What we see when we see race

Even in the era of a black president, Americans are never far from conversation, argument, or conflict over race. But while racism is real, race itself is a mirage.

Pete Souza/The White House
President Barack Obama adjusts his tie in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House, following a private reception in honor of President Felipe Calderon of Mexico.

Like millions of Americans, President Obama filled out a census form earlier this year. When he came to question No. 9, he checked the box marked “Black, African Am., or Negro.” The son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, the president could have checked another racial category, or an additional one. The form allowed that. He could also have chosen “some other race.”

What the president did is what many people do. He identified with the race others see him as – a lifelong journey of discovery that he describes in his remarkably candid book “Dreams from My Father.”

While he is officially “America’s first black president,” Mr. Obama is also probably “America’s first multiracial president.” Probably. We know that he is multiracial; we don’t know if other presidents have been multiracial as well, since for much of US history the powerful never acknowledged having non-European blood.

The fact is, they all were multiracial, because we all are multiracial. Our roots go back to common ancestors in Africa about 100,000 years ago – the blink of an eye in evolutionary time. Humanity has developed a variety of different looks and designs as it has migrated out of Africa, but those differences are superficial, not biological. There are no subspecies of humans. In 2000, when they released a rough draft of the human genome, biologists Francis Collins and Craig Venter pointed out that human beings are 99.9 percent identical genetically.

As far back as 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization issued a statement by leading scientists that “ ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth.” Referring to the then-recent horrors of Nazism, UNESCO noted, “The myth of ‘race’ has created an enormous amount of human and social damage. In recent years it has taken a heavy toll in human lives and caused untold suffering. It still prevents the normal development of millions of human beings and deprives civilization of the effective co-operation of productive minds.”

UNESCO recommended dropping the term “race” and speaking instead of different ethnic groups.

It’s 60 years later. Why are we still talking about race? Because history’s shadow and entrenched prejudices cannot be wished away, especially in a country with as troubled a history of race relations as the United States. We’ve come a long way from slavery and Jim Crow. But as this special report from Patrik Jonsson makes clear, race can quickly reemerge as a national issue, with charges of racism and reverse racism and the tarring of political enemies and disliked policies with the “R” word.

The hall of mirrors of racism was seen vividly this summer when Shirley Sherrod, a black official with the US Department of Agriculture, was forced to resign for an apparently racist statement that later turned out to be a distorted version of her story of having overcome – not indulged in – prejudice. One of the early doubters of the veracity of the charge of racism against Ms. Sherrod was the conservative commentator Glenn Beck. He didn’t think it made sense.
That was the same Mr. Beck who a year ago called America’s first black president a “racist” during the controversy over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. Beck amended his view of Obama last month, saying sheepishly: “I have a big fat mouth and sometimes I say things. That’s just not the way people should behave.”

Agreed. Racism is not a term to be used lightly. It is real, even if race isn’t.

Science has already exploded the myth behind race. Demographics is doing its slow but inexorable work as well. Currently, about 2 percent of the US population describes itself as multiracial. That number is expected to rise significantly when the 2010 Census results are released next year. Seen another way, about a third of modern-day Americans are of mixed race when race is defined as including African, Hispanic, Asian, and native American ancestry in even the smallest degree.

The work of overcoming past and present prejudice will go on. But gradually we’ll come to see that there’s only one race. Barack Obama and Glenn Beck and you and I share the same planetary home. The door opened in Africa. The rooms are decorated in different ethnic styles collected in our 100,000 years of traveling.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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