"Race - The Power of an Illusion" was a three-part documentary series that was broadcast on public television initially in 2003. Written by Christine Herbes-Sommers, the series attempted to refute and delegitimize the concept of "race" in terms of biological distinctions between categories of human beings. The series traced the evolution of theories of racial differences to the 19th Century and sought to demonstrate the superficiality and erroneous nature of such theories, placing them in a particular political, historical and economic context.
Racism is deeply embedded in many cultures, including in the United States (the producers of the documentary, including Herbes-Sommers, would argue especially in the United States), but was invented as a concept as British, later American, slave owners rationalized the dehumanizing nature of slavery through denigration of one category of human as biologically inferior to another, in this case, dark-skinned people being inferior to light-skinned people. Prior to the 19th Century, the documentary argues, there was no concept of racial superiority; rather, people were sublimated to each other on the basis of class, religion, social status, and language -- but not on the basis of skin color or notions of racial superiority.
Part 1 of the series traces the evolution of human beings, beginning with the first homo sapien in Africa, and tracks human migrations over thousands of centuries to demonstrate the biological commonality uniting all humans. By demonstrating that all human beings share as much as 85 percent of all genetic variants, the documentary's producers hoped to invalidate the notion that people are biologically different and that, consequently, they concept of race is inherently flawed.
Part II of the series is the segment that traces the development of theories of race that laid the foundation for policies predicated upon notions of racial superiority. This episode argues strongly that racism was largely born in or with the development of the United States. Treatment of blacks and of Native Americans -- the indigenous peoples who occupied North America before the European colonization began -- was firmly rooted in the policies, for example, the destruction of the indigenous cultures and the seizure of their lands, that resulted in the creation of the United States that exists today.
Part III focuses on the institutionalization of race in American society during the 20th Century and how various ethnic groups, for example, Japanese-Americans, were marginalized by virtue of their skin pigmentation, and how such policies proved increasingly self-defeating as more and more ethnicities sought out citizenship in the face of legal customs grounded in racial distinctions.
"Race - The Power of an Illusion" ends on a somewhat discouraging note. Having refuted theories of racial distinctions and demonstrated the relatively recent history of racism as a concept, the series acknowledges that eliminating the erroneous concept from everyday discourse will be an uphill battle. Absent success in eliminating the artificial construct of racism, the producers conclude, it is difficult to imagine success in eliminating the vestiges of race, including the suggestion that one is biologically superior to another.