Research, Politics & society

Race, the power of an illusion

By Public Affairs

A panel discussed the illusion of race on Friday, September 11. (UC Berkeley video)

Scientists in the United States spent centuries attempting to find biological differences among racial groups to justify an imagined hierarchy, but it’s past time to dismantle the systems created on those unfounded principles, a panel of experts explained on Friday at a UC Berkeley online event.

“The United States is structured by a racial hierarchy that we can unmake,” professor Evelynn Hammonds, chair of the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, said at a Berkeley Conversations livestreamed event that included a screening of Race — The Power of an Illusion, a 17-year-old documentary on the subject.

Hammonds, who is interviewed in the documentary, expanded on a short remark she made years ago: “We made race. We can unmake it.”

During the panel discussion, she explained that she did not mean that society should ignore difference, but that it must stop utilizing race to allocate resources and opportunity.

“We can ensure that scientific explanations of human variation do not serve to support national policies that disadvantage people who are marked as different or other, and that their otherness and their difference is the root cause of the situations that they face,” she said.

The online event was the first installment of three “Race — The Power of an Illusion” events organized by Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute, in collaboration with the School of Public Health and the Center for Research on Social Change.

The docuseries’ first episode, “The Difference Between Us,” historicizes the concept of race in order to unravel its mythology as a biological and fundamental fixture of humanity. The film shows how science was used by the political elite in past centuries to serve its interests.

Elaborating on this thesis, event moderator Osagie Obasogie, a professor of bioethics at Berkeley, said: “Race is a crude social and political category that does not map onto human genetic variation for population differences.”

“To think racially about the world is by definition a white supremacist project,” he added.

Racial science became popularized in the U.S. during the 19th century to try to explain stark social and health inequalities, and to attribute those differences to biology instead of society. These findings reinforced programs of segregation, enforced poverty and violence.

Panelist john a. powell, a Berkeley professor of law and African American studies, said that humans are “meaning-making machines,” and that one way we make sense of the world around us is by attributing shortcomings to individuals and populations.

He argued that this line of thinking is used to justify acts of racist police violence, such as the murder of George Floyd and the beating of Rodney King. But, he added, we are not stuck with the structures we are given.

“We have to justify the world in which we live,” powell said, “or try to change it.”

The conversation shifted to the work of education. Even as race science has been debunked in academia, its impacts continue today. Darlene Francis, a Berkeley professor of public health and neuroscience, noted that methods of racial thinking persist within academic institutions.

“Our pedagogy and funding agencies are still saddled” with frameworks inherited from eugenicists, she said.

Leslea Hlusko, a Berkeley professor of integrative biology, added: “So much damage has been done in giving people these ideas that racialization is biology. … We have to figure out how to undo that in society.”

The panelists concurred that major shifts in scientific thinking must take place, as well as critical acknowledgement of the history of race science.

“We have these silos in the academy,” Hlusko observed, where academics are trapped within their disciplines. In order to break free from these confines, she urged for collaboration and cross-pollination. Academics need to explore beyond these silos, she said, to become “comfortable in the space in-between.”

Further Berkeley collaborations and conversations on the topic of race will take place later this month. The second installment of this panel and discussion series is scheduled for Sept. 25.