It's true that race has always been with us, right? Wrong. Ancient peoples stigmatized "others" on the grounds of language, custom, class, and especially religion, but they did not sort people according to physical differences. It turns out that the concept of race is a recent invention, only a few hundred years old, and the history and evolution of the idea are deeply tied to the development of the U.S.
"The Story We Tell" traces the origins of the racial idea to the European conquest of the New World and to the American slave system - the first ever where all the slaves shared similar physical traits and a common ancestry. Historian James Horton points out that the enslavement of Africans was opportunistic, not based on beliefs about inferiority: "[Our forebears] found what they considered an endless labor supply. People who could be readily identified and so when they ran away they couldn't melt into the population like Native Americans could. People who knew how to grow tobacco, people who knew how to grow rice. They found the ideal, from their standpoint, the ideal labor source."
Ironically, it was not slavery but freedom - the revolutionary new idea of liberty and the natural rights of man - that led to an ideology of white supremacy. Historian Robin D.G. Kelley points out the conundrum that faced our founders: "The problem that they had to figure out is how can we promote liberty, freedom, democracy on the one hand, and a system of slavery and exploitation of people who are non-white on the other?" Horton illuminates the story that helped reconcile that contradiction: "And the way you do that is to say, 'Yeah, but you know there is something different about these people. This whole business of inalienable rights, that's fine, but it only applies to certain people.'" It was not a coincidence that the apostle of freedom himself, Thomas Jefferson, also a slaveholder, was the first American public figure to articulate a theory speculating upon the "natural" inferiority of Africans.
Similar logic rationalized the taking of American Indian lands. When the "civilized" Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homes in Georgia to west of the Mississippi, one in four died along the way, in what became known as The Trail of Tears. President Andrew Jackson defended Indian removal: it was not the greed of white settlers that drove the policy, but the inevitable fate of an inferior people established "in the midst of a superior race."
By the mid-19th century, race had become the accepted, "common-sense" wisdom of white America, explaining everything from individual behavior to the fate of human societies. The idea found fruition in racial science, Manifest Destiny, and our imperial adventures abroad. In the new monthly magazines of the late 19th century and at the remarkable indigenous people displays at the 1904 World's Fair celebrating the centennial of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, we see how American popular culture reinforced and fueled racial explanations for American progress and power, imprinting ideas of racial difference and white superiority deeply into our minds.
"The Story We Tell" is an eye-opening tale of how deep social inequalities came to be rationalized as natural - deflecting attention from the social practices and public policies that benefited whites at the expense of others.