe that the course explores the systemic racism that RPP espouses. 

Both ECON 1070 and CLAS 0320 speak to the unclear and unspecified ways that a course becomes RPP designated. RPP-designated courses like ECON 1070 and CLAS 0320 — if unchanged — seem to only be vaguely related to RPP’s aim to teach about systemic racism and power structures. They seem to suggest that any course that mentions racial disparity in its syllabus is eligible to be a part of the RPP program. Because the University is not transparent about how a course gains RPP designation, I am unsure about how committed it is to the spirit of the program. The lack of a connection between courses such as ECON 1070 and CLAS 0320 and RPP’s mission exemplifies my uncertainty. 

Without an explicit method to ensure that designated courses follow the tenets of RPP, we risk misleading students by conflating all study of racial inequalities with the specific study of the intersections of race, power and privilege. As a result, the RPP label loses its purpose: to center critical examinations of the construction of race and racism. The University must be transparent in how exactly it issues the RPP designation. Only when its reasoning becomes clear will the RPP curricular program be fully meaningful, purposeful and effective.

Melissa Liu ’25 can be reached at melissa_y_liu@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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