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Author Topic: Race and the Power of an Illusion|PBS  (Read 9130 times)
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Posts: 2063

« on: October 16, 2003, 12:59:52 AM »

INTERVIEW WITH john a. powell
edited transcript

john a. powell is director of the Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in the Americas at Ohio State University and the Gregory H. Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Moritz College of Law. He is a nationally recognized scholar on race, poverty, and regional equity.

What are your own early experiences of race?

I was born in 1947, so I watched Detroit go from a vibrant city to starting to empty out. I watched my mother and father struggling to hold the family together and trying to get housing, and I remember the frustration. And then watching the city starting to die, and literally watching the complexion of the city change. I remember moving to an integrated neighborhood that within a few years became an all-black neighborhood.

I also remember being bussed to school, and fighting on the playground because the white kids didn't want us there. I have all these memories. At first they were just experiences, and I didn't quite know how to make sense of them, and didn't necessarily think of them in racial terms, but as I got older and reflected on them, I began to understand.

One of my most poignant memories - I have three older brothers - we all went to the same high school, and they were all excluded from sports, from college prep courses, and from the social activity of the school. I'm a lot younger than my brothers, so when I went to the school I decided - I didn't use these words then - but I decided to crack the color line.

I decided I was going to go to be in college prep and play sports, and it was a fight. The school was about 50 percent black, and 50 percent white at Southeastern High School in Detroit. I had the facility to test well, so I tested well before I went to high school, and I said I wanted to go in for college prep. I had good grades and high test scores, and they said, "No, you do not belong. This is not appropriate." I had to bring my parents up to school in order to get into college prep, and even though the school was 50 percent black, for most of my high school, I was the only African American male in almost all of my classes, and literally had teachers say in class, "Do any of the colored kids want to wash my car after school?"

I graduated valedictorian, number one in my class, and our school was sort of a feeder school to elite schools: Harvard, Yale, Michigan. I had a hard time getting teachers to write me recommendations for the top schools. They thought those schools were above me. They thought I should go to some of the local schools, to Wayne State or Eastern Michigan State, but certainly not to the elite schools.

So, there were just a number of experiences that as I reflect back on and sort of start to understand in deeper terms, I think had a huge impact on my life.

How is race socially constructed?

If you think about the United States in the 1700s and 1800s, who was black or not was a matter of state definition. You could be black in one state, cross the state line and you're no longer black. Some states said if you look black, you're black. Some states said if you have one-quarter black blood, you're black. Some states said if you had one-sixteenth black blood, you're black. Some states said if you have one drop of black blood you're black, so if it was simply a biological fact you couldn't have all these different ways of thinking about race.

Since race is constructed, it's constructed differently in different places and in different times. For example, in the Dominican Republic, children with the same biological parents can be of a different race. That's not possible in the United States, but there a light-skinned child of the same biological parents can be white, and a dark-skinned child with the same biological parents can be black. You have a similar situation in Brazil. Again, it just shows how the way different countries and different people do race changes.

There's this curious thing about the way we've defined race in the U.S., where a white woman can have a black child, but a black woman can't have a white child. Obviously that's a social construction; it doesn't make any sense biologically. Throughout U.S. history, the way we've talked about race has shifted over time.

The most important thing about race is understanding not just a categorization. It's about where you are in the social strata - how you're categorized has tremendous social significance.

If race is socially constructed, why can't we just get rid of the concept?

Race may be socially constructed, but it's not individually constructed. Individuals have some impact on how they're viewed, but we don't get to define our own racial identity. In the United States, race has been so important in terms of constructing identity that to be an American, early on, really meant to be white. It had religious connotations; it had class connotations; it had connotations of where you could live, who you could marry, where you could be buried, how you were educated.

The mistake that we often make now, as we talk increasingly about race being socially constructed, is that some people think because it's socially constructed it's not real, and that an individual can choose his or her own race.

I can't decide today not to be black, because the world will insist that I am black, and there are institutions and arrangements that define me that way. I can't decide not to be black and go in New York and hail a cab. The first cab drivers driving by are not inside my own psychology. So, the construction of race is extremely important, but it's not individually constructed; it's socially constructed, and that has material implications and consequences

MORE: http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-06.htm

We should first show solidarity with each other. We are Africans. We are black. Our first priority is ourselves.
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