Panel ponders ‘unmaking’ race


Whether or not race can be unmade was one question pondered Feb. 3 by panelists at Detroit Mercy.

Dozens of people gathered in the Bargman Room on the second floor of the library for an event called “The Differences Between Us.”

It was the latest in a series of talks about race in America, and it was sponsored by the university’s library staff, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and Our Mother of Perpetual Help Peace and Justice Committee.

Irene Leakes, the host, started the conversation with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King.

She said it embodied the intent of the event: “People fail to get along because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they’ve not communicated with each other.”

The event aimed to create a community in which a productive and educational conversation about race could take place, she said.

Before any real conversation could begin, however, Leakes presented some ground rules.

They included respect, generosity and bravery.

She welcomed others to suggest rules of their own.

One gentleman interjected and said, “Would anyone object to opening with a prayer? I think we’re going to need it.”

Ultimately, it was decided not to open the discussion with a prayer out of respect to people who practice religions other than Christianity.

Following opening remarks, attendees watched the first episode of the PBS series “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”

It spotlighted how for hundreds of years we have used visual differences between us to classify people into groups we call “races.”

Biologists in the film stated multiple times that no genetic markers appear in everybody of a particular race – or in nobody of another race. Therefore, genetic markers do not define race, they said.

The video focused on a racially diverse group of students who were doing an intriguing experiment.

The students were asked to compare their mitochondrial DNA, which is DNA found in the mitochondria of cells and can only be passed down by mothers.

White students assumed their results would be most similar to white classmates, and the same held true for students of color.

In doing the experiment, students found that a white student’s mitochondrial DNA was almost identical to that of a black student.

Someone with Icelandic blood has essentially the same DNA as someone from Zambia, they found.

The message that the film emphasized was that “race” is an idea and not a biological fact.

We of the homo sapiens species are more similar to one another than any other species known to man.

“How do we measure race?” the narrator asked.

It became clear that it could not be measured genetically.

The video also addressed the idea that race is a factor in the diagnosis of certain diseases.

Take sickle cell anemia.

Most people view it as a “black disease.”

Geneticists tell us this is not the case.

The sickle cell trait persists in certain populations around the world because of the relative resistance it offers to malaria.

Sickle cell is not a racial trait, but rather the result of having ancestors who lived in malarial regions.

Race does not account for patterns of genetic variation – or, in other words, disease.

The video finished with a hard-hitting thought about race: “We made it, we can unmake it.”

Following the video a group of panelists offered their views.

Detroit Mercy physics professor Prasad Venugopal, who teaches a course about science, technology and race, talked about racism in insurance policies.

He said that some institutions we think of as benevolent and for the common good are actually rooted in a deep racial history.

Venugopal showed how social Darwinism shaped the way insurance companies handle coverage of blacks in America.

Panelist Terri Laws, a religion professor at the University of Michigan Dearborn, spoke passionately about the underrepresentation of black people in the medical field.

Her response to the video was based on how we have two fields – religion and medicine – that we generally think of culturally as “areas of trust and compassion.”

She said that both have allowed us to participate in categorization of race so much that it has become embedded in our minds.

She asked the audience to think about what the world would be like if we did not divide ourselves into these categories and allowed ourselves to believe that some people are deserving and some are not. She asked whether we would have health insurance for everyone.

Lyne Muth of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak was a panelist, too.

“I found encouragement in the beauty of our divine design, and that we are so similar to each other. That gives me hope and joy,” said Muth.

Lastly, the Rev. Stancy Adams of Russell Street Baptist Church in Detroit had a chance at the microphone.

She wanted to answer a question: Can we unmake race?

“Yes, we can,” she said. “But it’s going to take each one of us individually to do it.”

She said we need to get rid of the social norms that we were raised with.

The entire event went on for longer than its two-hour time slot.

With that being said, many attendees left more “woke” than when they arrived.