- The Power of an Illusion
Things Everyone Should Know About Race
Our eyes tell us that people look different. No one has trouble distinguishing a
Czech from a Chinese. But what do those differences mean? Has the idea of race always
been with us? Is skin color more than skin deep? How does race affect people today?
There’s less – and more – to race than meets the eye:
- Race is a modern idea. Ancient societies, like the Greeks, did not divide
people according to physical distinctions, but according to religion, status, gender,
class, even language. The English language didn’t even have the word ‘race’ until it
turns up in 1508 in a poem by William Dunbar referring to a line of kings.
- Race has no genetic basis. Not one characteristic, trait or
even one gene distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members
of another so-called race.
- Human subspecies don’t exist. Unlike many animals, modern humans simply
haven’t been around long enough or populations isolated enough to evolve into separate
subspecies or races. Despite surface appearances, we are among the most similar of all species.
- Skin color really is only skin deep. Most traits are inherited independently from one
another. The genes influencing skin color have nothing to do with the genes influencing hair form, height,
blood type, musical talent, athletic ability or forms of intelligence. Knowing one trait, like skin color,
doesn’t necessarily tell you anything else about a person’s other traits.
- Most variation is within, not between, "races."
Of the small amount of total human genetic variation, 85% exists within any local population,
be they Italians, Kurds, Koreans or Cherokees. About 94% can be found within any continent.
That means two random Koreans may be as genetically different as a Korean and an Italian.
- Slavery predates race. Throughout much of human history, societies have enslaved others,
often as a result of conquest or war, even debt, but not because of physical characteristics or a belief
in natural inferiority. Due to a unique set of historical circumstances, ours was the first slave system
where all the slaves shared similar physical characteristics.
- Race and freedom evolved together.The U.S. was founded on the radical new idea that “All men
are created equal.” But our early economy was based largely on slavery. How could this anomaly be
rationalized? The new idea of race helped explain why some people could be denied the rights and
freedoms that others took for granted.
- Race justified social inequalities as natural. As the idea of race took hold, white superiority
became “common sense” in white America. It rationalized not only slavery but also the extermination of
Indians, exclusion of Asian immigrants, and the taking of Mexican lands by a nation that otherwise
professed a deep belief in liberty and equality. Racialized practices became institutionalized within
American government, laws, and society and persist even though de jure segregation ended.
- Race isn’t biological, but racism is still real. Racism is a powerful social force
that gives people different access to opportunities and resources. Our government and social
institutions disproportionately, albeit often invisibly, channel wealth, power, and resources
to the “unmarked” race - white people. This affects everyone, whether we are aware of it or not.
- Colorblindness will not end racism. Pretending race doesn’t exist is not the same as
creating equality. Racism is more than stereotypes and individual prejudice. To tackle racism,
we need to identify and remedy social policies and institutional practices that advantage some groups
at the expense of others.
RACE - The Power of an Illusion
is California Newsreel’s acclaimed three-part series
broadcast by PBS that challenges one of our most fundamental beliefs: that human beings come bundled into
a few distinct groups. But just because race isn’t innately biological, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
The series also scrutinizes where the idea of race came from, how it took such a hold over our minds,
and why race still matters.
For DVDs, digital files and background information: www.newsreel.org
Visit the RACE companion web site at http://www.PBS.org/Race
Copyright © California Newsreel, all rights reserved.
To reproduce, please credit as follows: “From the documentary series, RACE - The Power of an Illusion,
http://newsreel.org/video/RACE-THE-POWER-OF-AN-ILLUSION; Reprinted with the permission of California Newsreel.”