How ‘race’ came into being

Race is an often implicit lens through which we view and understand the world. Acknowledging the fundamental role racism played in the founding of the United States is more urgent than ever, a panel of academics explained on Friday, Sept. 25, at a UC Berkeley online event.

“You really have to talk about whiteness when you talk about race,” said Gerald Horne, professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston, during a live panel discussion following a screening of part 2 of the documentary Race — The Power of an Illusion. 

Failure to acknowledge the history of whiteness presents it as a natural fact, rather than as a construct built over centuries. Even within Europe, each country and religious sect held its own views regarding the superiority of certain populations that we now call “white.”

“It’s a historical construction that’s had many bumps along the road to its eventual ‘triumph,’” Horne said.

The virtual event was held two weeks after the screening of the first part of the docuseries. The third part will be screened on Oct. 9. The series was organized by Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute in collaboration with the School of Public Health, the Center for Research on Social Change and the Center on Race and Gender.

The second episode of the docuseries traced how the story of race was created to rationalize the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Indigenous people in a nation founded on the principle that “all men are created equal.” The film cites Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia — in which he wrote that Black people are inferior in body and mind — as a foundational text in theories of race.

Notions of racial inferiority extended to Indigenous people, as well, the film explains. Many were displaced from their lands and killed or forced to assimilate into white society. 

In both cases, Black and Indigenous people were seen by white people as something other than “human” so that they could be stripped of rights and treated cruelly.

Acknowledging this history is essential during a time when the Trump administration has issued an executive order that bars federal agencies and contractors from expressing “divisive concepts,” such as the idea that “the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist.” 

But, as Horne noted, the Bill of Rights was “designed to keep people out.” 

Christianity was a fundamental force in constructing whiteness and uniting disparate European colonizers in opposition to non-white people, said Horne, adding that racism was an “essential tool of class-collaboration.”

Terence Keel, professor of African American studies at UCLA, pointed to the Christian origins of racial thought. He said that early Church doctrine conceptualized Christians as a “prototypical racial-ethnic identity” distinct from Jewish people, who were seen as “a type of primitive cultural precursor.” 

This framework was adapted into settler colonialism. As Christian colonizers arrived in North America, they found an Indigenous population they viewed as lost descendents of the Abrahamic faiths. “Thus, conversion was restoring them to their original Christian ancestry,” Keel said. 

He added that missionaries could convert, but not “manumit,” or set free, enslaved Africans. “Thus, whiteness, specifically Christianity and whiteness, become locked together,” he said.

Keel, who studies the intersection of religion and science, noted that a transition occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries, where science inherited Christianity’s position as the “objective, value-neutral arbiter of truth and knowledge” in western thought. In turn, he said, science reaffirmed the idea that certain transcendental laws — for example, biology and genetics, not social structures — “govern human beings.” 

Racial science emerged during this period to naturalize inequalities based on perceived differences, namely phenotypic race and skin color. 

Kim TallBear, professor of Native studies at the University of Alberta, warned that, even though this thought is discredited today, “it would be a mistake to call that pseudoscience, because that is, I think, to let science off the hook” of acknowledging their role in spreading eugenics.  

“Scientists are regular people,” said Lundy Braun, professor of medical science and Africana studies at Brown University. Braun expanded on TallBear’s point by adding that the questions, methodology and framework scientists use are all shaped by their social worlds. “Humans make science,” and so science has “a major social dimension,” she said.

Ignoring these social dimensions is dangerous, especially “when we think about health disparities, particularly in our present moment for Covid-19,” Keel said.

So, understanding all this, the panelists asked, how do we move forward?

The responsibility for scientists and other academics is to create new ways of thinking about the world. Braun stated that she is working to craft an anti-racist curriculum at Brown University’s medical school, but she urged that society needs to develop a language of anti-racism for everyday life. 

“We need a new type of scientist,” Keel said. Scientists will need to engage in a “project of imagination” to cultivate societies and futures beyond oppression. He continued, 

“The students that I teach, that come into my classroom, they’re witnessing the social revolution that’s happening over the last six months, and they’re frustrated, quite frankly, and exhausted with living in a world that functions like this,” he added, pointing to the verdict absolving Louisville police for the killing of Breonna Taylor.

Keel and TallBear offered a call to action for North American governments: Uphold treaties signed with Indigenous nations, respect their sovereignty by returning land and distribute reparations to Black people. 

To watch and read about the first installment of the docuseries, click here for “Race, the power of an illusion.” And if you missed the screening of Part 2, you can watch here. To RSVP for the third and final part of the series, click here. Renowned scholars Jason Corburn, Michael Omi, john a. powell, Leti Volpp and Rachel Morello-Frosch will be in conversation on Friday, Oct. 9, from 11a.m. to 1 p.m. Pacific Time.