Summit on Racism keynote speaker’s first encounter with prejudice happened here
Paul DeWeese grew up in Grand Haven in a family with two white parents and four white grandparents. The 49-year-old Republican state representative from Williamston admits race relations rarely crossed his mind, except for fleeting moments in history class when he was grateful Martin Luther King Jr. had cleaned up that mess.
But DeWeese said he was jolted to the continuing reality of racism in the mid-1970s while attending Hope College. There, he began dating a black co-ed from Chicago who found laughable the notion that racism was over. The life she was leading told her America was nowhere near a path to racial healing. “Seeing this issue enclosed in human flesh sensitized me to what potent reality racism remains,” DeWeese said. “I remember walking into the Pizza Hut in Holland with her when it was crowded on a Friday night and getting the looks. That was a new experience for me. It was typical for her.”
DeWeese’s close relationship with the young woman did not endure. However, his desire to learn about how racism shapes one’s opportunities and expectations stayed with him through medical school at Wayne State University, through his years as an emergency room doctor in Eaton Rapids, and through his election to the state House of Representatives. Last year, he co-chaired a dialogue among lawmakers on racism.
DeWeese will return to Hope College on Tuesday to deliver the morning keynote address at the second annual Ottawa Area Summit on Racism. More than 400 people have registered for the daylong event. Registration continues through Monday morning. The summit is part of a five-year process to raise awareness of racism in Lakeshore communities, and involve the public in finding ways to promote racial justice.
DeWeese said even people like his white family, friends and neighbors in West Michigan-who recoil at the mention of overt prejudice-need to reconcile themselves on the issue of race. They have benefited unjustly in society that, for generations, didn’t even give citizens of color an expectation of being treated fairly. He wants the state’s Republican Party to take a leadership role in fighting racism through progressive polices and funding for innovative programs.
DeWeese said he’s encouraged that some colleagues are interested. On the whole, however, he says the party needs to do a dramatically better job of reaching out to minorities and crafting an agenda that is relevant to them. Time is of the essence, DeWeese said. He says he sees both flagrant and subtle examples of racism throughout Michigan.
As a doctor, the ones that most quickly raise his ire are in the arena of health care. Michigan is a state, DeWeese said, where African-Americans are seven times more likely to have glaucoma than white Americans. African-American men die twice as often as white men from prostate cancer. Black women are twice as likely as white women to die of cervical cancer, he said. Furthermore, the gap between the number of black women and white women who die from complications of childbirth is greater in Michigan than any other state in the union.“Where is our outrage?” DeWeese asked. “We cannot afford to be indifferent.”
Other speakers at the summit include Ray Suarez, Washington-based senior correspondent for PS’s “The News Hour.” He previously hosted National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.”Also speaking will be Hunter Genia, a social worker with the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe’s Behavioral Health program, and Karen Henry, an Arab-American journalist for an English-Language Palestinian newspaper in Jerusalem.