The first class of University 101: The Invention and Consequences of Race meets, and the professors deal with the complexities of COVID: Students spread out all over a lecture hall for social distancing; masked and distant students making discussion difficult; and technological issues that were to plague the course throughout the term. Just the same, students embraced the topic, engaged with the professors, and were surprisingly moved by even the first meeting’s information. There’s a lot to learn about race, and learning started in earnest from day 1.
The Race Course: EPISODE 1
murmur in Biology
TRACK: In a large, light beige lecture hall in the Biological Sciences building at Duke, almost a hundred students wait for a class to begin its first meeting. The periodic table hangs on the walls, but this is not a biology class.
Welcome to univ course 101 you all are guinea pigs; if you didn’t know that it’s the first time we’ve done a course like this so welcome and thank you for coming along for the ride
[DOWN THEN UNDER]
If that’s a little hard to hear, well, welcome to University 101, the Invention and Consequences of Race. That’s Professor Kerry Haynie, Duke professor of african and african american studies and professor and chair of political science. He’s one of the four coconvening professors who created the course. Right now he’s doing his best to deal with the technological frustrations that will almost never allow the students involved in this semester-long class, the first of its kind, to forget they’re in a true beta test.
And again, the technology has been a disaster
He’s not wrong. In a course that braced itself for pushback against its unflinching, rigorous examination of the complexities of race, the first issues are quotidian.
6:01 I’m trying to get the lights but we can’t figure out the lights…
3:15 i’m scared to teven try to go to the internet…
3:03 check check check
A hundred students spread out in a lecture hall, trying to avoid too much COVID closeness, trying to hear each other through masks, and trying to hear the presenters in a room where no microphone seems to work for longer than a few minutes.
Nobody said taking on race was going to be easy.
Hi. you’re listening to The Race Course, a podcast from Duke Magazine. I’m senior writer Scott Huler. And we sat in all term on University101: The Invention and Consequences of Race. Duke haso commited itself to antiracism. It is putting antiracism even into its curriculum at the exact moment the culture hyperventilates about Critical Race Theory and seemingly any attempt to squarely address centuries of American racism. So we wanted to ride along. What does it look like when a University asks its professors to do antiracism? When the professors ask the students to learn about racism and race? We asked, and they invited us to sit in and listen as they took their first swing. Now you can listen too. This is episode 1 of The Race Course.
In June 2020, Duke formally committed itself to antiracism. Duke president Vince Price:
Because when we commit to an antiracist mission we will become a better and a more perfect vision of the great institution i believe we are
The commitment came after then-U.S. president Donald Trump had scheduled a campaign event in Tulsa, scene of one of America’s most horrific racist massacres. Not only that, he’d scheduled the event on Juneteenth, now celebrated as African American Emancipation Day, commemorating the day in 1865 that news of emancipation finally reached slaves in Texas.
frankly, I mean, the Juneteenth conversation really, you know, was one of many instances where we realized we don’t have the basic idea of this country’s history. And these are, you know, bright, the best and the brightest of the country, you know, Duke University students, and some faculty, we, you know, some of us didn’t know, when Juneteenth was, in fact, until this whole, you know, controversy erupted. So, I mean, that’s kind of where we are as a country.
That’s Aimee Kwon, Associate Professor in the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, with many co appointments; she’s also Founding Director of Duke’s Asian American & Diaspora Studies Program. She showed me a document created by a group of university faculty called the Power, Equity, and Reckoning Collective, which included not only Kwon and Haynie but the two other co-conveners of the University 101 course, geneticist Charmaine Royal and Don Taylor, professor of Public Policy chair of the Duke University Academic Council
But this conversation was a year in by the time we got to this, and what happened was, you know, after when the Juneteenth fiasco happened with Donald Trump, you know, President Price made this announcement, committing Duke University’s resources to really expand our curricular efforts.
We do make progress but it is painfully slow. And reminders like these indicate that less has changed than we’d like to believe.
But i do believe we can actually make the diff we’re seeking. It will take time and we’ll need to be far more focussed and more clear and certainly more transparent about our goals and our progress and our lack of progress towards them…
We know what to do. We just have to care enough to do it. … we will have to put our full institutional weight behind our antiracist efforts
Great. Of course, as Kwon notes, this is hardly new material.
And mind you, you know, individual faculty, especially our black faculty, in African African American Studies, and other departments have been doing this heavy lift for, you know, decades. So are, you know, iteration was just one of many over time. And I think, you know, again, there was a convergence where all of these crises, both local at Duke University, and the internationally or nationally and internationally actually, you know, culminated in the faculty coming together and working with administration to try to launch this at this scale at a university wide scale.
And when you think of a universitywide scale you think of teaching. And Price pledged to incorporate antiracism into the Duke curriculum.
So with part of a $16 million [dollar] grant from the Duke Endowment and a charge from a provost or two, Haynie and a group of professors got started.
We got started with this late … handed this assignment and it was a blank slate
They distilled the large group of professors Kwon had mentioned; first down to eight, and then down to four, a small enough group to actually work together to create and plan a course.
Haynie starts with an essential point:
I don’t know what people mean by antiracist. I mean I think I have an idea of what they think they mean, but I don’t know how to do that. That is not what I do as an academic.
And what I thought would happen, and I think is the best way to approach, is to do what we do as academics, do it as an evidence-based course.
That is, university administration is in the business of setting big priorities. But the professors don’t just parrot statements or adopt rules. They follow those priorities into actual research and teaching. Which is exactly what Haynie told his students on that first day.
HAYNIE 210824-001 3:19
In designing the course one of the things we want to make sure that we did was to design a scholarly, academic, evidence-based course. Let me repeat that: a scholarly, academic, evidence-based course. You know, race is a topic that has lots of public interest , and conflictual conversation and debates about the issues of race. Race has been one of the most persistent social cleavages since this country was founded. We wanted a course that was evidence based, and one that would hopefully solicit from you critique, questions, debate, and dailogue. We want you to actively engage in material and engage in speakers in the class. And then a university I believe, to be able to say whatever it is you want to say if you can support it with logic and evidence and that you also willing to be challenged with logic and evidence.
The group of professors push hard on the intellectual rigor with which they expect the students to address the course.
HAYNIE Class I 5:50
And that’s what we do as academics. And so we want the course to be, a course of that type, an evidence-based course on race. And one of the things that I hope that you will do, as you engage the meetings and the speakers and each other, as you leave this class and engage conversation with books, not in the classroom, newspapers, news, broadcast social media, one of the things I hope you will do is begin to say how do you know you should ask the boss all the time, how do they know what it is to tell him? Another question you should ask You’re so good. Right? I read some software. What am I supposed to know now? That I always question how is it they know what they say they know? Where’s the evidence? What is the evidence? And then hopefully, you began to be able to consume and critique and analyze the evidence is someone presents. I stopped reading newspapers, always want to know, I read a poll in a newspaper, because they have these polls. And I will say, that’s interesting. But the newspapers rarely report the sample size. Sometimes when they took the poll that matters, whether it was landline, cell phones, computer base, all that matters in terms of how I interpret what have you been talking to me? Was the differences based on the nature of the poll was always placed in the evidence How do you know the sacred note? Especially no matter the race and inequality? Any number social issues question current, you know, what you say, you know? So that’s engaged material in that way.
That engagement is the class’s key goal. But when he introduces Charmaine Royal, Professor of African & African American Studies, Biology, Global Health, and Family Medicine & Community Health. engagement suffers a blow
Afternoon everybody can you hear me now? No!!
Check check check
Once the mic was working, Royal introduced her discussion about race and biology with a poll, asking the simple question “What is race?” More tech problems.
Some of you were able to get on other were not I’m not sure what’s going on. But we’re gonna go ahead and stop it now.
She uses a video from the American Anthropological Association to make straightforward statements about race having no biological origin so that she can use her time to investigate complexities:
Just like this painting, race was created … it is a powerful idea that was invented by society…
Many of the ideas we now associate with race originated during the European era of exploration… Europeans like Christopher Columbus traveled overseas and encountered and then colonized or conquered peoples in Africa Asia and the Americas who looked talked and acted much differently from them naturalist and scientists then classified these differences into systems that became the foundation for the notion of race as we
know it today …
When she can get the projector to cooperate she uses census records to demonstrates how even what the government considers race has constantly changed. Slaves and free blacks, for instance, used to be different races. Mexicans turned white in 1940. Though all the minority categories have rotated, one category has not. Can you guess?
But white is the only category in the census that has remained the same since 1790. All other categories have changed. As somebody said before, Italians were not white at one time over time. So these categories are fluid, they have changed over time, which is one of the reasons that people are clear that this is constructed. It’s made up. It’s not in the lab. It’s not in the genes.
Royal is a genetics PhD and has spent her career studying how ideas about ethnicity, race, and ancestry connect with biological sciences. She demonstrates one mistaken understanding by showing the students how the identification of sickle cell trait with Black people is scientifically incorrect. Using FST, the proportion of genetic variance in a subpopulation, she talks about human populations lacking meaningful genetic variation beyond the surface.
If a rights FST is point two, five or greater, the chances are that that organism has subspecies has genetic variation that’s big enough to marry the definition of races. Below point two, five, it’s less likely that you can say that organism has races. When you look at human populations that … And you look at the genome, ,,, if you’re looking across the genome and human populations, they right FST is about point one, five.
Again: she’s making powerful points that she makes in her classes and has explored in her research, but she’s trying to squeeze a term’s worth of science into an afternoon, and she’s wrestling with just being heard. It’s not an easy class, and it doesn’t feel like an easy start to a course about race.
I will not forget the beginning, because I was the first lecture. And I had a lot of information to impart, and the technology wasn’t working. ,,, My first session, in my mind, was a disaster.
Just the same, Royal raises and explains these powerful, central concepts about race—what it is, and what it is not. Royal is trying to impart something foundational to the class: biologically, race does not exist. This is not new — she cites a genetic biology journal from 1972. This is not controversial, scientifically. But she knows some of these students will be hearing it for the first time. She wants them to hear it; they need to hear it. She has spent her career studying and teaching it.
I was invited to be on the committee because I work on race. That’s been my work for the last, I don’t know, 20 plus years or more. And I teach … the biological sciences, as well as the social sciences.
And she says one of the reasons she supports the new class is that in her Race Genomics classes, which spend a semester on this single topic that she covered in part of a single meeting,
I usually do a survey at the beginning of the semester. Invariably for every class at least 25% of the students would say, when I do that survey, they would say humans have biological races.
She asked this class a similar question:
How many of you thought of race as something made up before this course? How many of you thought of it as something that was made up?
Well, what you thought about it before, you know, before, you saw this course, that said the invention? I mean, how many people said infection, they I thought it was real.
A good quarter of hands go up.
And so many of you thought, What? What did some of you think we saw, … But many of you think it is all in the genes and it’s biological for the most part.
And when the microphone works, students respond.
1:54 mixture of facts and things that are made up
Student: 2:29 about power by people.
3:41 it’s fluid, it changes over time
STUDENT 3:47 prior to the course it was ancestry
There was no doubt; Royal was bringing up powerful material, and even with the technological limits students were engaging. Some were surprised, but nobody challenged the information or professor Royal. And despite the difficulties caused by the technology and the length of the meeting, the class was already having the exact effect the professors designed for it.
Okay, I was talking about how this class being pass fail is really good for helping me with my reflection, like it being Pass Fail wasn’t something that deterred me from taking, it actually encouraged me.
That’s Eliza Moore, a freshman in her first term at Duke who is having her eyes opened by a lot of things. She mentioned the class was offered pass-fail, which is something the professors had a lot of thoughts about, and we’ll investigate later on. But when I started talking with her a few classes in, I asked Eliza whether anything in the course had blown her mind.
Has it just whacked you on anything, you’re like, Oh, my God. I was nowhere on it. And now my eyes are over.
It’s surprisingly enough, the raises like a non biological factor was just hit me. And they hit us with that. And week one, and it just has been blowing my mind since actually shared that with like my family members. And because a lot of them, they never had discussions like this growing up either. So when I’m telling them about, I mean, they all went to college, but when I’m telling them like, this is what we’re talking about. Now. They’re they’re saying these are very different things than what we were learning when I was coming through school. So just learning about like, these different, like, the race is not a biological thing. It’s never something that you’re told. But when, like when you go to the doctor, when you’re experiencing race on a daily basis, you just kind of assume is biological because everyone treats it like it is. And so to learn that there are deeper powers behind this and it’s all systemic, and that it’s like, it was a carefully crafted way to tear people down. And then also the contradictions that they were highlighting, like, they were saying slavery was okay, but they’re also like a free country. So how do you justify these big contradictions? So those kind of small points that you’d heard I’d heard about in history but never thought about before really clicked in for this class.
The whole race is biological, you know, in that first week,
She was doing exactly what Haynie hoped: bringing the topics from the class to external situations.
“As you leave this class and engage in conversation with books, not in the classroom, newspapers, … i hope you
One meeting; one class, where a lot went wrong. That’s how changed she was after the first class.
There was a lot more to come.
Next on The Race Course. As the class gathers momentum, students learn more about race as a social construct, and students and professors learn about each other’s expectations.
I did a creative project on Julian Abel last semester, for example. And just the ways Duke has the shortcomings that Duke has had in addressing racism on campus. And so the main reason for taking this class was other than I’m interested in the topic is I really wanted to like, I don’t know, see how well or how thoroughly Duke was kind of like, interrogating this. I think one of the things that I like, hope is talked about is other than just like, generally, the invention and the consequences consequences of race is like, how race is manifested on campus, historically, and so I do hope that that is something we discuss as the semester goes on.
Without knowing some basic foundational facts and events about race and US history and politics and science, you can’t have I think very good productive conversations about thise sticky pieces that come up like a takeover or the renaming of a building.
So yeah I think having the evidence based is what we do as academics at least from the social science perspective I think that’s what we do. Then let people look at facts and information and draw their own conclusions or enter into debate, having something to debate.
More on race, and debate. Next on The Race Course. A podcast from Duke Magazine.