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PBS's 'Race' Dissects the Mind of the Beholder


By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2003; Page C01

PBS and race are two terms that probably don't fire much excitement in the jaded TV viewer. PBS is shorthand, all too often, for a bland sort of dithering and a lot of cautiously anecdotal back-and-forth about "how this painful issue affects me." Race, on the other hand, is the controversial subject par excellence, the kind of topic on which it's hard to get traction because at the first sign of sanctimoniousness on the one hand, or defensiveness on the other, conversation breaks down.

"Race: The Power of an Illusion," a three-part series that begins tonight at 11 on WETA, Channel 26, is different from other discussions of race because it isn't a conversation. It's an argument, made slowly, methodically and with evidence. The claim -- that race, no matter how hard one pursues it, even to the limits of genetic understanding, is a social construct, essentially a fiction, and a very big and disastrous red herring in American history -- isn't new. It is a common (if not yet universal) academic understanding, among biologists, anthropologists and historians of all stripes. But slowly, the best thinking about culture, whether it's in books such as Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Guns, Germs, and Steel," or in series like this one (produced by Larry Adelman), is moving to a post-racial view of the world. This view doesn't dismiss the long accumulation of racist thinking and racist damage, but nonetheless looks to science and historical reevaluation to demonstrate that race as an idea holds about as much water as ancient Greek arguments about whether the Earth is made up of water, air or fire.

Part 1, "The Difference Between Us," is unfortunately the least interesting as television, but it is the most essential brick in the construction of the argument. Tonight's episode focuses on genes and biology, and the history of science, to show how at least a century and a half of determined efforts to find a biological explanation of race have failed. Pseudo-scientists of yesteryear studied skull sizes, facial features, bone shapes, compiling vast tomes of data that added up only to the tautology that black people look black and white people look white. Genetic science hasn't gotten us any further, offering no convincing proof of "concordance" between race and any of the traits that matter to us so deeply, such as intelligence, or particular aptitudes in music or athletics.

Backed by interviews with an impressive array of scientists, including one of the last interviews with Stephen Jay Gould before his death, the argument gathers force by maintaining an important distinction between biological differences in groups of people, and a biological basis for broad categories like black, white or Asian. Biological differences certainly exist, but they are much more slippery than we commonly believe. Sickle cell anemia, often thought of as a "black" disease, is also prevalent among Greeks and other Mediterranean populations (it is associated with a greater resistance to malaria). But human beings are, compared with other species, genetically more homogeneous, more like each other than unlike; and the traits that seem, in social settings, to make us most unlike (skin color, eye shape, hair texture) are, in biological terms, both very new and extremely superficial.

But wait. What about a headline such as one from Tuesday's Washington Post: "Suspected Breast Cancer Gene More Active in Blacks." Read deeper and one gets a sense of the complexities facing medical science in a multiethnic, highly stratified society: "Breast cancer isn't as common among black women, yet black patients are more likely to die of the disease. Only part of the problem is socioeconomic."

Only part, but definitely part, because of differences in access to health care. The other part of the question isn't so much a so-called breast cancer gene, as why a particular gene is more or less active in some groups than others. The challenge, for medical science, and ultimately for all of us, is to figure out when to factor race in (to understand its social effects) and when to factor race out (because it is too blunt a tool to get at the real promise of understanding genetic differences between people).

Part 1 asks the viewer to try a paradigm shift. Every time the mind gropes toward the seemingly evident -- that, say, black people are better at sports, or Asians at math and music -- deconstruct it. Look for the social reasons, the economic reasons, the cultural reasons why these stereotypes only seem to hold true. But don't bother looking for some smoking gun in our DNA; the scientists interviewed tonight don't believe it exists.

Parts 2 and 3 trace the history of race in the United States, and the way in which racial categories have led us to the vast inequities of wealth that still plague our society (one figure cited: The accumulated wealth of the average white family is eight times that of the average black family). The history lesson is bracing: Race evolved as a category to justify the irrational accommodation of supposedly free and equal people with the iniquity of slavery. From the birth of the country to the middle of the last century, it was an endlessly pliable category, adapting to shifts in science, politics and culture, always coming up with the same answer: The benefits of American democracy accrue to white people.

In Part 1 race is compared to smog, and in Part 2 one sees that smog follows America's expansion west (where Native Americans were first encouraged to join up with the grand, Christian, "white" project of civilization, then driven off their land when land grew scarce), to later conflicts with "others" from Mexico and the Philippines. Smog is an excellent metaphor: Like the idea of race, it follows "progress" like a choking cloud of our own making.

Part 3 follows the ridiculous efforts of U.S. courts in the early 20th century to define black and white when confronted with Japanese, South Asian and a host of other immigrant populations (including southern European). They got it thoroughly wrong because the underlying questions -- who gets to be on top, to eat the big piece of the pie, to keep all the toys? -- presumed that large numbers of people had to lose for others to win. The series ends by tracing federal housing policy, redlining, block-busting and white flight, to the present.

The present, where we're all equal, right? Wrong. We're not supposed to talk about class, but class difference is the final residue of race difference. That black families, according to the social scientists interviewed in this gripping series, have one-eighth the wealth of white families isn't accidental: Inequity was legislated, encoded, enforced, and now? Denied.

As the Supreme Court takes up the issue of affirmative action, the ironies multiply. That we are all "created equal" is both superficially true as political rhetoric, deeply true as scientific fact and manifestly ridiculous when one considers the financial, educational and social inequities of our society. Many Americans, perhaps most Americans, comfort themselves that we're beyond all that now, that whatever damage was done by systematically denying opportunity based on race is mostly healed. But, as this series methodically demonstrates, they're wrong.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

I'm looking forward to seeing this!
 

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they show this at the END of the semester I take race and ethnic relations... damn PBS to hell! but i'll watch it anyway
 

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Wow. I'm not going to get to see this, but it sounds fascinating, and actually confirms a lot of what I believe about race as little more than a social construct...
 
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