The Origins of Race

Hello Everyone,

The pandemic has more starkly exposed racial inequalities in our country.  Cases, deaths, unemployment, remote learning.  Black and brown people suffering disproportionately.  Predictably.

The murders of Blacks by police and vigilanties, culminating in George Floyd’s tortuous death on display for all to see, have shocked many Whites, causing us to once again seek answers to America’s 400-year-old sin.

From their outset in April, these commentaries have been about racial inequities in education and elsewhere which have been further revealed by the pandemic.  In my second Exogram on May 18, I recommended the Seeing White series on the Scene on Radio podcast to those of you who hadn’t already heard it (  Then, George Floyd was murdered on May 25, thrusting race, in all its dimensions, into the foreground.

An exoskeleton serves to “support and protect” its corpus.  I now see the sad ironies in the mottos of many police departments (such as in neighboring Chicago): “serve and protect.”  The Los Angeles motto simply reverses the order of the same words.  I find it astounding that the motto of the Minneapolis Police Department is “to protect with courage, to serve with compassion.”

As those of you who know me, I always have to begin at the beginning.

In this case, where did this idea of “race,” especially Blackness, come from?

Due to the Human Geonome Project, which was completed in 2003, we know that we human beings share 99.9% of our DNA with each other.  So, race is not based on biology.  It’s a social construct, devised by humans to privilege Whites like me.

Prof. Ibram X. Kendi of Rutgers and his book How to Be an Antiracist provide some answers (I see the book has attracted a lot of attention in the last two weeks.)  I met Prof. Kendi here in Evanston when he was on tour for this book.  His first one, Stamped from the Beginning, won the National Book Award.

I also heard Prof. Kendi on the second episode of the Seeing White series.

In that episode, Nell Irvin Painter, an emeritus professor of history at Princeton and author of The History of White People, asserted that going back to ancient Greece, from which much of our Western cultures derive, “there was no notion of race.”  But, there was a belief that even democratic Greece considered itself superior to other societies and peoples.  It created hierarchies.  (There are some excerpts from that episode in the first attachment.)

For millennia, slavery was practiced widely by many civilizations, frequently as a result of conquest – but, without reference to any of the indicators of race, as we now know them, like skin color.

John Biewen (of Scene on Radio):  “The Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the West African kingdoms.  They all practiced forms of slavery.  And people of every color got enslaved.

For eons, what we now call economics was the principal reason people were enslaved – to steal their labor.  Rationalizations of that theft formed the basis for the biases and stereotyping with which we are so familiar today.  Not the other way around.”

Here’s the crux of the matter.  Prof. Kendi argues that the “first race maker and crafter of racist ideas” was Gomes de Zurara, who chronicled the African slave trade of Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator in the mid-1400s.  In the book he published in 1453, The Chronical of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, Zurara concocted the first racist ideas in order to rationalize and sanitize Prince Henry’s evil deeds.

“The obedient…Zurara created racial difference to convince the world that Prince Henry (and thus Portugal) did not slave-trade for money, only to save souls.”  I have included in the second attachment some pertinent excerpts from Prof. Kendi’s book.

So, race and schools are inextricably intertwined – and even more so as the pandemic preys more perniciously on black and brown communities and their students and as some police forces prey on those same communities. Our schools need to be supported and protected by their exoskeletons.  Our citizens need to be served and protected by their police.

Please, as always, pass it along.


Attachment 1 Scene on Radio

Attachment 2 How to Be an Antiracist

The Origins of Race2020-06-09T16:27:27+00:00

Exograms #2: Seeing White

Hello Everyone,

In my first commentary, I wrote that “this pandemic reveals pre-existing inequities in our society that starkly manifest themselves in our education system, as well as elsewhere.” In fact, as this pandemic proceeds, it is not only more starkly revealing these inequities, it is aggravating them.

To lay some groundwork for observations to come, in this edition I want to suggest that you listen to or read the transcripts from a most remarkable series entitled Seeing White on a podcast called Scene on Radio. It, and the books referenced in it, have fundamentally reshaped how I think about race even after contemplating the subject for decades.

A friend and colleague, who is black, recommended it to me. Undoubtedly, many of you have already heard it or have read some of the books referred to in it. It is hosted by John Biewen, who runs the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.

Here are some excerpts from the first of its twelve episodes, which was posted in February 2017.

John Biewen: [In] the summer of 2016, a few weeks after Trump …clinch[ed] the Republican nomination…the comedian and actor D.L. Hughley [was on] the daytime talk show, The View…It snag[ged] my interest…

Joy Behar: …Did you even think that [Trump] would get this far?

Hughley: … I’m not shocked … because I think that ultimately America is aspirational…Obama is what we would like to be. Donald Trump and his supporters are what we are [emphasis added]…

John:…Seventy percent of voters were white in 2016, and 58 percent of white voters chose Trump…

People can debate how big a factor straight-up racism was in Trump’s victory. But his year-long drumbeat of remarks and tweets and retweets, giving voice to white resentment toward people of color…was not too much for the…people who colored in the bubble next to Trump’s name…

I’m John Biewen, it’s Scene on Radio. The “race” beat in American journalism usually involves pointing our gaze…at people of color. That goes for me, too. Over several decades as a reporter and documentary maker…I’ve often treated whiteness like the proverbial elephant in the room. You might hear about some white individuals or white-run institutions, the alleged bad apples, the discriminators. But like most American reporters, I’ve usually left white people as a group—the white “race”— unnamed…In the coming batch of episodes, a series we call Seeing White [we are] turning the lens around, looking straight at white America – and at the notion of whiteness itself. Where did this idea of a white race come from? God? Nature? Or is it man-made?…[But,] I’m a little concerned about my perspective as a white dude…[So,] I maybe could use some backup…

Chenjerai Kumanyika: Hey, my name is Chenjerai Kumanyika. I’m a professor… in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information. [He is black.]

John: Chenjerai will make regular appearances in this series…For this introduction, Chenjerai and I put some thoughts and worries on the table about the series itself…

Chenjerai: …I’ll tell you the big thing is this. There’s a tendency in this country to frame the discussion about race…in terms of something called “race relations.” And this just overwhelmingly focuses on the individual attitudes of people…I think the thing that these conversations really need [to consider is the] issue of structural racism or institutionalized patterns of exploitation and oppression that are racialized…a more complex engagement with how power works and what race and ethnicity [have] to do with it [emphasis added].

John: …there’s an idea that people have talked about that you can have racism without individual racists…I have a…disclaimer that I would want to make about this project. And that is, I’m concerned that people will look at the title of the series, Seeing White, and they’ll think, “Oh this is a series about white supremacists and neo-Nazis and the KKK again”…And, I want people to know that that’s not what we’re up to here…mostly what we want to talk about is…the rest of us who are not overtly, stated white supremacists.

[In the next episode, we’ll go] back in time… when, though there were people who looked like me, there’s no sign they thought of themselves as white.

Nell Irvin Painter [a history professor at Princeton]: [When] there WAS no notion of race.

Here is a link to the Seeing White series. You can also print the transcripts there if you prefer reading to listening.

And, we have just gone live with a modest website to host these commentaries:

In the next few Exograms, I will try to expand on how COVID-19, remote learning, and race are all intertwined.

Please, as always, pass it along.

Exograms #2: Seeing White2020-05-18T16:59:18+00:00

Exogram #1: Covid-19 and Exoskeletons

Hello Everyone,

During this COVID-19 pandemic, I feel the need to write, if just for my own sanity.  You do not need to feel obligated to read my ruminations, however.  Let me know if you are not interested.

Building on my previous series of “Obamagrams” and “PetePosts,” I have decided to dub these “Exograms.”  They are not intended to be political, in a partisan sense, but they will probably wander into that territory on occasion.

Exograms is a reference to my 2017 Memorandum on Chicago’s “Education Exoskeleton.”  Those of you who were on my Obamagram distribution list got a commentary on that subject at that time.

In it, I wrote:

I think it can be argued that one source of America’s real strength – [and the salvation of our democracy] – lies in our 323 million citizens and our incredibly diverse array of non-governmental institutions and the endless web of informal connections among them.

A copy of the recently-revised memorandum is attached.  It begins:

For over fifty years, I have lived and worked in the Chicago area.  For more than half of that time, I have paid increasing attention to the education landscape…, from pre-kindergarten through higher education, as what might be called an activist philanthropist, as a member of nonprofit boards and councils, and as a fundraiser.

I go on to argue that an “exoskeleton” is a better metaphor than an “ecosystem” when describing the non-governmental actors of many stripes who have organically allied to help Chicago’s public schools.

While the specifics of Chicago or of public schools in general may not interest you, I hope to make the metaphor more broadly useful as a conceptual framework within which to contemplate our current predicament and its aftermath, and the very future of our democracy.

An exoskeleton “supports and protects” an animal whereas an ecosystem connotes “competition” among animals and other living things, as in a food chain.

Why is this relevant to the COVID-19 disease?  That’s because I’m seeing our current epidemiological challenge primarily through this biological lens.  I will elaborate on that as this series continues.  Suffice it to say, I think that (a) this pandemic reveals pre-existing inequities in our society that starkly manifest themselves in our education systems, as well as elsewhere; and (b) this pandemic and its effects may be much more complex and last much longer than many are currently anticipating.

As our society, and not just its schools, slowly awakes to a new reality, I believe it must become much more like an exoskeleton than the ecosystem it currently is.  We are already headed in that direction as we social distance not only in our own self-interest but to protect others, most of whom are strangers.

But before I end this initial piece, let me tell you an Obama story that greatly colors my thinking on this subject.

In 2014, I joined President Obama and about ten others he had invited for an informal dinner in Chicago.  During the course of our conversation, some one asked him what were the biggest issues on his mind.  He quickly responded, evidently having had given it much thought, saying that there were four (not necessarily in this order, but according to my contemporaneous record of them):

1) weapons of mass destruction; 2) technology’s and globalization’s effects on employment; 3) climate change; and 4) pandemics.  How prescient.

I welcome your feedback as we think together about our health, our economy, and, as Mayor Pete reminds us, our democracy. And, as he also reminded us in his campaign’s Rules of the Road, we should look for “joy” in all we do.

Please, as always, pass it along.


Exogram #1: Covid-19 and Exoskeletons2020-05-06T20:52:42+00:00
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