Essay : Black and white thinking: America's obsession with "race"
Barack Obama's eloquent look at "race" in America revealed how whites and blacks privately express diametrically opposed beliefs about our society. Our great divide is between white and black.
Left out of the discussion is that what "we" believe about "them" has nothing to do with "races," defined biologically. Scientific research, especially the Human Genome Project, demonstrates that there are no biological "races." If we are to use the word "race" at all, it must be in another sense. The discredited idea of "races," biologically endowed with physical and behavioral characteristics, is dead wrong. The other meanings are also problematic, burdened by leftover biological baggage.
"Race" may be used as a cultural construct to designate ethnic groups, as in "black and white races." We need "race" in this sense to confront and remedy the profound discrepancies that prevail between ethnic groups in health, in education, in opportunities to acquire wealth, and in many other ways.
Still, the term is confusing. Every decade, the U.S. census describes us by labels like "black" and "native American." Like all cultural constructs, its content is ever changing. We've never used the same set of terms twice. Yet the terminology has wide impacts; thus newspapers blithely cite "Hispanic" as a "racial category," adding "some of whom are white and some, black." Color terms are ubiquitous and we seldom ask, as do naive children, "Why do we call brown people black and pink people white?"
"Black" and "white" unblushingly pepper the media. Magazines explain "why white men can't jump" and a newspaper tells of a dead baby found in the East River, with the two paragraph account concluding that decomposition precluded determining whether the baby was black or white.
Are we all so obsessed by non-nuanced black and white thinking? It's hard not to be. Encyclopedias cite skin color as a prime index of race. Textbooks reify racial categories. In a museum of natural history, children saw four "races" depicted in statues painted white, black, red, and yellow. And my "white grandma," who loved me, like Senator Obama's "white grandmother" loved him, also warned me about "black men," (using an insider S word no better than the N word).
Most knowledge is indirectly learned. All that happened before we were born, or in places never visited, comes usually from texts, all framed by others. Journalists, parents, teachers, and preachers, mostly endeavored to get it right, but in fact often got it wrong. Unfortunately, we come to understand the world through our teacher's verbal filters. As Barack Obama says, words matter.
We are blinded by the social and psychological reality of "race," as imbued by our culture's construct of it. So our way of thinking is dominated by color words. Others creep in, tinged with racial overtones, but truly something else - e.g. geographic, like Asian, or linguistic, like Hispanic. But the great divide remains that between "black" and "white," a chasm that still smacks of its racist origins. While traversable, the crossing (or "passing") is mostly out of "black" into "white," reflecting the discrepancy in benefits that accrue to membership in the one and not the other.
Another meaning of "race" denotes behavioral stereotypes, with implications of inappropriateness. For example, "white" teenagers, attracted by African-American culture (modes of dress, language, and demeanor) may be seen as behaving "too black." African-Americans may be perceived as "not black enough" or conversely, as "too black." Ironically, Senator Obama faces both of these challenges to his identity while contesting the Democratic party nomination.
If, as implied in this definition, any of us could choose to be either "white" or "black," it is clearly cultural and is relatively benign. However, the roots of the semantic problems underlying the word "race," whether defined as a cultural construct or a behavioral pattern, are the unavoidable connotations of genetically-based traits hiding under the skin. This is race, as historically defined.
The egregiously loaded R-word denotes taxonomies based on visible characteristics, like skin color and hair textures, as in the deceptively polite Negroid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid terminology of the 19th-century scientific racists. Despite terminological differences across time (yesterday vs. today) and space (the USA and Brazil), and arrayed in a hierarchy of inherent superiority/inferiority, it perniciously "justified" colonialism, slavery, apartheid, warfare, and genocide. Just in our own time, the racism inherent in the word has destroyed millions of lives worldwide.
In our post-human genome world, to say that there are no discrete "races" is not merely a politically correct claim, nor a Pollyannaish, poetic. I wish that it were so. Rooted in solid empirical facts about genes and DNA, it is undeniably true. On Feb. 12, 2001, the American Association for the Advancement of Science published the human genome, demonstrating that all humans alive today, whatever we look like, are not divisible into biological "races." All of us are members of a singular biological entity ... a unitary species... one human race.
Back in 2001, it was suggested, "For the general public, the publication [of the human genome] is likely to be greeted with the same awestruck feeling that accompanied the landing of the first human on the moon and the detonation of the first atomic bomb." In fact, few of us were awestruck. The revelations didn't sound the death knell to the belief in "race." Our mass media failed us, as did our schools. Regardless of ideology, regardless of education, indeed regardless of skin color, we still don't get it.
Why is "race" so tenacious? Because its scientific meaninglessness flies in the face of what we think we know. Revolutionary advances in human understanding don't suddenly transform popular thought. Counter-intuitive discoveries that contradict compelling phenomenological evidence are a hard sell. Don't we see with our own eyes that the sun always travels east to west, rising over Chappy and setting in the sea near Menemsha? If a spherical earth in a heliocentric solar system is clearly incompatible with everyday experience, so is the fact that there are no "races." In our increasingly cosmopolitan world, we see people of many shades, of diverse backgrounds, speaking a Babel of tongues. What are we seeing, if not "races"?
That this rhetorical question persists despite contradicting science has awful consequences for our society. How, then, do we demolish the illusion of "races"? By teaching the facts. By stressing that our species originated in only one place and at a single point in time, in Africa, approximately 150,000 years ago. By insisting that all six billion of us alive today share ancestors.
Successive waves of our common ancestors migrated, spreading over much of the earth and mating with the folks who preceded them. By the 18th century, human beings could be found in every inhabitable part of the world, and by then, the influences of environmental niches made us appear different from place to place. Because anatomical and physiological differences evolved through an interaction of genetic mutations and environmental influences, we are confronted by human variations correlated with geographic locus. These variations, clinal in nature (gradually varying over geographic dimensions), reinforce the illusion of "races." Even though many individual variations within groups exceed average intergroup differences, the latter are compelling. When my blond and blue-eyed wife toured a zoo in China, she was the second biggest attraction, exceeded only by a newborn panda.
What we have to learn flies in the face of conventional wisdom about diversity. The assertion that while each of us is unique, all Americans are African-Americans causes unease. Some American "blacks," who know that their ancestors were forced to come here from Africa, resist granting the appellation African-American to those who didn't share the history of slavery and discrimination that they and their ancestors endured. Then there are "white people" who wouldn't have it any other way, secure in the exalted status that attaches to being simply "white," un-hyphenated Americans.
But there are reasons to be hopeful. The museum of my childhood memory has removed the four colored statues. Online encyclopedias now note that "race" is a term "historically misunderstood and misused to designate human groups." In Encarta's long entry on "race," it is always correctly embedded in quotation marks. Online exhibits, like the one mounted in 2007 by the American Anthropological Association www.understandingrace.org challenge outmoded "racial" views. Since 1994, a traveling exhibition "All of Us are Related, Each of Us is Unique" www.allrelatedsyr.edu has been displayed at sites ranging from Oxford, Mississippi, to West Tisbury.
And, in one of the most surprisingly hopeful political phenomena imaginable, a man identified as an African-American, for all the baggage that identification may carry, may be elected President of the United States.
So, can we surmount our obsession with "race" in America? The answer very well might be, Yes, we can.
Marshall Segall, professor emeritus of political psychology at Syracuse University, retired from teaching in 1998. He lives in West Tisbury, where he currently chairs the Up-Island Regional School committee. A cross-cultural psychologist, who did his first research in Africa in 1959, his exhibit, All of Us are Related, Each of Us is Unique, is distributed by Syracuse University.