The Myth of Race

Races, as natural divisions of the human species, are
rather like angles. Many people believe in them, devoutly.
They can even tell you what properties they have.
But the closer you try to examine them to discover their
real nature, the more elusive they become.
—Jonathan Marks, 2006

by Paul George

The issue of race* cannot be ignored, even though it is a term that only exists because society demands it. Many Americans were irritated when the 2010 United States census asked questions about race. Public school districts are required to collect data about the racial makeup of their student body. Employers report race-related data to the government to show compliance with Affirmative Action. Americans are constantly told they must identify themselves with a race.

Stereotypes abound when people discuss race. Some races are considered inherently lazy, dishonest, or greedy because the stereotypes continue to flourish. The concept that races are different genetically appears to be supported when diseases like sickle-cell anemia are labeled as a “black” disease**. Without defining what race is or is not, biologists have been quick to label diseases such as sickle-cell anemia as inherent in a race. In the past, they have been ready to define and label human beings as distinct biological races (Kaszycka 44).

A group of researches demonstrated that this view is still prevalent in Europe. They questioned members of the European Anthropological Association about the issue of race. Out of 125 respondents, 50 percent agreed that human races exist. Of those that agreed, 62 percent support the classification of race as a subset of Homo sapiens (Kaszycka 45).

The American Anthropological Association, however, issued an official statement in 1998 stating that race is not a biologically meaningful concept. According to their statement, race is simply a human cultural behavior and is learned, not inherited. Other research has shown that adopted children, whose adoptive parents are of another race, demonstrate intelligence similar to that of the adoptive parents (Sternberg).

According to anthropologist Audrey Smedley, race is “a recent concept in human history” and it “emerged as a dominant form of identity in those societies where it functions to stratify the social system” (Smedley 691).

Smedley argues that the modern concept of race is not found in most of human history. Race generally referred to where a person was from, not their skin color. Human history is full of tales of trading, travel, war, peace treaties, and inter-marriages between people of different nationalities. Yet the skin color of these people is never talked about. Alexander of Macedonia conquered from Afghanistan to India. He adopted many customs of these locations and told his men to marry Indian women (Smedley 690).

The Bible account of Moses*** states that he married a Cushite, or Ethiopian woman (New Rev. Stand. Ver., Nu 12:1). During the earliest days of Christianity, Philip converted the first non-Jew to Christianity. The convert was an Ethiopian who was a court official for the queen of Ethiopia (New Rev. Stand. Ver., Acts 8:26-39). In neither account is the modern concept of race an issue. Multi-ethnicity is not a new concept. In ages past, it was a normal part of life as travelers from different lands intermingled.  People were judged, not by skin color, but by genealogical identity and the work they performed (Smedley 691).

That viewpoint changed, however, in Europe in the 17th century. England began to view the Irish as savages and maintained the same view when they dealt with the indigenous people of the New World. Very quickly the modern concept of race emerged. English law protected white servants, but African servants had no rights. By viewing blacks as inferior and, therefore, unworthy of legal protection, the concept of race became a part of Anglo-American society. Within a century, citizens of the emerged United States of America were conditioned to this “arbitrary ranking” (Smedley 694,695). The general public in the United States were conditioned to accept race and racial superiority as natural part of human life.

Modern science, however, has developed a much different view of race: it does not exist.  Characteristics like skin color, hair color, and eye shape are all influenced by several alleles in the human genotype. If races were truly discrete species or subspecies of genus Homo, then many different genes should be similar among populations within a race than those of different races (Belk and Maier 298). Data collected, however, falsifies this concept. Various alleles are found throughout the gene pool of humankind and it would appear H. sapiens has never been truly isolated.

Sickle-cell anemia, the so-called “black” disease is a good example of an allele being found throughout the species. About 10 percent of African-Americans and 20 percent of Africans carry one copy of the sickle-cell alleles. However, many parts of northern and southern Africa have little or no sickle-cell alleles. Furthermore, the allele is found in populations of the Middle East (white) and Indian (Asian) (Belk and Maier 297). While the disease is more common in middle African populations, it is clearly misguided to call it a “black disease.” This represents a cline variation in the species. A cline is “a gradual change in the frequency of genotypes and phenotypes from one geographical region to another” (Jurmain 431). Natural selection is working with H. sapiens in various areas on a micro evolutionary level.  Humans in different regions adapted over time to their environment. However, none have made a genetic adaptation unique only to an isolated population. According to biology professors Belk and Maier, “scientists have not identified a single allele that is found in all (or even most) populations of a commonly described race but not found in other races” (Belk and Maier 297).

“Race” is a concept that humanity needs to evolve out of in order to progress. However, government and society are reluctant to accept the fact that “race” is simply a cultural myth that allows one class to lord over another. Too many interests are involved. On one side, there are those who believe that one race is superior and should, therefore, be considered privileged. On the other side, well-meaning advocates have encouraged the government to regulate hiring, making sure that all races are being treated fairly. While this may help some, it ignores the underlying problem, a three-hundred-year-old concept of race that is archaic and inhumane. Society needs to understand that skin color is simply the way light reflects off an individual and reveals nothing about the person. The concept of race is ignorant at best and, at worst, criminal.

This essay was originally titled: Cline Variation and the Myth of Race in Modern Homo sapiens and written in 2010.

Endnotes

The term “race,” unless noted otherwise in this essay, refers to skin color.

** This essay will use the commonly used terms “black” and “white” for people with dark skin (usually of African descent) and Caucasians (usually people of European descent).

*** The writer is using the Bible for its historic value (whether the stories are true or not, they do say a lot about social attitudes of the time) and references to the Bible are not intended to encourage or promote any theological views.

 


References

American Anthropological Association

“American Anthropological Association Statement on ‘Race’”, 17 May 1998. http://www.aaanet.org.

Kaszycka, Katarzyna A., Strkalj, Goran, Strezalko, Jan.

“Current Views of European Anthropologists on Race: Influence of Educational and Ideological Background”, American Anthropologist, March 2009, Vol 111, Issue 1, pp. 43-56.

New Revised Standard Version. Grand Rapids : Zondervan, 1989.

Smedley, Audrey

“’Race’ and the Construction of Human Identity,” American Anthropologist, Sept 1998, Vol. 100, Issue 3, pp. 690-702.

Sternberg, Robert J., Grigorenko, Elena L., Kidd, Kenneth K.

“Intelligence, race, and genetics”, in AccessScience@McGraw-Hill, http://www.accessscience.com, DOI 10.1036/1097-8542.YB071440.

Belk, Colleen and Maier, Virginia

Biology: Science for Life, Third Edition. 2010. Pearson: San Francisco.

Jurmain, Robert, Kilgore, Lynn, Trevathan, Wenda, Ciochon, Russell L.

Introduction to Physical Anthropology, 2009 – 2010 Edition. 2010. Wadsworth: Belmont.

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Crash: The Collision of Cultures in America

2005 crash poster

Race is a dirty word in America.

We refuse to talk about it.

When we do, it is rarely an open dialogue, and it is almost never honest.

Paul Haggis’ motion picture Crash is a character study that tries to deal with the issue of race in America. Critics praised the film for its “brutally honest” depiction of race issues in America (Williams). In response to this acclaim, journalism professor Robert Jensen and documentary producer Robert Wosnitzer wrote an essay, entitled “Crash,” claiming that the movie minimizes the systemic causes of racism in the country. According to Jensen and Wosnitzer, the film is “white supremacists because it minimizes the reality of white supremacy” (Jensen and Wosnitzer). While the film’s main focus is the effects of racism on a personal level, Crash frequently addresses the systemic nature of racism in this country. Crash is an allegorical tale that uses archetypes to personify the various groups and institutions that promote white privilege in America.

The first words out of detective Graham Waters indicate that the characters of the story do not inhabit a real city. His opening monologue has the air of parable. After an automobile accident, he says “we’re always behind this metal and glass.” Frequently, people carefully guard their speech and attitudes, especially when race is involved. The physical crash in Crash represents the filmmaker’s attempt to remove those “metal and glass” filters and have the characters speak in open, honest, and unfiltered dialogue.

Jensen and Wosnitzer contend that Crash fails because it “directs attention away from a white-supremacist system and undermines white accountability for the maintenance of that system“ (Jensen and Wosnitzer). Throughout the film, various white power symbols are represented by characters in authoritative positions. District attorney Rick Cabot represents the political system that caters to non-whites for votes and public image opportunities. Jean Cabot symbolizes rich white privilege, which views all non-whites as subservient and a threat to its way of life. Television producer Fred typifies the entertainment industry, which continues to promote racial stereotypes for material gain. Officer John Ryan represents not just law enforcement, but the racial attitudes are ingrained in the law enforcement culture. Officer Tom Hansen, who is generally decent, ultimately gives into racial profiling. While the laws of the country are intended to be for all, we have created rules that intentionally judge people based on race. When viewed as an allegorical story, the white characters say a lot about white authority in America.

Many of the black characters of the film represent those who, while affected by racism, refuse to challenge the system. Detective Waters has a career in law enforcement. When confronted with the inherent racism of the system, he gives into what is best for the white authoritarian structure. His mother accuses him of abandoning his brother and his mother. He has been too busy pursuing a career. Rather than continuing the fight for civil rights and equality for all, Waters has become a member of the white authority structure. Cameron Thayer, a television director, is essentially a black man in “whiteface.” The white powers that be have continued to put a carrot in front of him, fame, and he has consistently given into their demands. When an officer sexually assaults his wife, he refuses to do anything about it because a report in the paper would upset his white employers. Lt. Dixon is a black police officer who readily acknowledges racism in the LAPD, yet he doesn’t want his position to be threatened. He has worked too hard to get where he is in the police department. Anthony, who touts various white supremacy conspiracy theories throughout the film, considers himself sort of a black Robin Hood. Since he only steals from white people, he feels he is fighting the system. He starts to realize that he is part of the problem as he sits on a bus. He may talk a lot, but he really isn’t any different than the minorities on the bus. When he steals a van full of Thai people who are being trafficked as slave, he realizes that he is becoming the very thing he has been criticizing throughout the film, an oppressor. Even Dorri, a second generation Iranian-American, has become more American, and therefore white, in order to be a successful doctor. The system of white supremacy, as discussed by Jensen and Wosnitzer, is clearly demonstrated in Crash. The message in Crash is clear, if a black person wants to be successful, they need to obey privileged white people.

Peter Waters spends most of the film as a sidekick for Anthony. However, he represents those who simply do not buy into the system. He and Anthony have very different views of what it means to be a black American. He constantly defies any stereotypes associated with black Americans. He likes country music, hockey, and is interested in Catholic theology, all symbols associated with white culture. Ultimately, he is killed for having an open attitude. The message sent by Crash is that the system will not tolerate the tolerant.

Guns play strongly in the film and represent power. Frequently, when a gun passes from person to person in the film, it represents the passing of power. When a white gun shop owner begrudgingly sells a handgun to an Iranian man, he sells the Iranian man blanks. Frequently, white politicians talk about the United States being a land of opportunity and equality for all. However, the system does not always deal fairly with everyone. Ultimately, just like blanks in a gun, the assertion of constitutional rights by immigrants is rendered impotent by policies like the Patriot Act and racial profiling. Anthony and Peter discuss their fear of being in white neighborhoods. Their fears are relaxed because they carry guns. When Anthony attempts to car jack Cameron’s automobile, they struggle with a gun. Cameron, who has been complacent and unwilling to assert his rights throughout the film is suddenly emboldened when he confronts the police. During the entire altercation, he has a gun in the back of his pants. When Cameron leaves Anthony on a street corner, he gives Anthony back his gun. He gives the power back to Anthony, who must now take responsibility for his future actions. Constitutional rights protect Americans and empower them, regardless of race. White authority views such power as a threat when put in what it considers the wrong hands.

Crash, the film, ends where it begins, with an auto accident. The final message of the movie is that, even if some of the characters changed their attitudes during that day, there will be others to take their place the next day. There will be another John Ryan to harass innocent citizens. There will be another black director so hungry for fame that he will do whatever he is asked by his producers. There will be another young black man stealing cars from white people. The film simply says that everyone is a racist and there’s nothing that can be done to improve the situation. “Crash,” the essay, contends that white America needs to be “forced” to accept the issue of white privilege in America (Jensen and Wosnitzer). Neither offer any practical solutions for the race issue in this country. The United States has made progress, but it has been slow. Laws have been passed to protect the rights of everyone in the country. However, well meaning laws cannot actually change racial attitudes in this country. Forcing opinions on others is a poor solution. People need to be given information and a variety of opinions on this vital issue. There needs to be an open dialogue where everyone, no matter their race, gender, or belief, has the opportunity to share in the discussion. If we can accomplish this, perhaps this country will be able to one day embrace its pluralism and grow stronger as a nation. Perhaps then, race will no longer be considered a dirty word.

©  Paul Anthony George and The Reno Signal, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Paul Anthony George and The Reno Signal with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Originally written in 2009 for a class assignment.


 

Works Cited

Crash. Dir. Paul Haggis. Perf. Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle and Matt Dillon. Lionsgate, 2005.

Jensen, Robert and Wosnitzer, Robert. “Crash.” ZNet Daily Commentaries 21 Mar 2006. 18 June 2009 <http://www.zmag.org>.

Williams, Kam. “Movie Review: Crash.” Black News 2005. 24 June 2009 <http://www.blacknews.com>.