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'The Invention of Race': Documentary explores how the concept of race developed

Biewen in Mankato
John Biewen visits Sibley Park in Mankato, Minn., the site of many family memories during his years growing up in Mankato, on Thursday, September 20, 2012.
Photo by Caroline Yang for MPR

Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. Mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has been called the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.

Racial incidents make headlines year after year in the United States. We are a society made up of all the races and ethnicities on the planet, and we have a painful history of exploitation and oppression tied to race.

What we don't often consider is where the idea of different races came from. God? Nature? Or was it man-made? — and if so, why?

"The Invention of Race," a documentary produced and hosted by John Biewen, explores how these concepts developed from the ancient world to today.

In the 1940s, anthropologists tried to present racial differences as scientific fact by pulling out humans into three categories: Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid.

"It is not a biological fact," said historian Nell Irvin Painter.

Science now tells us that in the beginning of the human story, people evolved in Africa from one common ancestor — we're all African if you go far back enough. Groups then left Africa and those that ended up in places with less sun lost much of their melanin and turned different shades.

That explains why people look different; it doesn't explain why different groups of people have been treated inconsistently over the past few centuries.

Throughout history, there have always been groups that thought they were superior to others — for example, the ancient Greeks felt their society far exceeded the others that surrounded them. But skin color didn't really have an effect on those views, it was how the others chose to live that made the Greeks look down their nose, Painter said.

One history professor says the invention of race came later, tracing it back to a surge of African slaves being brought to Europe in the 1600s.

Writers, commissioned by royalty and slave traders, circulated material that grouped all Africans and their way of life as inferior — framing slavery as an improvement over their free lives in Africa, said author and historian Ibram Kendi.

The pervasiveness of those racist ideas insured that colonists brought racism with them when they came to settle what would become the United States, said Kendi.

"The Invention of Race," was produced and hosted by John Biewen of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. He produces the Scene on Radio podcast. John grew up in Mankato, Minn., and was a reporter and documentary producer for Minnesota Public Radio and American RadioWorks for many years.

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