“Race” – The History of a Persistent Myth

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A man stands in front of the Djingareyber mosque on February 4, 2016 in Timbuktu, central Mali. 
Mali's fabled city of Timbuktu on February 4 celebrated the recovery of its historic mausoleums, destroyed during an Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 and rebuilt thanks to UN cultural agency UNESCO.
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Griot/Image Editor: Fran Kaplan, EdD

 

For more than 400 years, the economic, social, and political behavior of Americans has been shaped by ideas about “races” and racial differences.

RaceLogoFaceConsciously or unconsciously, almost all Americans believe that people can be grouped into races – Caucasian/white/European, Negroid/black/African, Mongoloid/yellow/Asian – based on their skin color, hair form, and shape of their noses or eyelids. Our society also operates on the notion that these genetic differences in appearance are linked to genetic differences in character traits like intelligence, athleticism, and work ethic.

Where did these powerful ideas come from – and are they true?

Before we answer these questions, we challenge you to take two quizzes. These short exercises will help you see how much of the American notions about race and racial differences you have absorbed.

Quiz 1: Racial Literacy – Download and answer the 9 questions. When you finish, you can review the correct answers.

Quiz 2: Implicit Bias – Take Harvard University’s <10 minute study of black-white bias. The link takes you to Project Implicit. Once there, read about the test, then click on "I wish to proceed." On the next screen, scroll down to the "Race IAT" button to start your test.

The videos below will help you better understand how and why “race” came to have such a powerful hold on American society. The trailer for Race: The Power of an Illusion gives a 5-minute overview. But we encourage you to watch the three full episodes below as well. (Each video is 16-22 minutes long.)

Here are some of the central ideas:

  • Modern science confirms that are NO genetic markers that define a “race.” Differences in skin color and hair form have no biological connection to other personal traits. “Race” is a purely social idea. Differences among racial groups, such as health status, tend to result from inequitable social and economic status.
  • The supposed difference between the “races” helped our Founders to justify using enslaved black people to build the country's economy. The idea of these differences continues to support the inequities in the American social system, which is supposed to be based on equality.

Race: The Power of an Illusion

Episode 1- The Difference Between Us examines the contemporary science - including genetics - that challenges our common sense assumptions that human beings can be bundled into three or four fundamentally different groups according to their physical traits.

 

Episode 2- The Story We Tell uncovers the roots of the race concept in North America, the 19th century science that legitimated it, and how it came to be held so fiercely in the western imagination. The episode is an eye-opening tale of how race served to rationalize, even justify, American social inequalities as "natural."

 

Episode 3- The House We Live In asks, If race is not biology, what is it? This episode uncovers how race resides not in nature but in politics, economics and culture. It reveals how our social institutions "make" race by disproportionately channeling resources, power, status and wealth to white people.

To obtain the full documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, visit California Newsreel.

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