Race: “Man’s Most Dangerous Myth”
When I began to teach at Atlantic Community College, the country had witnessed the Watts riots in Los Angeles in l965, inner city riots in Detroit and Newark in l967, and prolonged riots in cities nationwide after the assassination of Martin Luther King in l968. The pattern was the same; burning buildings and looted stores while most of the victims were the black residents of the neighborhoods that were destroyed. Police strategy was to contain the violence and destruction to the inner city area. The Kerner Commission that investigated the riots gave a comprehensive analysis of the underlying causes of the riots as well as the precipitating incidents. At the heart of their report was the deep anger and frustration of the black population within the inner cities who faced discrimination and prejudice in all areas of their daily lives — work, education, housing and police intimidation.
I decided to approach the Dean at Atlantic Community College to see if I could prepare a course syllabus on Race, Ethnicity, Prejudice and Discrimination. The country was exploding and I wanted to do something constructive in my new position. He asked me to give him a book to read before he made his decision. I gave him “Race: Man’s Most Dangerous Myth” by the anthropologist Ashley Montague. After he read the book, Dean Young gave me the go-ahead and I began teaching “The Individual and The Group” in the Spring semester of l969.
Twenty seven students signed up for the course offering, a night class once a week. I will never forget that first class. The average age of community college students was 28 and most of the class members were mature working people. There were also two Atlantic City High School seniors who were taking part in Project WILL, inter-racial learning and living. She was black and he was white. The future mayor of Pleasantville and his wife were in the class. There were Vietnam veterans as well as a fire fighter and a couple who were attendants at the state hospital, Ancora. There was almost an even number of black and white students.
The heart of the course ,which was presented in both lecture and discussion format, was the night for “Race: Man’s Most Dangerous Myth”. I began by asking the class , “ Please jot down in a phrase or sentence what the word ‘race’ means to you.” Their answers included: “ Different groups of people.” “Skin color.” “Different religions.” “Different backgrounds.” “Black, white, red, yellow.” and “Different nationalities”. Two people wrote “There’s no such thing as race.”
The lecture that evening took the students back to the l8th century when the concept of race as we know it began. Before that time — for thousands of years — discrimination and group hostilities grew from religion, class, caste, political and cultural differences. The man who inadvertently created the modern concept of race was a Swedish research botanist, Carl Linnaeus. In his passionate study of plant life, he developed a system of order — a way to classify according to kind and type — genus and specie. After he classified all plant life in The System of Nature (l735), he went on to classify every known animal as well. Finally, he came to humans whom he named Homo sapiens — man the wise.
Then Linnaeus took the next step and divided Homo sapiens into four sub groups. Europaeus albus, Asiaticus luridus, Afer niger, and Americanus rufus. He linked geographical location with skin color: white, yellow, black and red. The latter of course described only native Americans. He then added, from his ethnocentric point of view as a European, what he thought were characteristics of each group: Europaeus albus — superior, creative and lively. Asiaticus luridus –haughty, stern and opinionated. Afer niger — slow, negligent and cunning. Americanus rufus — easily contented, free and tenacious.
Linnaeus had used objective evidence when he classified plant and animal life. However, when he reached Homo sapiens, he became completely subjective and drew upon hearsay, random anecdotes and his imagination. He had never traveled to Asia, Africa or America. Nevertheless, the stereotypes were formed and the classification was picked up by other scientists who were intrigued with measuring physical differences among human beings. A veritable frenzy ensued, measuring cranial indices, ears, noses, hair texture and other permanent features of adult humans.
Linnaeus did state that his categories were arbitrary groupings and he never used the word race. The term was coined by George Buffon, a French naturalist, for the first time in l749 when he decided there were six groups of human beings. It is supremely ironic that skin color was chosen as the prime measure of difference since skin color is not a permanent physical trait. It is an adaptable trait, affected by such factors as sun, disease, emotion and pregnancy. It is also clear that true colors — white, black, yellow and red of a painter’s palette never appear in actual skin pigmentation Complete lack of color in an albino is the closest to white. The genes that transmit skin color are very complex in contrast to the genes for eye color. And most significant, there is a range of skin color within every human group that is far greater than the differences between the groups.
Ashley Montague called race the “witchcraft of our times.” He knew that people believe in myths. And if something is defined as real, it is real in its consequences. The two skeptical students in my class who wrote, “There is no such thing as race.” sensed what was correct. However, racism — the result of centuries of defining people by their skin color — permeates our society and our lives.