RACE - The Power of an Illusion
For Immediate Release
Contact: Cara White 843/881-1480; firstname.lastname@example.org
Larry Adelman, 415/284-7800 x7; LA@newsreel.org
Groundbreaking Three-Part Series Produced and Distributed by California
Reveals How the Myth of Race Took Hold and Retains Its
(San Francisco, CA) - What if we suddenly discovered that
our most basic assumption about race - for instance, that the world's
people can be divided biologically along racial lines - was false? And
if race is a biological "myth," where did the idea come from? How do our
institutions give race social meaning and power by advantaging white people?
These are just a few of the questions raised by Race - The Power of
an Illusion, California Newsreel's provocative new PBS series produced
in association with ITVS. It is the first documentary series to scrutinize
the very idea of race through the distinct lenses of science, history
and our social institutions. The series is narrated by CCH Pounder (The
Shield). By asking, "What is this thing called 'race'?" a question so
basic it is rarely raised, Race - The Power of an Illusion challenges
some of our most deeply held beliefs.
Ethnic cleansing, affirmative action battles, immigration restrictions
- all place race at center stage in contemporary life. Race is so fundamental
to discussions of poverty, education, crime, music, and sports that, whether
we are racist or anti-racist, we rarely question its reality.
Yet recent scientific evidence suggests that the idea of race is a biological
myth, as outdated as the widely held medieval belief that the sun revolved
around the earth. Anthropologists, biologists and geneticists have increasingly
found that, biologically speaking; there is no such thing as "race." Modern
science is decoding the genetic puzzle of DNA and human variation - and
finding that skin color really is only skin deep.
However invalid race is biologically, it has been deeply woven into the
fabric of American life. Race - The Power of an Illusion examines
why and how in three one-hour installments. Episode 1: "The Difference
Between Us," surveys the scientific findings - including genetics
- that suggest that the concept of race has no biological basis. Episode
2: "The Story We Tell, " provides the historical context for race
in North America, including when and how the idea got started and why
it took such a hold over our minds. Episode 3: "The House We Live In,"
spotlights how our social institutions "make" race by providing different
groups vastly different life chances even today, 40 years after the Civil
Episode 1: "The Difference Between Us"
To all intents and purposes Roxanna was as white as anybody,
but the 1/16 of her that was black outvoted the other 15 parts and made
her a Negro. She was a slave and saleable as such. Her child was 31 parts
white and he too was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom, a Negro.
- Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson
Everyone can tell a Nubian from a Norwegian, so why not
divide people into different races? That's the question explored in "The
Difference Between Us," which demonstrates how recent scientific discoveries
have toppled our common-sense assumption that the world's peoples come
bundled into separate groups. It begins by following a dozen students,
including black athletes and Asian string players, who sequence and compare
their own DNA. The results surprise the students and the viewer, when
they discover their closest genetic matches are as likely to be with people
from other "races" as their own.
Much of the program is devoted to discovering why. It examines several
discoveries that illustrate why humans cannot be subdivided into races,
and reveals that there are no characteristics, no traits - not even one
gene - that distinguish all members of one "race" from all members of
Humans are among the most similar of all species. That's because modern
humans, all of us, evolved in Africa, and began leaving only about 70,000
years ago. As we migrated across the globe, populations bumped into one
another, mixing their mates - and genes. Populations have just not been
isolated long enough to evolve into separate races, or sub-species.
In a "walk" from the equator to the North, we can see how visual characteristics
vary gradually and continuously between populations. There are no boundaries.
We also learn that most traits - be they skin color or hair texture or
blood group - are influenced by separate genes and thus inherited independently
one from the other. Having one trait does not necessarily imply the existence
of others. Skin color really is only skin deep.
Many of the variants in our visual characteristics, like different skin
colors, appear to have evolved recently, after we left Africa. But the
traits we care most about -- intelligence, musical ability, physical aptitude
-- are old, and common to all populations. Geneticists have discovered
that 85% of all genetic variants can be found within any local population,
be they Poles or Hmong or Fulani. It turns out racial profiling is as
inaccurate on the genetic level as it is on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Certainly some gene forms are found in greater frequency in some populations
than others, such as the gene variants governing skin color, and for some
diseases, like Tay Sachs and sickle cell. But are these markers of "race"?
The mutation that causes sickle cell, we learn, was selected because it
conferred resistance to malaria. It is found among people whose ancestors
came from parts of the world where malaria was common - central and West
Africa, Turkey, Arabia, India, Greece, and Sicily, but not southern Africa.
Yet we have a long history of searching for innate "racial" differences
to explain differential group outcomes, be it disease, SAT scores, or
athletic performance. In contrast to today's myth of innate black athletic
superiority, one hundred years ago many whites felt that high African
American disease and mortality rates were caused not by poverty, poor
sanitation, and Jim Crow but because black people were inherently infirm
and destined to die out. When influential Prudential Insurance Company
statistician Frederick Hoffman compared death and disease rates between
white and black people in 1896, he attributed the disparities to a "heritable
race trait" among Negroes, ignoring the impact of poverty, poor sanitation,
and over-crowding on health and mortality.
Today, it is still popular to attribute group differences in performance
to innate "racial" traits. In "The Difference Between Us," many
of our common myths about race - such as the "natural" advantages of black
athletes, or the musical abilities of Asians - are taken apart.
Episode 2: "The Story We Tell"
All is race; there is no other truth.
- Benjamin Disraeli
But it's true that race has always been with us, right?
Wrong. Ancient peoples stigmatized "others" on the grounds of language,
custom, class, and especially religion, but they did not sort people into
"The Story We Tell" traces the origins of the racial idea to the
European conquest of the Americas and to the American slave system, the
first ever where all the slaves shared a physical trait: dark skin.
James Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History
at George Washington University, explains it this way: "They found what
they considered an endless labor supply. People who could be readily identified
and so when they ran away they couldn't melt into the population like
Native Americans could. People who knew how to grow tobacco, people who
knew how to grow rice. They found the ideal, from their standpoint, the
ideal labor source."
Ironically, it was not slavery but freedom - the revolutionary new idea
of liberty and the natural rights of man - that led to the ideology of
Robin Kelley, Chair of the History Department at New York University,
raises the conundrum haunting our Founders: "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?"
James Horton illuminates the story that helped reconcile that contradiction:
"And the way you do that is to say, 'Yeah, but you know there is something
different about these people. This whole business of inalienable rights,
that's fine, but it only applies to certain people.'" It was not a coincidence
that Thomas Jefferson, the apostle of freedom and a slaveholder, was the
first American public figure to articulate a theory speculating upon the
"natural" inferiority of Africans.
Similar logic rationalized the taking of Indian lands. When the "civilized"
Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homes in Georgia to west of
the Mississippi in 1838, one in four died in what became known as "The
Trail of Tears." President Andrew Jackson defended Indian removal. It
wasn't greed causing the Indians to "disappear," but the inevitable fate
of an inferior people established "in the midst of a superior race."
By mid-19th century, with the help of new "scientific" studies, racial
difference had become the accepted "common-sense" wisdom of white America.
Race explained everything from individual behavior to the fate of human
societies. It conveniently justified manifest destiny and American annexation
of the Philippines. In the new monthly magazines of the late 19th century
and at the remarkable indigenous people's displays at the 1904 World's
Fair celebrating the centennial of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, we
can see how American popular culture reinforced racial explanations for
American progress and power, imprinting ideas of racial difference and
white superiority deeply into our minds. "The Story We Tell" is
an eye-opening tale of how deep and enduring social inequalities came
to be rationalized as natural, reflecting not our social practices and
public policies but nature's way.
Episode 3: "The House We Live In"
"Virginia law defined a Black person as a person with
1/16th African ancestry. Florida defined a black person as a person with
1/8th African ancestry. Alabama said, 'You are Black if you got any African
ancestry at all.' But you know what this means? You can walk across a
state line and literally, legally change race. Now what does race mean
under those circumstances? You give me the power, I can make you any race
I want you to be, because it is a social, political construction."
- James Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American History,
George Washington University
But if race doesn't exist biologically, what is it? And should it matter?
The final episode, "The House We Live In," is the first film on race to
focus not on individual attitudes and behavior but on how our institutions
leave different groups differently advantaged. Its subject is the "unmarked"
race, white people. The shows makes visible the benefits that quietly
and often invisibly accrue to white people, not always because of merit
or hard work, but because our laws, courts, customs, and perhaps most
pertinently, segregated neighborhoods, racialize opportunity.
The film begins by looking at the massive immigration from eastern and
southern Europe early in the 20th century. Italians, Hebrews, Greeks and
other ethnics were considered by many as separate races. Their "whiteness"
had to be won. But who was "white?" The 1790 Naturalization Act had limited
naturalized citizenship to "free, white persons." In 1915, Takeo Ozawa,
a Japanese immigrant who had attended the University of California, appealed
the rejection of his citizenship application. He argued that his skin
was a white as any "white" person. But he also argued that race shouldn't
matter - what mattered most was one's beliefs. The Supreme Court ruled
against him, saying that Ozawa may be white but he was not Caucasian,
and according to scientific evidence only Caucasians could be white people.
Several months later, Bhagat Singh Thind, a South Asian immigrant and
U.S. Army veteran, argued that he should be granted citizenship since
scientists classified Indians as caucasians. The Court, refuting its own
reasoning in Ozawa said Thind may well be caucasian but he wasn't "white."
After WWII, all-white suburbs like Levittown popped up around the country,
built with the help of new federal policies that directed government guaranteed
loans to white homeowners. Real estate practices and Federal Housing Administration
regulations (including red-lining, which originated as explicit government
policy) kept non-whites out. In moving to these segregated suburbs, Italians,
Jews and other European ethnics, once considered "not quite white," blended
together and reaped the advantages of whiteness, including the accumulation
of equity and wealth as their homes increased in value. Yet those opportunities
for asset accumulation and upward mobility were denied many communities
of color. Of the $120 billion of housing underwritten by the federal government
between 1932 and 1964, less than 2% went to non-whites.
Today, the net worth of the average black family is about 1/8 that of
the average white family. Much of that net worth derives from the value
of the family's residence. As homes get passed from family to family through
generation after generation, the real legacy of race is felt. The houses
in predominantly white areas sell for much more than those in black, Hispanic
or integrated neighborhoods, and so power, wealth, and advantage - or
the lack of it - are passed down from parent to child. The starting line
for the next generation is drawn at different points on the field. Surprising
new studies reveal that the performance gaps in test scores, graduation
rates, welfare usage and other measures between white and black people
disappear once this "family wealth gap" is taken into account. This is
one reason why 'color-blind' policies that pretend race doesn't exist
are not the same thing as creating equality. It is why Supreme Court Justice
Harry Blackmun wrote in the Bakke decision, "To get beyond racism we must
first take account of race. There is no other way."
* * *
California Newsreel, founded in 1968, is among the country's
oldest, non-profit documentary production and distribution centers. Race
- The Power of an Illusion is available on video for educational use (no
home video) from California Newsreel at www.newsreel.org or toll-free
at 877-811-7495. An engaging and content-rich companion web site at PBS.org/race
allows viewers to explore the science, history and sociology of race in
greater detail and provides activities and lesson plans for teachers.
* * *
Major funding for Race - The Power of Illusion was provided
by the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Diversity
Fund. Additional funding provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, The
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Alejandro and Leila Zaffaroni,
the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, the Akonadi Foundation, and
the Nu Lambda Trust.
* * *
RACE - The Power of an Illusion
Creator and Executive Producer: Larry Adelman
Co-Producer: Jean Cheng
Field Producer: Natatcha Estébanez
Narrator: CCH Pounder
Original Music: Claudio Ragazzi
Episode 1: "The Difference Between Us"
Written, Produced and Directed by Christine Herbes-Sommers
Editors: Chuck Scott, Andrea Williams
Associate Producer: Sandra Haller
Episode 2: "The Story We Tell"
Written, Produced and Directed by Tracy Heather Strain
Editor: Randall MacLowry
Associate Producer: Jennifer Pearce
Episode 3: "The House We Live In"
Written, Produced and Directed by Llewellyn M. Smith
Editor: Bernice Schneider
Associate Producer: Julia Elliott
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