Race: The Power of an Illusion
Slowly, in movies and books, it has become the norm to talk about race without talking about racism. De-fanged of its institutional nature in works such as the 2001 New York Times "race series," race becomes a benign topic about individual prejudices and personal discomfort. Reactionary pundits have actually begun using the famous quote by the Rev. Martin Luther King -- about people not being judged by the color of their skin -- to justify attacks on affirmative action remedies.
It is in this atmosphere of race doublespeak that "Race: The Power of an Illusion" (premiering Thursday, April 24, 10 p.m. on PBS) is one of the most important, sweeping and groundbreaking documentaries in recent memory. Taking full advantage of scholarship documenting how the United States invented modern ideas of "race" and "whiteness," the producer -- California Newsreel -- illustrates how racism has been used institutionally, socially and politically to create an affirmative action for Whites.
This is not fancy movie-making -- interviews with scholars are juxtaposed with historical footage and photos with narration by CCH Pounder -- but it is powerful. Airing in three parts on consecutive Thursdays, the series will either build its reputation over three weeks or see its impact diluted by this questionable scheduling. Hopefully, it will experience the former scenario. The first episode, "The Difference Between Us," follows the progress of a DNA workshop for high school students and illustrates how scientists have proven the lack of genetic difference between human beings classified as being from different races.
But while the show proves that race isn't real on a biological level, it segues into how "race" is very real as a social construct. A history is given of how "scientific" research was used to justify enslavement and attacks on people of color in this country, as well as the violent takeover of Cuba, the Philippines and Hawaii during the era of colonial expansion. These same scientific theories from early in the last century were also used abroad, for example by Hitler in Germany, to build support for ideas of Aryan superiority and the extermination of other populations.
The series really kicks into high gear in the second episode, "The Story We Tell," airing May 1, with a history of the creation of race and whiteness in the United States. It was easy and convenient, for example, to create a system that equated black people with slavery and inferiority, and that built a sense of cohesion and new national identity among whites. Moving beyond blacks and whites, this show details the demarcation created between those from Europe and Native Americans, Chinese and Mexicans. This divide would define who would be considered really "American." White settlers would receive land forcibly taken from Native Americans and would be the only ones granted the full rights of citizenship. Even New Deal legislation of the 1930's, considered a step forward for all Americans, would discriminate against domestic workers and agricultural workers -- who were almost all people of color -- and against skilled people of color banned from all-White labor unions that could bargain collectively for better wages and work conditions.
The final show, "The House We Live In," airing May 8, goes a long way to illustrating why, in the United States, the worth of the average White family is ten times that of the average Black family. Moving beyond the violence of slavery and Jim Crow laws, it details how the federal government, particularly through the Federal Housing Administration, set in motion a series of laws that allowed for the creation of wealthy white suburbs and impoverished black communities.
By initiating a system of appraisal whereby white communities were automatically given a higher value than black or "mixed" communities, and by providing federal grants and tax incentives for the construction of white suburbs that excluded people of color, the federal government not only segregated much of the country's housing, it set in motion a process through which white families have become wealthier, because their homes are worth more. In addition, the equity in these more highly valued homes, and the wealth passed on from previous generations, snowball into more opportunity, including money to pay for a college education, to start a business or to assist family members.
Race may not be "real," but when it comes to opportunity and survival, cold hard cash is no illusion.
Esther Iverem, a journalist, cultural critic and poet, is founder of SeeingBlack.com