At a Friday evening forum entitled “Do Our Lives Matter?,” two professors addressed how social constructs guide people’s attitudes toward issues of race. Hosted by the Asian Christian Fellowship, the event brought Cullen Buie, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Min Song, director of the Asian American Studies Program and professor of English, to discuss the ways in which higher education and faith can address issues of race on a local level at Boston College, and on a broader scale nationwide.
In the past few months, students have called upon higher education to take on a greater responsibility in addressing issues of race. Last October, Richard Spencer, a well-known white nationalist, spoke at the University of Florida, inciting riots and forcing the declaration of a state-of-emergency. Similarly at BC, students rallied against a stream of racist incidents on campus last October.
Buie started off the discussion by explaining one of the most significant challenges facing issues of race today: the fact that there is little dialogue surrounding them. While the United States is no longer defined by slavery and Jim Crow, this “postracial” society, as Buie dubbed the present historical moment, is anything but okay.
“We have a moral imperative not to turn our eyes away when we see injustice, and we have a moral imperative to always do good,” Song said.
Another hurdle is the fact that there is a deeply embedded idea of race as a social construct, which has a real effect on how people lead their lives.
“It’s kind of a banal statement to say race is socially constructed because every aspect of our lives is socially constructed,” Song said. “The question then is what do you do with that social construct?”
He cited a definition of race created by Ruth Gilmore, a geography professor from the City University of New York, to explain what the term really means. She says race is about taking differentiations that already exist and making determinations about whose lives are worth investing in, and whose are not.
According to Song, there’s still a discrepancy between the two with regard to race.
The two professors believe that this can be remedied thanks to an understanding of the relationship between race and faith. They cited Genesis 1:27, which states that God created men and women in His image, as the basis of their argument that race does not define a person or one’s relationship with other individuals.
Buie said that people struggle to see their shared nature and unity, which allows division based on race to flourish.
“Racism and our difficulty in seeing God in one another is an outflow of sin and our imperfection,” Buie said.
Additionally, higher education should play a role in addressing these issues, but it cannot solely solve them. When Buie would walk home from work in Somerville,Mass., he noticed that people would always cross the street as he approached them. Although he wanted to believe that this was just a coincidence, it seemed to happen too often to be the case. Buie told this story to convey that no level of education can completely solve race issues, even if you have a Ph.D. from Stanford University, like he does.
But both speakers still believe that academics and college students can play a significant role in issues of social justice.
“I do think we need to hold universities accountable because there is a lot of authority given to you once you get a college degree,” Buie said.
He also discussed the value in seeing the shared connection that all people have. Regardless of what one’s race or faith is, people should look past racial barriers and toward their similarities, Buie said.
“My work won’t last forever and material things won’t, but if people and our souls are eternal, then our interactions can last forever,” Buie said. “This should be our motivation to try to find a common connection and see the value in life.”
Featured Image by Cole Dady / News Editor
Correction, 10:25 a.m.: A previous version of this article stated that a student organization at the University of Florida invited Richard Spencer to speak at the school. However, no one affiliated with the University invited him to campus.