Baha’i Chair explores overcoming racism

COLLEGE PARK, MARYLAND, United States — This year’s annual lecture of the Baha’i Chair for World Peace focused on the subject of race. Held in September at the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park, the lecture is part of an ongoing focus on structural racism and the root causes of prejudice.

“To date, we have held 11 separate lectures or symposia bringing 22 of the most prominent, leading scholars in questions of race to present their findings,” explains the holder of the Chair, Hoda Mahmoudi. “The Baha’i writings explain that until America makes major advances in race relations and in removing structural injustices, the country will not achieve stability, true prosperity, and happiness.”

This year’s keynote speaker, Jabari Mahiri believes that it is time to re-examine the terms on which race is discussed and racial justice pursued. Dr. Mahiri is Professor of Education and the William and Mary Jane Brinton Family Chair in Urban Teaching at the University of California, Berkeley.

In his lecture, titled “Deconstructing Race/Reconstructing Difference: Beyond the U.S. Paradigm,” he proposed that, although race has no basis in scientific fact, it has been one of the most powerful constructs used to divide people, create social hierarchies, and propagate injustice.

Speaking before an audience of 370 faculty, administrators, students, and guests, he argued that it is time to transcend the “black-white binary” and to break out of what he calls “the color bind.” Race artificially and falsely categorizes people and compels them to “perform” according to their race group, he explained. These categories create a hierarchy of status based on race and reinforced by social forces and institutions, allowing injustice and oppression to persist.

Describing numerous ethnographic interviews, Dr. Mahiri explored how transcending the standard categorization of people by race would liberate people to construct identities that are rooted in science and their authentic selves, or their “micro-cultural identities,” which he regards as genuine, fluid, and complex.

Dr. Mahiri also emphasized the universal human identity that binds all people and is scientific fact. Recognizing the oneness of humanity allows for true diversity to flourish.

Reflecting on the event, Dr. Mahmoudi says that the lecture was well received by the audience and stimulated many thought-provoking questions.

“We have seen how this series on structural racism and the roots of prejudice has resonated with the aspirations of so many students on campus who want a more just and unified society,” explains Dr. Mahmoudi. “More and more students are expressing their interest in contributing to the work of the Chair.”

The Baha’i Chair will continue exploring the theme of structural racism and the roots of prejudice and to bring leading scholars in the field to share their findings and insights. It will host a major panel discussion in November where several of the leading scholars in this area will explore solutions to structural racism.

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