The Power of the Illusion Essay

Published: 2020-04-22 08:25:56
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The idea of race as viewed through the filter of American history, is an inductive argument in itself, created around propaganda and incomplete science. In Part 2 of Race: The Power of the Illusion, it is shown that the construction of race as a theory in American society was greatly influenced not only by the actions of men but also the ideas and emotions. That the concept of race was built around society as a justification of social practice, speaks loudly about the shallow foundation of race as a defining concept of humanity.

The documentary notes that when the United States first declared its independence, blacks though enslaved were not considered by virtue of their race alone to be inferior. Financial standing was the primary determinant, as much of the labor in America was first indentured servants from Europe. It was only after this labor supply began to run low that slaves from Africa were brought in as the solution. Though a solution for the problem of labor, the use of slaves introduced a new moral problem.

As growing moral pressures were needed explain the justifiability of slavery, race began to grow around it. First, as a social concept espoused through political argument and then aided by scientific theory. When Thomas Jefferson approached the subject of blacks in Notes on the State of Virginia, his loaded language sets the stage for later developments in race. His statement on his beliefs that blacks are inferior to whites in both body and mind sets the stage for later developments in race.

Though his statement is said in such a way as to allow for some doubts, by going against his own words of equality for all in the Declaration of Independence he sets the stage for the contradictory nature of the relationship between non-whites and so-called moral principles that the United States was founded on. Though seemingly unsure of an eventual conclusion, the power of this supposition is compelling.

As the narrator writes, Jefferson saw assimilation of the black and white race as impossible, as Jefferson wrote of deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites and of physical and moral differences separating the groups. For Native Americans, their changing relationship with the government hit its zenith with Andrew Jackson. Though Jefferson may have seen them as possibly equal to whites given a civilized influence, Jackson shared the view of white settlers that thought of Indians as savages who were trying to destroy peaceful settlers coming in, and thought they should be driven out or exterminated.

Exterminated? It is a loaded word that carries the connotations of the violence visited upon the Native Americans by the United States government in an effort to gain access and ownership to the land. Language such as this is used throughout the narration and the expert accounts, to underline the brutality racial policy sometimes took in public policy. The Native Americans were equated with vermin along this line of reasoning. Like mice or termites, their lives and livelihoods were seen as something less than that of their white counterparts and destroyed.

Jackson, in his inaugural address used strong language to appeal to white America and gain its support in this extermination, Established in the midst of another and superior race, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear. Superior is the word here and throughout much of the political propaganda and also scientific theory that is meant to appeal to a deeper sense of white America. As a superior race, it is seen as acceptable to take the Native Americans land, it is seen as acceptable to subjugate if not enslave blacks.

That it is the president making these assertions must have made the words all the more powerful in the minds of the average white American. When the government and scientific community are in agreement over the moral and mental superiority of the white race, policies arise with almost automatic justification. Most of the science which supported racial theories in the 19th century were strongly influenced by the feeling of white superiority that had arisen as justification for whites enslaving blacks and driving out Native Americans.

Science is where two of the most stand out examples of the inductive argument of race lie. Just as racial theories were shaped around a need for labor and a want of land expansion, when science was applied to race it was shaped around already existing attitudes. When Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz spoke in Boston in 1846, his theories centered on the idea that all men, black, white, Native American, etc, were all created equally.

However, this very open minded scientist soon found himself drawn into a supremacist reasoning by fellow scientists, such as American scientist Samuel Morton. Historian Paul Hinkleman, notes that the scientific debate in which Agassiz found himself a part of was in conflict with any form of deductive argument, Its a debate between people who look at the book of Genesis and see what they call a single creation, God created Adam and Eve, and scientists who say, Well, actually these races couldnt possibly come from the same place.

There must be different and separate creations. But what is this assumption based on? While on the surface it is based on the observable differences between man, skin color or differences in physical appearance, it starts delving deeply into speculation over factual evidence very quickly. Mortons influence on Agassiz is interesting for the fact that much of Mortons theories, while based in observation relied very heavily on speculation and inductive argument. Morton used variations in skull sizes as a justification for his prejudices.

By measuring skull size and capacity, he came to the incomplete conclusion that since skulls varied in size that so also did the brain and from this came the further assumption that certain races had smaller skulls, smaller brains, and therefore were less inherently intelligent and moral than their racial counterparts most notably whites, of which Morton was one. His theory left science as we know it today behind, with the assumption that skull size alone is the determining factor in intelligence.

Historian Mia Bay notes, Somehow he managed to make sort of systematic errors in favor of what was the, you know, the sort of understood hierarchy of the races of the day. Nevermind, that enslaved blacks were banned from learning or that educational opportunities for even those in the North were limited. There is so much data missing from Mortons theory as to make it almost laughable today but at the time, when America was still trying to justify its continued subjugation of one race and the eradication of another, Mortons ideas were convenient even if dangerous.

Morton and other scientists incomplete arguments for racial superiority, gave new scientific justification to the problem of race. As the narrator explains, As these ideas took hold, pro-slavery advocates argued that the enslavement of black people did not violate the democratic spirit of America because Jeffersons term all men did not scientifically include black people.

Through the inductive arguments of science and loaded political language of the 18th and 19th centuries, race developed into very clear lines and boundaries. On the one side, is the white race having gained superiority through political and social strength, with an added push from the scientific community. On the other side are the non-white races, whose racial importance was determined not by fact but rather the supposition that whites are superior.

Though the scientists theories were as faulty as the orations of the political powers that be, it drew little protest from the general public as it was a new field of knowledge. Scientific theories had their power in the unknown. Political practice had its power in the numbers; white politicians attempting to justify the ideals and practices of their country through politics of hate and difference.

References

California Newsreel. (2003 April). Race: The Power of the Illusion. Part 2: The Story We Tell. Public Broadcasting System.

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