Saturday, August 28, 2010

Race: The Power of an Illusion (California Newsreel/PBS, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was actually the first two episodes of a 2003 PBS-TV series called Race: The Power of an Illusion, which attempted at once to chronicle the harm racism has done over the years and establish the scientific data showing that “race” is not an essential characteristic of the human species — new tests involving DNA have shown not only that we’re only about 1 to 3 percent different genetically from chimpanzees but also that two people of different “races” can actually be more similar genetically than two people of the same “race.” (This was established through some interesting if rather cutesy-poo scenes with an undergraduate class featuring some quite charming people — including a really cute young white guy named Noah and an African-American woman with the intriguing name Gorgeous — who as part of their science class did tests on their own blood and skin to determine similarities based on mitochondrial DNA, which is found in skin cells and is passed only from the mother, not the father.)

The juxtaposition between episodes one, “The Difference Between Us,” and two, “The Story We Tell,” was powerful — though it’s somewhat weakened by the absence of episode three, “The House We Live In,” which I would hope would have been about how the 19th century claims of a scientific basis for racism were finally refuted in the 20th century, largely as a result of the heroism of Franz Boas, a German-American physicist turned anthropologist who challenged the doctrines of scientific racism. According to the Wikipedia page on him, “Boas is credited as the first scientist to publish the idea that all people — including white and African-Americans — are equal. He often emphasized his abhorrence of racism, and used his work to show that there was no scientific basis for such a bias.” Given that at the turn of the last century — as chronicled in this film — the idea that there was a hierarchy of human races with whites from Northern Europe at the top, people of African descent at the bottom and whites from southern Europe, Asians and Hispanics (in that order) in the middle was considered proven scientific fact, beyond serious dispute, it took real courage for Boas to make those claims, especially since he was teaching at Columbia University in New York City, one of the hotbeds of scientific racism.

The second episode was essentially a history of white supremacy from the late 18th century (when Thomas Jefferson wrote in his book Notes on the State of Virginia that he had what he described as “a supposition only” that Blacks were inferior — ironically, as this film points out, he wrote understandingly and sympathetically about Native Americans but didn’t apply that same sensitivity to African-Americans; then again most of his sources of information about Native Americans were second-hand while his experience with African-Americans came from owning up to 220 of them as slaves) to the end of the 19th century and the weird mix of authorities, including European-born anthropologist Louis Agassiz, who came up with the idea that there were not only different races but even different human species (despite the fact that a male human of any race can have sex with a female human of any other race and produce offspring, which is the basic biological definition of a species — and was the biggest fear of many of the scientific racists: the idea that race-mixing would “mongrelize” the races and drive the “superior” white race down to the level of the “inferior” colored races).

The film quoted Jefferson selectively enough to make him seem like even more of a white supremacist than he was — like Wagner’s writings about Jews, Jefferson’s writings about Blacks show how an otherwise great mind can wrestle with its own prejudices with some degree of intellectual honesty but still let the prejudices win in the end — and as I’ve noted elsewhere there was a major change from the arguments for slavery made in Jefferson’s time, which tended to regard it as a necessary evil stemming from America’s enormous need for labor, and the ones from a generation or two later (the ones made by John C. Calhoun in the 1830’s and the ideologues of the 1850’s and 1860’s — including Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens, whose post-war memoir cited the Biblical defenses of slavery and said any minister who preached against the “peculiar institution” was literally being blasphemous) that hailed slavery as a positive good not only for the slaveholders but for the slaves themselves —as the film depicts, Africans were regarded as “naturally” inferior beings whose best fate would be the paternal care of enslavement to their racial betters. (The fact that slavery in practice was almost never as glossily paternalistic as the propaganda described it — both when it was a going concern and afterwards in novels and films like The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind — didn’t enter into this discussion, though of course a staple of abolitionist propaganda was describing the horrors of actually existing slavery.)

Searching for a scientific underpinning for their prejudices, the scientists of the second half of the 19th century obsessively measured skull shapes and sizes (the bigger the skull, the bigger the brain, and hence the smarter the person, were the assumptions behind this — both, of course, have long since been debunked) and drew illustrations of the different racial “types” that today look like the stuff of penny-dreadful pamphlets and Web postings from the darkest, craziest corners of the ultra-ultra-Right. Throughout the late 19th and the four decades of the 20th century, the eugenics movement — a conscious attempt to breed the “best” of the white race while taking repressive measures (including sterilization and even euthanasia) to eliminate the “inferior” races — was a going concern (one still photo shown in this film is a ghastly picture of the boy and girl who were ranked as top of their racial class in a eugenics festival) — was well respected, highly influential and even had the imprimatur of the U.S. Supreme Court (which upheld the eugenics-motivated sterilization of a supposedly “feeble-minded” woman), and it only fell out of fashion at the end of World War II, after the death camps were liberated and the world got a look at how far Hitler had gone to realize the eugenic vision of an “Aryan”-only paradise on earth.