Prologue: 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.
It is now 2017 and the issue of race and racism is emblazoned in the headlines once more. When thousands of white supremacists invaded Charlottesville, Virginia on Friday night, August 11, they brought racist bigotry and deadly violence with them. Ku Klux Klan, Neo Nazis and Skinheads were met by counter-protestors the following day. President Trump at a press conference the following Tuesday blamed “both sides” for the mob violence that ensued.
Today’s events brought back what happened in l968 when race exploded across the country. I approached 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. It was offered until 1983 when I took a leave of absence.
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 black 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. I learned as much that semester as the students.
History: The heart of the course, presented in both lecture and discussion 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 in Latin: Homo sapiens – man the wise.
Linnaeus then 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 described only native Americans.) He then added, from his ethnocentric point of view what he thought were characteristics of each group. Europaeus albus — superior, creative and lively. Asiaticus —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 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. These are scientific facts based on deep research studies.
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.
Now, in 2017, we need to separate reality from the myth of race. Human qualities are the result of genetic endowment and nurturing as we grow from infants to maturity, often called “Nature and Nurture”. Racism — the result of centuries of defining people by their skin color — permeates our society and our lives. It is linked inextricably to our country’s history with slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction as an aftermath. We need to separate reality from the myth of race. . Our democratic society has many levels of class and economic conditions. Where one is born and to whom, has an enormous effect upon the level of education, opportunity and success one will achieve in one’s lifetime.
…………………………………………………………………..Joyce S. Anderson
I’m glad to reread your blog from 2017. It is just as relevant as it was! I truly hope the USA is at a crossroads – certainly awareness of “racial” discrimination is increased but I’m not sure how that will translate into action.
This is a fine blog blending a narrative about the author’s own life and teaching with the topic of racism in America. The historical background about the origins of the concept of “race” is very instructive and illuminating. It is a must read.
It’s a brilliant piece with great clarity, mindfulness, and truth. And your last paragraph, hits the mark head-on. Interestingly, just today a panel on MSNBC was discussing Nature & Nurture as opposed to the chronic labeling groups by “race”. I wonder if any of those being interviewed had read your piece :-). History reveals that, this tendency to differentiate groups by skin color is the common denominator in exerting power and unjust influence (worse) over large populations all over the world. Democratic societies in particular, have yet to embrace one simple and logical axiom – if nothing else, for selfish reasons, everyone is better off when every human being is given the same opportunity to maximize their full potential without regard from whom they were born. Thank you, Joyce