Race: The Power of an Illusion
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Race: The Power of an Illusion
Created and maintained by California Newsreel.
Reviewed April 2004.

Let’s begin with the three-part film series. In Race: The Power of an Illusion, California Newsreel and its co-director Larry Adelman (the driving force behind the project) have crafted a documentary that is both accessible and sophisticated. Making use of state-of-the-art scientific, historical, and social-scientific accounts, the series takes the viewer on a detailed tour of a wide range of attitudes and beliefs about race. It exposes the many misconceptions and inadequacies of the "common sense" views into which we have all been deeply socialized.

Most notably, the series explains and uses genetic mapping and recent advances in human genomics to demonstrate the enormous variability within racially defined groups that supposedly share key corporeal characteristics; it links the racialization of U.S. society to the historical processes that created modern North America—colonization and settlement, slavery, migration, etc.; and it explores and analyzes the reproduction of racial inequality, as well as concepts of racial difference, in the recent past and, indeed, in the present. It effectively and accessibly anatomizes racial segregation, stratification, privilege and disadvantage, violence, fear, and guilt in the United States.

So the film series is a tour de force. While I have some criticisms, these are not fundamental. I will merely note two complaints here: First, the idea of race as an "illusion," even one with "power," is misleading if not inaccurate. Although not founded in nature, racial distinctions, like any other social categories, are very tangible and real. To include the term illusion in the series title is thus to flirt too closely with the pernicious doctrine of post-racialism, also known as colorblindness, in my view. Second, the series is unduly focused on North America. While acknowledging the global dynamics of race, the films devote nearly total attention to U.S. racial themes. This is more than understandable, but more comparative attention to variations in racial systems, both contemporary and historical, would have been revealing and useful.

Looking now at the Web site: California Newsreel, in cooperation with PBS, has produced an extraordinarily rich resource here. Space limitations prevent me from listing all the many capabilities the Web site makes available: summaries, lists of resources and bibliographies (disclosure: two of my books are used as resources in this series, and I also talked with producer Larry Adelman as the project was being prepared), tests of the Web site viewer’s beliefs and knowledge about race, and exercises that facilitate access to genetic and social-scientific information are but some of the materials provided. A series of questions about race were collected through the Web site and are answered by a range of experts. These questions and answers are grouped under three broad rubrics:

Science: What role should race play in health research & medicine?

History: Has race always been with us?

Society: Are we ready for a "colorblind" society?

Discussion guides and resources for teachers are also included. The educator who uses the film series in a classroom setting is well provisioned through the Web site: aids to lesson planning abound.

Race: The Power of an Illusion has been widely shown on television, purchased by schools and libraries, and used in classrooms. But many are not yet aware of the work and of its profound educational value. Those teaching about race in the whole range of disciplinary and subject areas—in the social sciences, humanities, and human biology in particular—who have not already done so will be well advised to make use of the film series. The Web site represents a vital support for such pedagogy and a vital source of information and teaching/research tools in its own right.

Howard Winant
University of California
Santa Barbara, California