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Why We’re Devoting an Entire Issue of National Geographic to Race

There is no scientific basis for race. It’s largely a made-up label. And you can't understand 21st-century America without it.

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Anquan Boldin and C.J. Jones | PGA Boulevard and Interstate 95, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (Stopped in 2015) | Former pro football player Anquan Boldin (at left) stands with his cousin C.J. Jones near the spot where Jones’s brother, Corey, was fatally shot by a Palm Beach Gardens police officer. Officer Nouman Raja was fired and is under house arrest, awaiting trial on charges of manslaughter and attempted first-degree murder with a firearm.

This story is part of The Race Issue, a special issue of National Geographic that explores how race defines, separates, and unites us. Tell us your story with #IDefineMe.

National Geographic strives to deepen our understanding of the world and our role in it. It’s difficult to understand 21st-century America without exploring the issue of race. It’s the elephant in the room, permeating every aspect of our culture, neighborhoods, schools, businesses, politics, sports, arts, and relationships.

While science tells us that there is no such thing as race, society uses racial distinctions to divide us. Throughout history, groups of people have classified those who were different from them as the “other.” On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., we decided to look deeply into these issues with a distinct National Geographic lens. Our stories reflect a view that is global, scientific, and cultural.

This story helps launch a series about racial, ethnic, and religious groups and their changing roles in 21st-century life. The series runs through 2018 and will include coverage of Muslims, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans.

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Marcia (left) and Millie Biggs, both 11, say people are shocked to learn that they’re fraternal twins. Marcia looks more like their mother, who’s English born, and Millie looks more like their father, who’s of Jamaican descent.

What are some of the stories in the issue?

A science story explains that genetically we are not that different. There is no genetic or scientific basis for race. It’s largely a made-up label, used to distinguish and divide us. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes, race is not a biological construct but a social one. “So many of the horrors of the past few centuries can be traced to the idea that one race is inferior to another.” Even today, she writes, “racial distinctions continue to shape our politics, our neighborhoods, and our sense of self.”

Another story explores the anxiety of some white Americans as demographics shift and they see their culture threatened. In just two years the majority of the country’s children will be racial or ethnic minorities.

We also examine rising enrollment and increased student activism at historically black colleges and universities; turn a camera to interracial marriages 50 years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal; and document streets around the world that are named after Martin Luther King, Jr., as a testament to his legacy.

Why is this important now?

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During the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017, alt-right supporters block entrance by counterprotesters to the park that’s home to a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Fights soon broke out between the groups. Later a counterprotester was killed by a rally participant who police say intentionally drove his car into a crowd.

The story of race in America is topical, relevant, and newsworthy now. Monuments across the country that celebrate a racist past—but that some say also represent an important part of American history—are being toppled. Protests that support and reject white supremacists are being held. The number of people, particularly black men, being killed at the hands of police is being officially counted for the first time. Everyone from professional athletes to high school students are protesting police violence against unarmed black people. A cultural wave in the United States has put race at the forefront of the national discourse.

But is this really a National Geographic story?

National Geographic is committed to chronicling the human journey. That includes exploring the past, present and future of humankind through archaeology, anthropology, global migration and major societal trends—including the evolving role of gender and race, and the political, economic, demographic and geographic ways that race manifests globally.

Many people tell us that National Geographic was their first experience with the world beyond their own community. We take seriously our responsibility to present an accurate and authentic picture of the world. We know we have not always excelled when covering stories of racial difference. Editor Susan Goldberg writes about National Geographic’s complicated history in an essay, “For Decades, National Geographic’s Coverage Was Racist. It’s Time We Acknowledged It.

"It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” she writes. "But it’s important to examine our own history before reporting on others."

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The four letters of the genetic code— A, C, G, and T—are projected onto Ryan Lingarmillar, a Ugandan. DNA reveals what skin color obscures: We all have African ancestors.

Why wasn’t my community included in this special issue? Is there more coming after the April issue?

Yes. The April issue of the magazine is the first part of a broader series that will explore diversity in America. We will offer multimedia coverage of racial, ethnic, and religious groups and examine their changing roles in 21st-century life. Next month we will tell the stories of the 3.45 million Muslim Americans from more than 75 countries who have been deeply embedded in communities across the country for more than a hundred years. Later we will explore Latinos’ growing political and cultural influence as they’ve become the largest minority group in the United States. We will examine the role of South Asians in medicine, technology, and business as well as American culture at large, and we’ll revisit some of the 120,000 Japanese U.S. citizens who were incarcerated during World War II. We also will explore how culture is being redefined in Native American life.

What do you expect to happen by publishing these stories?

Science defines you by your DNA. Society defines you by the color of your skin. Using #IDefineMe, we want people to share their stories with us. We hope to spark a global conversation about how race defines, separates, and unites us.


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