Black journalists’ convention panel dissects meaning of race


Scientists, journalists grapple with myths, realities of color and creed

Since the age of man, race has been used both to define and divide people. Following is a brief race literacy quiz:

1. On average, how many genes separate all members of one race from all members of another race? A) None; B) 1; C) 23; D) 142; E) 1,008.

Answer: A) None. There are no characteristics, no traits, not even one gene that distinguishes all members of one so-called race from all members of another race.

2. Members of a race can be identified by their: A) Blood group; B) Skin color; C) Ancestry; D) Genes; E) None of the above.

Answer: E) None of the above. The A, B, and O blood groups can be found in all of the world’s peoples. Skin color tends to correlate with the earth’s geographic latitude, not race. Ancestry is difficult to trace: If you could trace your family tree back 30 generations, slightly more than 1,000 years, you’d find one billion ancestors.

These were two questions from the Race Literacy Quiz developed by California Newsreel in association with the Association of American Colleges and Universities ( The quiz was given out to those who attended an August 11 “What is Race?” five-person panel discussion during the National Association of Black Journalists annual convention in Las Vegas.

Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy, and the discovery by Rev. Al Sharpton that his ancestors were owned by Strom Thurmond’s family, has heightened the discussion on what race means today, said moderator Richard Prince in his opening remarks. “How is our perception of race changing, and what race will mean in the future?” he asked the panel and the audience.

Genealogy is important in determining race, said New York-based cultural writer Pearl Duncan, who used DNA in tracing her roots back to Scotland and Ghana. Once as a college student, a college professor told her that Black history “couldn’t be researched because it doesn’t exist; that was the reason after I finished school, I started to doing the research [in 1991],” she admitted.

Washington, D.C.’s WJLA-TV reporter Sam Ford’s father and grandmother are descendants of Blacks known as Cherokee Freedmen. Last March, these descendents of slaves owned by Cherokees were expelled from the Cherokee Nation, whose action is being challenged. “What is going on is a very racist thing,” he said. “Being an Indian in this country is a legal definition. It has nothing to do with your blood.”

Racial hierarchies were created “in order for the economic and social systems in this country to survive,” noted University of California-Riverside anthropology professor Dr. Yolanda Moses. “The United States has a peculiar take on this issue of race that is different from any single country in the world. We never have been a color-blind society, so why in 2007 is [this] being pushed?”

Moses chairs the RACE Project, a public education program that explains how human biological variation differs from race, and how race and racism affect everyday life ( It features a traveling museum exhibit, which began a 24-city U.S. tour earlier this year with a five-month stint at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. More than 200,000 visitors saw the exhibit, including over 6,000 people on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January, Moses said.

“Race is an obsolete concept,” said novelist Elizabeth Atkins, who has a White father and a Black mother and has written several books that deal with mixed-race identity, including White Chocolate, whose main character is a biracial television reporter.

Also president of the Detroit Black journalists’ chapter, Atkins recalled how she has dealt with being biracial: “As a child, I always felt Black on the inside, but people were telling me I ‘look White — you have White hair.’ So it was very difficult, and several decades later, I’m still grappling with it.”

You can see race continually being used negatively in movies and videos, the novelist noted. “[It] is a weapon that has been used against us, and used by us to attack us,” Atkins added.

Moses agreed that race and color continues to be an issue even among U.S. Blacks. “[But] it isn’t just among African Americans. It [also] is among Hispanics and Asians.”

Other countries also now are dealing with race issues, she continued. Europe is dealing with “cultural racism,” and that there is a Black power movement now in Brazil. “Black Brazilians bought into the notion that there was no racism in Brazil, but there is,” Moses explained.

Learning more about race will “undo a lot of the misinformation that people have passed on,” believed Duncan.

Until full equality is achieved, race needs to be constantly discussed in this country, Atkins noted. “We have to think and talk about race in a new way,” she concluded.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@