The Myth of Race in the Age of President Barack Obama

Race is not real, but the consequences of believing in it are real.

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Race in America is a serious and complex subject. But Jacqueline Jones, a University of Texas at Austin history professor, says the concept of race is a myth. In "A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America," Jones chronicles the lives of six Americans, spanning four centuries, to demonstrate the strategic and sometimes contradictory application of the concept. She recently spoke to U.S. News about the origins of the myth that race is a biologically determined characteristic, and its consequences. Excerpts:

What do you mean when you say race is a myth?

The idea that somehow black and white people are very different from each other is a fiction. It's akin to saying that blue-eyed people are very different from brown-eyed people; that blue-eyed people are more intelligent or have a better character. Skin color is a superficial characteristic. Yet, for much of American history, there has been this notion, this idea, that race is real, that you can tell something about somebody else by their so-called race. And it's a myth because it's taken on the contours of a story that helps to explain who we are as Americans. But the story is more about power. It's more about who has power and how that power is exercised in any one place or time.

Is this particular to American history?

I can't speak to other countries, but I think it is certainly not that unusual for a culture to identify a group of people and then to exploit them, to strip them of all rights and then say that's their natural condition. They're naturally poor, they're naturally lazy – all these stereotypes. That's not an unusual kind of discrimination throughout the world.

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You mentioned that there wasn't always a notion of race in this country?

In early American history, in the 17th and 18th centuries, slave owners were really not talking about race. They didn't need to because Africans during that period were uniquely vulnerable in an Atlantic world of seafaring empires. If you couldn't command the high seas the way the English, the Dutch, the Portuguese or the Spanish could, then you were vulnerable. And that was the fate of many of these Africans. They were uniquely vulnerable. They had no recourse. There was no group to rescue them. I compare them to Indians, who were non-Christians, non-English speaking and also darker-skinned, and yet Indians were organized into confederations and nations, and they were armed. So you can't say that race really played a part in the enslavement of Africans; it was more that they were powerless in this particular Atlantic world. Indians were armed, and they were organized into nations. English colonists respected Indians for that reason and really understood that to try and enslave them was not going to work. It's not until the American Revolution and the periods before the Civil War that slave owners really feel like they have to justify this particular form of exploitation. And they do that by invoking race as a pretext, as a justification for a condition that already exists.

How did you choose the six characters that you use to tell the story?

Well, I've written other books on labor history and African-American history and, in the course of my research over the last 25 or 30 years, I've encountered these really interesting characters, and I never had a chance to explore their histories. It was fun for me to go back and recreate their lives. I used those stories as a lens into this myth of race because one of my main points is that you have to go to a particular time and place and ask, who benefits from these racial mythologies? And why and how? These myths are not primal or transcendent ideas. They're very rooted in a particular time and place. And the six stories span from the 1650s through the 1980s.

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What is the status of the "race myth" today, since President Obama's election?

In my epilogue, I talk about the destructive legacies of this myth. In other words, race is not real, but the consequences of believing in it are real. I look at concentrated poverty and the toll that takes, the unequal job [and] educational opportunities. Blacks are disproportionately represented among public sector workers. That's a historical fact. It's deeply embedded in our social division of labor. And so, when cities and states and the federal government cut back on public sector work, as they have done over the past five years, then black men and women suffered disproportionately. Also, many poor black homeowners were targeted by predatory mortgage lenders. These are structural issues in our economy that even a black president can't solve by himself.