The End of Race?
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I'm not sure if many Americans have noticed, but the concept of race has taken some devastating hits in recent years. Everywhere one looks in academia these days -- from the abstract precincts of critical theory to the hard laboratories of molecular genetics -- once-mighty notions of racial taxonomy have fallen hard.
The latest assault on race was a three-part PBS series, "Race: The Power of an Illusion." Produced by California Newsreel, the series covers a wide range of race-related issues. But the program's title is its major point: Racial differences are illusory. For many Americans, this is pretty radical stuff. Well before the republic was founded, the belief in racial hierarchy was deeply embedded in our national culture, and there it endures. A person's economic and social well-being remain closely correlated to racial identity.
Notwithstanding those socio-economic distinctions, the idea of racial difference seems obvious; people with a certain skin color and hair texture also tend to have common behavioral traits. However, science is revealing that those observable, "natural" differences are social constructions rather than biological facts.
"The Difference Between Us," the first episode of "Race," explains that humanity emerged in Africa about 150,000 to 200,000 years ago and began migrating out about 70,000 years ago. As humans spread across the planet, populations intermingled, creating a variety of genetic interrelationships. These are not always what one might expect: Some Europeans have more genes in common with Nigerians than do Nigerians with Ethiopians, and so on. Most variation is within, not between, "races."
The first segment also notes that many of our "phenotypic" characteristics, like skin color, evolved recently, after we left Africa. But traits like intelligence, musical ability, and physical aptitude are of a more ancient genetic vintage and thus are common to all populations.
As if on cue, a recent archeological find provided corroborating fossil evidence for this genetic view of human history. The June 12 issue of Nature revealed that scientists working in northeast Ethiopia found the 160,000-year-old remains of two adults and a child that are said to be the earliest human remains ever discovered. According to Tim White, the University of California paleoanthropologist who led the team, "this discovery means our roots are African."
According to the New York Times, the theory of an African genesis of humanity had gained wide support in the last two decades thanks to the research findings of the growing science of molecular genetics. These genetic studies, based on evolutionary changes in mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to daughter, have concluded that humanity had a common ancestor in Africa -- the so-called "African Eve."
Before the advent of high-tech genetics, the reigning doctrines of white supremacy discouraged any consideration of an African genesis of humanity. And despite increasing archaeological evidence, many anthropologists resisted tracing humanity's origins to the so-called Dark Continent.
The more radical white supremacists postulated that there was a "multiregional evolution," in which Europeans evolved from another branch of hominids altogether -- the hearty Neanderthals. However, genetic studies have revealed no Neanderthal DNA in modern humans.
A preponderance of genetic evidence reveals the ironic fact that the same Europeans who created the idea of race and white supremacy are genetic progeny of the Africans they devalued. With this view of history, it's clear that the concept of race is an insidious fiction created primarily to justify exploitation, slavery, and imperial conquest.
"Race"'s second episode, "The Story We Tell," explores this sordid history, tracing the origins of the racial idea to the European conquest of the New World and to the American slave system. We see how the logic of racial hierarchy, which placed Africans on the lowest rung of humanity, allowed self-professed Christians to justify the institution of racial slavery.
New York University historian Robin D.G. Kelley points out that the Enlightenment idea of freedom led to the ideology of white supremacy: "The problem that they had to figure out is how can we promote liberty, freedom, democracy on the one hand, and a system of slavery and exploitation of people who are non-white on the other?" They did it by dehumanizing enslaved Africans. The episode notes that by the mid-19th century, the idea of racial hierarchy and its corollary, white supremacy, had become conventional wisdom. "The idea found fruition in racial science, Manifest Destiny, and our imperial adventures abroad," reads the PBS Web site for the episode.
The final episode, "The House We Live In," focuses on the ways U.S. institutions and policies advantage some groups at the expense of others. It outlines the historical trajectory of racial disadvantage and shows how it remains easily discernable in the wealth gap and disparities in other social indices. The segment also examines the "unmarked" race of white people. Here the documentary slides in some of the insights developed by the nascent "Whiteness" movement, which defines the very idea of white identity as an ideology of racial domination.
"Race: The Power of an Illusion" concludes that racial inequality will remain a feature of this nation's social structures until we seriously address the legacy of past discrimination and confront the historical meaning of race. The producers hope their series will blow some fresh air through a stagnant social debate and stir some new interest. I hope they're right, but I doubt it.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983, and a weekly op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He is currently a Crime and Communities Media Fellow of the Open Society Institute, examining the impact of ex-inmates and gang leaders in leadership positions in the black community.