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Home > Publications > Quill > Do you know race when you see it?


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Monday, April 2, 2007
Do you know race when you see it?

By Sally Lehrman, SPJ diversity committee chairwoman

Is race biology?

Is race culture and society?

Is it history or ancestry?

Most of us think we know about race, but many of our assumptions are wrong. That’s what the scientists who developed “RACE: Are We So Different?” have concluded after thousands of visitors have passed through the exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

“People don’t know the science behind it, or how deeply embedded their social notions of race are,” says Yolanda Moses, who headed up the advisory committee of 25 experts that worked five years to put together the traveling exhibit, Web site and accompanying educational materials.

She and other race-project collaborators spoke about their work at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

Humans share a common ancestry and fundamentally, the collaborators emphasize, race has no biological or natural foundation. The physical variations we see among us fall along a continuum built by marriage, migration and change over time. Yet we tend to see and experience racial categories as discrete and innate. That’s because the ideas we grew up with about race and difference continue to color our day-to-day lives and our world view.

We do live out the social categories of race, which our institutions originally helped create and still often help sustain. Consider U.S. Census categories, which have been used for generations as a means to classify people for the purposes of slave ownership and immigration controls. Accordingly, they have changed over the years. The term “mulatto” appeared in 1860, then disappeared by 1930. “Asiatic” people became important to count in 1860 as well, while “Chinese” people had their own category the following decade. Today, with rapid demographic change and the rise of identity politics, former Census Director Kenneth Prewitt told the audience, “at no time has our racial classification system been as unstable as today.”

Moses, an anthropologist at UC-Riverside, said in an interview that journalists have a responsibility to help the public understand what race is and what it isn’t, and most importantly, develop a vocabulary to talk about it. We must probe claims built into discussions about race, and even the meaning we ascribe to the language people use. All too often, we cover race as a simple, well-understood phenomenon.

“There’s a much more sophisticated story there,” says Moses, who studies social inequality in complex societies and is vice provost for diversity at the university.

What is the discussion about Barack Obama’s race really about, for instance? The San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Obama … doesn’t fit the stereotype of a black leader, a church-based fighter for civil rights. He was president of the Harvard Law Review. He is the son of a Kenyan immigrant and a white Kansas woman. He has many white supporters. And he is running to win, not just to fix black America.”

What does racial terminology mean today, and where does that meaning come from? What gives it validity? What assumptions about these questions did the Chronicle make?

Who decides how any of us should identify? Is the standard different for politicians?

When Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old black girl, was shot by Hispanics in Harbor City, Calif., newspapers across the country declared an epidemic of racial hatred in the Los Angeles area. Because Jill Leovy at the Los Angeles Times follows homicides closely, she knew the explanation fell short. She investigated and wrote in The Homicide Blog, “Among detectives and police officers who deal daily with homicides, the prevailing view is that the race problem — for now, anyway — remains marginal.” Across the country, killings seldom cross racial lines, she reported.

Sometimes race is the easy explanation, sometimes it’s the easy thing to avoid. But we owe it to ourselves and our audiences to focus some light on the subject.

While race might seem a matter for the team assigned to cover communities of color, no beat should sidestep its questions. We all cover people and society, and race remains central to our history and our current relationships in business, culture, government and health.

“We can’t be colorblind,” Moses says. “We live in a racialized, socially stratified world.”

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