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