RACE - THE POWER OF AN ILLUSION
EPISODE ONE: THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN US
(00:46 - DVD Scene #2)
NARRATOR: There is no question that individual human beings
are different, one from the other. Our eyes confirm this day
in and day out. Skin color. Body shape. Hair form. Eye shape.
For several hundred years we have used these visual differences
to classify people into four or five groups we call races.
PILAR OSSORIO, Legal Scholar / Microbiologist: We have
a notion of race as being divisions among people that are deep,
that are essential that are somehow biological or even genetic,
and that are unchanging - that these are clear cut distinct
categories of people.
RICHARD LEWONTIN, Evolutionary Geneticist: And the beauty
of the race business is that you can identify people by just
looking at them. You don't even have to look at their genes
because one manifestation of their genes is there - namely skin
color or eye shape or hair shape - and then that's the key to
NARRATOR: The idea of race assumes that simple external
differences, rooted in biology, are linked to other, more complex
internal differences. Like athletic ability. Musical aptitude.
Intelligence. This belief is based on the idea that race is
OSSORIO: All of our genetics now is telling us that
that's not the case. We can't find any genetic markers that
are in everybody of a particular race and in nobody of some
other race. We can't find any genetic markers that define race.
SCOTT BRONSON, DNA Workshop Leader: And actually, what
we're going to generate are billions of copies of a little section
of your, of your genetic code.
NARRATOR: These students are gathering for a DNA workshop
led by Cold Spring Harbor Labs teacher, Scott Bronson. Marcus,
Gorgeous, Jackie, Noah, Hannah, Jamil and their fellow students
are about to explore the biology of human variation.
BRONSON: But there's another type of DNA. Does anyone
know what that type of DNA is?
STUDENT (off camera): Mitochondrial?
BRONSON: Mitochondrial DNA...very good.
NARRATOR: They will compare their skin colors. They will
type their blood. And they will swab cells from inside their
mouths to extract a small portion of their own DNA. Once the
sample is ready, they will compare some of their genetic similarities
and differences. The students begin the workshop with the same
assumptions most of us have.
BRONSON: As you begin to look at the data, you might
want to keep in your mind, who you think you might be most similar
to and who you think you might be most different to.
NOAH: I think I probably have the most similarities
with, uh, Mr. Bronson or with Kiril because we are white males,
both Kiril and I and both Scott Bronson and I.
JAMIL: I think I have the most differences with Kiril
and the most similarities with Gorgeous. She's African American,
I'm African American. I mean, like Black.
HANNAH: I think maybe me and Natalia are most alike.
She's Latin American, and I'm Latin American. I figured that
there would be tons of differences especially with people who
looked so different.
ALAN GOODMAN, Biological Anthropologist: To understand
why the idea of race is a biological myth requires a major paradigm
shift, an absolute paradigm shift, a shift in perspective. And
for me, it's like seeing, you know, what it must have been like
to understand that the world isn't flat. And perhaps I can invite
you to a mountain top and you can look out the window and at
the horizon and see, "oh what I thought was flat I can see a
curve in now," that the world is much more complicated. In fact,
that race is not based on biology but race is rather an idea
that we ascribe to biology.
(05:23 - DVD Scene #3)
NARRATOR: The idea of race as biology is ferociously persistent
on America's playing fields. Gorgeous Harper and her teammates
are competing at the Adidas Nationals.
GORGEOUS: I love to run track - I've been running track
since I was eight years old. The people I train with, they all
want to be the best - and you gotta put in the hard work.
NARRATOR: This is the top event for elite high school track
and field stars. And while racial differences are not necessarily
discussed openly, they are often part of the careful calculation
of competitive edge.
FEMALE RUNNER: Well, I've heard, some rumors
I've heard are just like Blacks have an extra muscle in their
leg. But I don't think anything's true.
SECOND FEMALE RUNNER: I assume that a white girl can't
beat me in the 200. In my mind I don't think she can beat me,
but I won't, I won't sleep on her.
MALE RUNNER: I don't want to get too controversial here,
since I really don't know exactly. But I'd say that there's
maybe a little bit that - not to use as an excuse as why they
beat me sometimes - but maybe, considering when you, when you
look at the Olympics, you know, who, who tends to dominate the
100, the 200 and the quarter, for the most part. I'd just have
to say the way it all falls out tends to point to what your
JON ENTINE (in news clip): I'm really saying that different
populations, whether it's West African descended Blacks, and
that's what African Americans trace their ancestry to West Africa,
or East Africans, or whites or Asians, they all have different
body types and different physiological structures that allow
them to have advantages in one sport or another. There's a genetic
basis for these kinds of differences. Through, uh, culture,
environment, training, athletes can't dramatically change the
limits of what they can be.
JIM BROWN (in news clip): I would like to say to Jon
there is no scientific definition that holds up about race.
Race has changed its definition in this country to the benefit
of those who wanted to define it differently. And there is no
scientific place to start from, so you have no basis for your
(07:50 - DVD Scene #4)
NARRATOR: We can see differences among populations, but
can populations be bundled into what we call races? How many
races would there be? Five? Fifty-five? Who decides? And how
different would they really be from one another?
JOSEPH GRAVES, Evolutionary Biologist: The measured
amount of genetic variation in the human population is extremely
small. And that is something that, that people need to wrap
themselves around. That genetically, we really aren't very different.
NARRATOR: In fact, genetically, we are among the most similar
of all species. Only one out of every thousand nucleotides that
make up our genetic code is different, one individual from another.
These look-alike penguins have twice the amount of genetic difference,
one from the other, than humans. And these fruit flies? Ten
times more difference. Any two fruit flies may be as different
genetically from each other, as a human is from a chimpanzee.
So the central question for us is: of the small amount of variation
between us, what if any, is mapped along what we think of as
Because we live in a racialized society, this is not an
academic question. We have a long history of searching for racial
differences and attributing performance and behavior to them.
For two hundred years, scientists poked and prodded, measured
and mapped the human body searching for a biological basis to
race. Some measured facial angle to illustrate the proximity
of races to the primitive. Others calibrated skull size to identify
those with superior or inferior intelligence. Measures of eye
shape, hair form, even brain color were scrutinized in the hunt
for the fundamental sources of racial difference.
EVELYNN HAMMONDS, Historian of Science: If we just take
African Americans as an example, there's not a single body part
that hasn't been subjected to this kind of analysis. You'll
find articles in the medical literature about the Negro ear,
and the Negro nose, and the Negro leg, and the Negro heart,
and the Negro eye, and the Negro foot - and it's every single
And they're constantly looking for some organ that might be
so fundamentally different in size and character that you can
say this is something specific to the Negro versus whites and
Scientists are part of their social context. Their ideas about
what race is are not simply scientific ones, are not simply
driven by the data that they are working with. That it's also
informed by the societies in which they live.
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NARRATOR: At the turn of the 20th century, American society
was riding a wave of confidence as an emerging industrial power.
And the face of its power and prosperity was white.
African Americans lived under the yoke of Jim Crow segregation.
Most surviving Native Americans had been banished to reservations.
And new immigrants crowded into urban ghettos. Disease was rampant.
Death rates soared. Infant mortality was high. To many, this
reflected a preordained natural order.
HAMMONDS: Those that looked, wanted to confirm what
they saw, which is to say that the proper place of, say the
Negro, or in other regions of the country, the Native American,
or the Chinese, were at the bottom of the, the social and political
hierarchy. And if you can say that they are fundamentally biologically
different, than they should be, then it's natural for them to
be at the bottom of our social hierarchy.
GOODMAN: The biology becomes an excuse for social differences.
The social differences become naturalized in biology. It's not
that our institutions cause differences in infant mortality,
it's that there really are biological differences between the
NARRATOR: For Prudential Life Insurance statistician, Frederick
Hoffman, those differences could lead to only one fate for African
Americans. "In vital capacity," he wrote, "the tendency of the
Negro race has been downward. This tendency must lead to a still
greater mortality. And in the end, cause the extinction of the
Hoffman's Race, Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro
was published in 1896, the same year the Supreme Court legalized
segregation. It was one of the most influential publications
of its day.
HAMMONDS: What's interesting is that it resonated in
the minds of so many other social observers of the time, the
extinction thesis. It, it fit into their notions of how, uh,
races become ascendant in the world. They looked at other groups
of people in various stages beneath them as approaching the
completely civilized stage.
NARRATOR: Hoffman presented his statistical data as unimpeachable
science. He compared rates of death and disease between African
Americans and whites, and, not surprisingly, found enormous
disparities. But his data analysis was flawed. He ignored the
insidious effects of poverty and social neglect on health.
In contrast to today's belief in Black physical superiority,
Hoffman concluded that African Americans were innately infirmed.
As such, attempts to improve their housing, health and education
would be futile. Their extinction was inevitable, encoded in
(15:28 - DVD Scene #6)
By the 1920s, a single drop of blood reflecting African
ancestry was enough to identify any individual as Black, and
inferior in every way. In the not-so-distant past, many of these
students would have been considered contaminants were they to
have bred into the superior white race. Twenty-eight states
passed laws forbidding intermarriage to safeguard white racial
Racial purification was one aim of the Eugenics movement.
The science of eugenics rested on simple Mendelian genetics.
One gene each from father and mother, it was believed, gave
rise to any trait, physical, behavioral, even moral.
GRAVES: Some of these things were things like the ability
to play chess, rowdiness, congenital feeble mindedness. Um,
uh, virtually any cultural or behaviorial trait you could imagine.
Now, the mistake that they were making was assuming that complex
behaviors could be reduced to simple Mendelian genes.
NARRATOR: Nonetheless, eugenicists used the science of the
day to advance a social agenda widely accepted in white America
- to breed the best and the brightest, always white, and breed
out society's worst and weakest of all colors.
HAMMONDS: There's a lot of concern about race mixing.
You don't want a superior race, a race with great qualities
of intellect and achievement and musical genius, and these kinds
of things, to mix with a race on a lower stage of civilization
that has fewer of these characteristics because that again would
bring down the level of those characteristics and what you want
to have for your civilization.
NARRATOR: What you did not want for your civilization was
found in the Blue Hills of Virginia. Mongrel Virginians. Mixed
race. Unclassifiable, and worse, able to pass for white, circumvent
segregation laws and breed into the white race.
They were called the WIN Tribe for their white, Indian and
Negro ancestry. "A combination of the worst racial traits, a
badly put together people", said Charles Davenport, leader of
the American Eugenics movement.
To keep America's mongrels at bay, eugenicists proposed
a series of restrictive measures unthinkable today. Yet they
were adopted within and outside of America. Taken to their extreme,
they fueled one of the century's greatest horrors.
GRAVES: The Nazi propaganda machine pointed out that
their eugenic policies were entirely consistent and in fact
derived from, ideas of American race scientists.
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NARRATOR: At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Hitler's Aryan
race was to have confirmed its place at the top of nature's
hierarchy. But the star of the games would shatter those expectations.
As a child, Jesse Owens had been chronically ill, destined
it seemed to fulfill Hoffman's extinction thesis. Until a teacher
intervened. "When he first asked me to go out for the track
team in fifth grade," Owens wrote in his autobiography, "it
wasn't because he saw any potential champion in me; it was because
he saw a potential corpse."
How could a society steeped in the science of racial inferiority
reconcile itself to Owens's four gold medals? By conceding innate
athletic superiority to African Americans while denying them
so-called civilized capacities. In the words of American team
coach Dean Cromwell, the Negro athlete excelled because he was
"closer to the primitive…it was not so long ago that his ability
to sprint and jump was a life and death matter to him in the
ANNOUNCER (in film clip): To Owens, star of the squad,
go the laurels of the champion.
JESSE OWENS (in film clip): The competition was grand,
and we're very glad to come out on top. Thank you very kindly.
A flurry of debate between racial scientists and those contesting
their assumptions greeted Owens's accomplishments.
GOODMAN: With the rise of the great Negro athletes in
the 1930s, it became this question that there must be a reason
that they're great, and that that reason must reside in biology
rather than in, in culture or history or circumstance. And Jesse
Owens was picked apart.
HAMMONDS: When the African American anthropologist and
physician Montague Cobb is trying to explain why Jesse Owens
was such an outstanding track star, he does so by talking about
his body. He talks about his feet, he talks about his legs,
his calves, his chest capacity. And he comes to the conclusion,
of course, that, you know, you can't say that Negroes have some
special characteristics that make them more fit as runners.
NARRATOR: Among the few who challenged racial science, Cobb
wrote, "There is not one, single, physical feature, including
skin color, which all our Negro champions have in common which
would identify them as Negro."
But what marker would identify them as Negro, in the first
place. Jackie as Asian? Noah as white? Gorgeous as Black?
GOODMAN: Think about race in its universality. Where
is your measurement device? There is no way to measure race.
We sometimes do it by skin color, other people may do it by
hair texture - other people may have the dividing lines different
in terms of skin color. What is black in the United States is
not what's black in Brazil or what's black in South Africa.
(23:09 - DVD Scene #8)
STEPHEN JAY GOULD, Paleontologist: My favorite trivia
question in baseball is which Italian-American player for the
Brooklyn Dodgers once hit 40 home runs in a season and no one
ever gets it right, because the answer is Roy Campanella, who
is as Italian as he was Black. He had an Italian father and
a Black mother, he's always classified as Black. You see, American
racial classification is totally cultural. Who's Tiger Woods?
Who's Colin Powell? Colin Powell's as Irish as he is African.
Being Black has been defined as just looking dark enough that
anyone can see you are.
HAMMONDS: When I was a child, one of the things my father
bought me was a set of Time-Life books on science. And a book
on evolution had in it a skin color scale that went from one
to thirty-six. And I would spend hours putting my arm against
the scale in the book, the picture in the book, trying to figure
out what number my color was. And I couldn't quite find myself
on the scale.
GORGEOUS: You can be either 19 or 20.
STUDENT: Who would be this color, you or me?
GOREOUS: Let me say me.
MARCUS: I'd say that Jon and Noah, both white by appearance,
and Jackie and I both fit under the Asian classification. But
I guess the thing that surprised me was with the skin color
test, you know, what should you technically call the entire
JON: I would never know that all our, all our skin colors
are so similar.
JACKIE: I bet I match you.
JON: Exactly, like we match.
MARCUS: Should you call them all white or should you
call them eleven to fifteen? You know?
NOAH: I'm white.
NOAH: Would I trade my skin color?…um…I probably wouldn't
trade my skin color. It's something that I've taken for granted.
It's also a privilege, I guess.
NOAH: I think 13 is closer.
JACKIE: Wow, we're like all 13.
NOAH: There's no profit in denying it, that, um, that
there is a certain advantage to being white.
GORGEOUS: It's not why I'm B negative, you know what
NARRATOR: We all have the same 35,000 or so genes, but over
time mutations cause variations in our DNA. Today, some genes,
like those for skin color, come in different forms.
MARY-CLAIRE KING, Geneticist: In a few genes that control
the colors of melanin in our skin, different alleles, different
mutations occurred that were positively selected so that many
of us with very light skin lost the capacity to make dark melanin.
NARRATOR: Dark melanin blocks out some ultraviolet light
and is found where sunlight is intense. Lighter melanin is found
where sunlight is less intense. Scientists debate why this is.
KING: One hypothesis is that it happened because sunlight
is essential to have adequate vitamin D. In northern latitudes
with very little light during the winter, one needed every bit
of light that one could capture in order to be able to have
adequate, active vitamin D. And children in particular, would
need to have, would need to be able to absorb into their skin
enough light to have vitamin D present to keep them healthy.
GRAVES: The best way to understand the genetic differences
that we find in human populations is that populations differ
by distance, and it's a continuous change, um, from one group
to another. And one way we can look at this is use the example
of skin color. If we were to only look at people in the tropics
and people in Norway, we'd come to the conclusion that there's
a group of people who have light skin and there's a group of
people who have dark skin. But if we were to walk from the tropics
to Norway, what we would see is a continuous change in skin
tone. And at no point along that trip would we be able to say,
"Oh, this is the place in which we go from the dark race to
the light race.
(28:03 - DVD Scene #9)
GOODMAN: Human biological variation is so complex. There
is so many aspects of human variation. So there are many, many
ways to begin to explain them.
NARRATOR: Variation in some traits. Like eye shape, hair
texture, whether or not your tongue curls, involves very few
genes. And even those genes haven't all been identified.
Variation in traits we regard as socially important is much
more complicated. Differences in how our brains work, how we
make art, how gracefully we move.
Genes may contribute to variation in these traits, but to
the extent they do, there would be a cascade of genes at work,
interacting with each other and the environment, in relationships
so intricate and complex, that science has hardly begun to decipher
LEWONTIN: People are always talking about genes for
things, the genes for athletic ability, the genes for making
money, the genes for intelligence. And you have to be very careful.
Even when there are genes that influence those things, to talk
about it as genes for them is not so clear.
OSSORIO: What makes us different is both those genetic
differences that we have between us and also the interaction
of that genome with the environment, and the environment is
a very, very complicated thing. So when I say, I sort of mean
the environment writ large, everything from the environment
in the womb to the environment in your school.
NARRATOR: In the urban environment of the 1930s, Jewish
teams dominated American basketball. Sons of immigrants, theirs
were the hoop dreams of the day.
GRAVES: And it was said that the reason that they were
so good at basketball was because the, the artful dodger characteristic
of the Jewish culture made them good at this sport. There are
strong cultural aspects of what sports individuals choose to
play that has to do with the interaction of individual genetic
background of opportunity and training. History shows us, that
as opportunities change in society, different groups get drawn
into sporting arenas.
NARRATOR: By 1992, America's Olympic Dream team was almost
completely African American. Ten years later, almost 20% of
NBA starters would be foreign born. The top NBA draft pick?
GRAVES: We can't come to any fast hard rule about how,
uh, genetic ancestry is going to influence the ability of an
individual to perform an athletic event. So I don't think we're
ever going to be able to isolate a gene for athletic performance.
NARRATOR: Or a gene for any complex trait. If genes contribute
to Marcus' musical talent, there would be dozens, interacting
with environment, training, and practice. Those genes would
be inherited independently of the genes for eye shape, skin
color and hair form which Marcus inherited through his Korean
- and Jamaican ancestors.
(32:20 - DVD Scene #10)
GOODMAN: For race to be more than skin deep, one has
to have concordance. In other words, skin color needs to reflect
things that are deeper in the body, under the skin. But most
of human variation is non-concordant. Skin color or eye color
or hair color is not correlated with height or weight. And they're
definitely not correlated with more complex traits like intelligence
or athletic performance.
KIRIL (off-camera): Wait, who is the person you said
was going to be most similar? Jamil right?
GORGEOUS: Yeah, what's his number?
KIRIL: He's 34.
NARRATOR: The tools of modern genetics allow the students
to explore the idea of race and concordance. From the beginning,
they believed they would be most similar genetically to those
whose racial ancestry they believed they shared.
KIRIL: Who did you say was going to be most different?
GORGEOUS: Noah, and he's...
NARRATOR: They have now sequenced a small loop of their
KING: If we want a very fine scale for assessing how
similar we are to each other, person by person, we can do that
by sequencing that small bit of mitochondrial DNA.
NARRATOR: mtDNA is a second set of DNA, found at the cell's
mitochondria. It does not code for any traits, and is inherited
only from our mother.
KING: Now, what will it tell us? It will tell us a whole
lot about one of our ancestors, our mother's mother's mother's
NARRATOR: The students' mtDNA appears as the letters A,
C, T, and G, representing the four nucleotides that define our
DNA. The students are sampling a small sequence, about three-hundred
and fifty letters long. They find that most of it is identical,
one to the other. What is not, is highlighted in yellow.
GORGEOUS: Cause I'm different. I'm, I'm really different.
NARRATOR: Jamil thought he'd have the fewest mtDNA differences
JAMIL: I was more like Kiril than I was than Gorgeous.
She has like twelve differences, and like Kiril is like a white,
tall, blond…from Russia, and, and, and, like, we seem completely
different but it's less differences.
JON: But I think it's hard to tell because we don't...
NARRATOR: Jon thought he'd have fewest differences with
Kiril and with Noah. In fact, Jon discovered that he had the
same number of differences with Kiril as he had with Jackie,
GORGEOUS: I don't think mine is going to show up close
NARRATOR: If human variation were to map along racial lines,
people in one so-called race would be more similar to each other
than to those in another so-called race.
That's not what the students found in their mtDNA. What
about other genetic differences?
(35:56 - DVD Scene #11)
LEWONTIN: The problem for evolutionists and population
geneticists was always to try to actually characterize how much
genetic variation there was between individuals and groups.
And I spent a lot of time worrying about that, like other people
in my profession.
NARRATOR: In the 1960s, Richard Lewontin decided to find
out just how much genetic variation fell within, and how much
between, the groups we regard as races. A new technology enabled
him to do pioneering work.
LEWONTIN: And that method, which is called gel electrophoresis,
a very fancy name, uh, we were able to use on any organism at
all. If you could grind it up, you could do it. Uh, that included
people, I mean, you don't have to grind the whole person, but
you could take a little tissue, or blood.
Over the years, a lot of data were gathered by anthropologists
and geneticists looking at blood group genes, and protein genes,
and other kinds of genes from all over the world. I mean, anthropologists
just went around taking blood out of everybody. Uh, uh, I, I
must say, if I were a South American Indian, I wouldn't have
let them take my blood. But uh, but they did, and so, I thought,
'well, we've got enough of these data, let's see what it tells
us about the differences between human groups.'
NARRATOR: Lewontin's findings were a milestone in the study
of race and biology.
LEWONTIN: If you put it all together, and we've now
got that for proteins, for blood groups, and now with DNA sequencing,
we have it for DNA sequence differences, it always comes out
the same. 85% of all the variation among human beings is between
any two individuals within any local population. Between individuals
within Sweden, or within the Chinese, or the Kikuyus, or the
NARRATOR: To put it another way, of the small amount of
variation in our genes, there is apt to be as much difference
between Gorgeous and her teammate Christine, as there is between
Gorgeous and her opponent Kaylin. Any two individuals within
any so-called race may be as different from each other as they
are from any individual in another so-called race.
(38:18 - DVD Scene #12)
OSSORIO: Are the people who we call Black more like
each other than they are like people who we call white, genetically
speaking? Um, the answer is no. There's as much or more diversity
and genetic difference within any racial group as there is between
people of different racial groups.
NARRATOR: Still we know that some genes are found with greater
frequency in some populations.
GOODMAN: And geography is the better way to explain
that more than race or anything else. There can be accumulations
of genes in one place in the globe and not another.
NARRATOR: Like the gene forms regulating skin color. And
for some genetic diseases, like sickle cell disease. Long assumed
to be a racial trait, sickle cell disease is a debilitating
disorder caused by a gene form that alters the shape of red
ERIC NISBET-BROWN, M.D.: It's one of the misconceptions
that sickle cell disease is an African-American or an African
disease. The sickle cell trait is not uncommon in people from
the, in people from the Mediterranean region. In fact, in some
parts of Greece, up to 30% of people in the population may carry
sickle cell trait. Sickle cell trait persists in certain populations
around the world because of the relative resistance it confers
to malaria. So people who've got sickle cell trait are less
likely to develop malaria and when they do develop it, they
are less likely to develop severe complications and to die from
NARRATOR: Where malaria was common, the sickling gene was
selected. In Arabia, South Asia, Central and Western - but not
Southern Africa. And in the Mediterranean basin, the home of
Jackie Washburn's ancestors. Thought to have originated only
a few thousand years ago, sickle cell is not a racial trait.
It's the result of having ancestors who lived in malarial regions.
(40:46 - DVD Scene #13)
Race does not account for patterns of genetic variation.
Our recency as a species and the way we have moved and mated
throughout our history, does. Our human lineage originated in
Africa. About two million years ago, small groups of early hominids
- not modern humans -- began a first migration out of Africa
to the far reaches of the globe, breeding isolated lineages.
It was long thought, and is still believed by some, that those
first lineages led to genetically distinct races that are with
GOULD: It turns out that's not true. I think there's
almost genetic proof now - I wouldn't say the issue is totally
resolved -- that those lineages just died out. That Neanderthals
in Europe died. That homo erectus in Asia died. That there was
a second migration of our modern species homo sapiens, and that
all modern humans are products of the second migration, which
is probably less than a hundred thousand years old, by the best
GOODMAN: Some of those movements may follow major migrations
as agricultural people came into Europe, as people crossed the
Bering Strait and came into the Americas.
But, other movements are much more subtle. They're smaller
groups of individuals that moved, or their genes moved from
place to place, and time to time.
We've had maybe a hundred thousand years of having genes move
out and mix and re-sort in countless different ways.
NARRATOR: A hundred thousand years may seem like a long
time, but in evolutionary terms, it is a blink of the eye. Human
populations have not been isolated from each other long enough
to evolve into separate subspecies.
GOULD: There just hasn't been time for the development
of much genetic variation, except that which regulates some
very superficial features like skin color and hair form. For
once, the old cliché is true. Under the skin, we really are
effectively the same. And we get fooled, because some of the
visual differences are quite noticeable.
(43:33 - DVD Scene #14)
NARRATOR: The superficial traits we use to construct race
are recent variations. By the time they arose, important and
complicated traits, like speech, abstract thinking, even physical
prowess, had already evolved.
KING: As geneticists, we now have the opportunity to
investigate, using proper genomic analysis, complex human traits:
athletic ability, musical ability, intelligence, all these wonderful
traits that we wish we understood better and for which we'd
very much like to know if there are genes that are involved,
how they interact, how they play out. Those traits are old.
We spent most of our history, as a species, together in Africa
in small populations before anyone left. There's far more of
us now than those small, original populations that founded our
species. Each of us carries with us some very recent variation
and some common, shared variation that goes way back in human
(45:17 - DVD Scene #15)
NARRATOR: Variations among us in those old traits developed
independent of and non-concordant with variations in the recent,
superficial traits we think of as racial. Human variation does
not map onto what we call race. No matter how we might measure
BRONSON: So now it's going to this gigantic database
of DNA. And you're going to blast this database with your DNA
sequence, and it's going to pull up anything that's significantly
similar. And now...
NARRATOR: The final exercise of the DNA workshop, offered
the students further evidence of the genetic variation within
groups. They compared their mitochondrial DNA sequences with
an international database.
BRONSON: One, two, three, four differences...
NARRATOR: Gorgeous's sequence was most similar to that of
a Yoruban individual in Nigeria.
GORGEOUS: That's the closest person.
BRONSON: And that's, you were saying that's the closest
person that you'd match up. Now does that necessarily mean you're
BRONSON: No. It just means that there's somebody in
this part, whoever, in this part of the world, has a very similar
DNA sequence to you.
BRONSON: And remember, if we look at other people within
this Yoruban group, I expect to see other forms of mitochondrial
NARRATOR: And they did. Her match was dramatically different
from another Yoruban's, whose DNA sequence was very different
from still other Yorubans. Because modern humans first evolved
in Africa, there is even greater genetic diversity in Africa
GRAVES: So, if there were a catastrophe which destroyed
the rest of the world's population, most of the genetic variability
in the world would still be present in sub-Saharan Africans.
(46:54 - DVD Scene #16)
NARRATOR: Genetic data, can subvert racial assumptions about
BRONSON: We'll look and see how many differences, we
NARRATOR: Jackie's data search matched her with a sequence
from an individual in the Balkans.
BRONSON (off-camera): So you were expecting something
maybe more Japanese?
JACKIE: Yes, definitely something more Japanese instead
of Balkan. At all.
NOAH: If I actually know my maternal lineage, like I
know where it should end up, doing a search like this should
double-check it, right?
BRONSON (off-camera): What's your preconceived notion?
NOAH: My preconceived notion is, um, we know back from
my great-great-great grandmother, and she had lived in Eastern
Europe her whole life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a little
town in the Ukraine, as far as I understand.
BRONSON (off-camera): But remember this little town
in the Ukraine may have many different mitochondrial DNA sequences
within it. So let's go back and we'll look at yours. And isolate
from the Balkans. Not a major shock there. Uh, let's see how
similar you are to that person.
NOAH: And we had always guessed that my great grandmother
had been this nice little farm girl who had spent her whole
life in the Ukraine. And so I was pretty sure that I should
be a pretty exact match to one of those ethnic groups, and I
was. 100% match.
BRONSON (background): So I'm going to compare you with
someone in Iceland.
NOAH (background): Wow. Yeah, again, huh...
NOAH: We also pulled up a sequence from Iceland.
BRONSON (background): So what does that tell you?
NOAH: And we pulled up a third sequence from somewhere
in Africa, and I was also a 100% match.
BRONSON: That's a 100% match. That's very significant.
NOAH: That's weird.
BRONSON: Well, what it's showing you is not, that you're
closely related to this person, may-, possibly, mitochondrially
speaking, and that we're all very closely related...
NOAH: So that somewhat shocked me, actually, that there
were so many of these racial groups that shared it. I'm just
a mutt so to speak. I've been crossbred and inter-bred with
lots of different ethnic groups.
BRONSON: Let's see if it gets more interesting than
GOODMAN: I think the way to think about things is that
we're all mongrels, we've always been mixing, every single one
of us is a mongrel.
NARRATOR: Today's genetic findings corroborate Richard Lewontin's
discoveries of thirty years ago. Because of our history of moving,
mating, and mixing, most human variation, especially that of
older complex traits, can be found within any population. Most
of it from a common source: in Africa.
(49:47 - DVD Scene #17)
GOULD: We have now understood genetic variation in human
beings. I'm not saying our knowledge is fixed for all time -
it never is, but I think we have seen just how shallow and superficial
the average differences are among human races even though in
certain features like skin color and hair form the visual differences
are fairly striking. They're based on almost nothing in terms
of overall genetic variation.
GOODMAN: Race as biology simply doesn't work, but what
is important is that race is a very salient social and historical
concept, a social and historical idea. We live in racial smog.
OSSORIO: Just because race isn't something biological,
that doesn't mean it's not real. There are a lot of things in
our society that are real and are not biological. Race as we
understand it, as a social construct, has a lot to do with where
somebody will live, what schools they will go to, what jobs
they will get, whether or not they will have health insurance.
NARRATOR: Black, white and brown are merely skin colors.
But we attach to them meanings and assumptions, even laws, that
create enduring social inequality.
NOAH: When I'm walking the streets alone at night, coming
home from parties and stuff, I never get a sideways glance at
people asking what I'm doing there. If a woman is stumbling
with her shopping bags and I stop and say, 'would you like a
hand?' I never get a sort of a glance with two meanings it's
always, 'Oh nice white boy you can help.'
GRAVES: On my own campus, uh, when I walk to classes,
students often come up to me and ask me if I'm the football
coach or the basketball coach, and I tell them, 'No, I am a
professor in the department of Life Sciences.'
HANNAH: It's easy to be white, it's very easy to be
white. It's never been easy for Africans or African Americans
here, never. It's been a long, long time, you know, since, the
abolition of slavery, you know, African-American slavery, in,
in this country. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter, those
ideas are still around.
NARRATOR: No matter how they view themselves, the world
sees Jackie, Gorgeous and Jon as separate races. The social
expectations that await them are in many ways dependent upon
that racial assignment.
Would our expectation about Gorgeous be that she is a champion
athlete, or valedictorian of her class? In fact, Gorgeous is
both. But since the days of Jesse Owens, our society has more
readily acknowledged and more avidly rewarded one of her talents
over the other.
If the playing field were level, the array of opportunities
open to Gorgeous and her teammates would not be limited by assumptions
society makes about the nature of the genes they inherited.
KING: Lots of things are inherited that don't have anything
to do with genes. Money is inherited. And money goes a long
way in increasing someone's capacity to do well in one area
NARRATOR: Off the track, the playing field is not level.
The net worth of the average white American family is eight
times that of the average African American family.
HAMMONDS: Race is a concept that was invented to categorize
the perceived biological, social, and cultural differences between
LEWONTIN: And the beauty of that ideology is that it
justifies what is the greatest, uh, social agony of American
life, namely, it justifies the inequalities that exist in a
society which is said to be based on equality.
HAMMONDS: Race is a human invention. We created it,
we have used it in ways that have been in many, many respects
quite negative and quite harmful. And we can think ourselves
out of it. We made it, we can unmake it.
NARRATOR: The racialized society we live in has been under
construction for three centuries. How can we unmake race unless
we first confront its enormity as a historical and social reality,
and its emptiness as biology?
(55:20 - DVD Scene #18)
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