African American Lives 2 -- Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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"Rationalizing Race in US History"
by Ashlinn Quinn

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The classification of humans into groups according to "race" is a fact of this country's history dating back to our founding documents and has been immortalized in innumerable official and unofficial ways ever since. In contemporary America, the categorization of people by race is so common as to risk making racial divisions seem to represent natural, fixed, and unquestionable distinctions between people. This lesson seeks to build awareness among students of the subjective and fluid distinctions that support categorizations of people according to race. The lesson also addresses ways that these distinctions have been used to the detriment or advantage of groups of Americans over time: both negative, leading to discrimination against particular groups of people, and positive, leading to group identity, unification around causes, and mobilization to fight racism and other forms of injustice.

The Introductory Activity of this lesson consists of a variety of hands-on and online classification exercises that provide first-hand experience with the difficulties inherent in the processes of determining group belonging. The students will understand that any human classification scheme is likely to have fuzzy boundaries, and is subject to subjective interpretation. The Learning Activities explore how racial information has been collected and used in the United States across different periods of history. The students examine US Census forms from different eras, and research instances from different periods of US history where racial categorization has been used to deprive groups of people of rights and privileges. The students will also use video segments from the PBS series African American Lives 2 to form a basis for the understanding of the factors influencing black identity in this country, including the "one drop rule" and cultural and socioeconomic distinctions. In the Culminating Activity, students will reflect on the evidence they have explored in the earlier portions of the lesson to write a position paper arguing for or against the continuance of racial grouping in our country's future.

This lesson can be used as a pre- or post- viewing activity for the PBS series African American Lives 2, or as an independent lesson for the social studies or language arts classroom.

Grade Level: 10-12

Time Allotment: Three to Four 45-minute class periods

Subject Matter: US History, African American Studies, Race Studies

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:
  • Name the challenges involved in classifying people into categories such as "races";
  • Recognize that the boundaries between different racial categories are fluid and subject to change;
  • Describe the changes that have occurred over time in the collection of "race" information in the US Census;
  • List several occasions in US history when racial categorization has led to discrimination against a group of people;
  • Present an argument using historical examples, individual stories, and reasoned interpretation to provide support for a position.
From the National Standards for History for grades 5-12, available online at


Standard 3. The student engages in historical analysis and interpretation. Therefore, the student is able to:
  • Draw comparisons across eras and regions in order to define enduring issues as well as large-scale or long-term developments that transcend regional and temporal boundaries.
Standard 4. The student conducts historical research. Therefore, the student is able to:
  • Formulate historical questions from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.
  • Obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators. Interrogate historical data by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created; testing the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness; and detecting and evaluating bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.
  • Support interpretations with historical evidence in order to construct closely reasoned arguments rather than facile opinions.

Standard 5. The student engages in historical issues-analysis and decision-making. Therefore, the student is able to:
  • Identify issues and problems in the past and analyze the interests, values, perspectives, and points of view of those involved in the situation.
  • Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances and current factors contributing to contemporary problems and alternative courses of action.
  • Identify relevant historical antecedents and differentiate from those that are inappropriate and irrelevant to contemporary issues.
  • Evaluate alternative courses of action, keeping in mind the information available at the time, in terms of ethical considerations, the interests of those affected by the decision, and the long- and short-term consequences of each.
  • Formulate a position or course of action on an issue by identifying the nature of the problem, analyzing the underlying factors contributing to the problem, and choosing a plausible solution from a choice of carefully evaluated options.

Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • Standard 3: The institutions and practices of government created during the Revolution and how they were revised between 1787 and 1815 to create the foundation of the American political system based on the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights
Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
  • Standard 2: Massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity
Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)
  • Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and the extension of civil liberties
Era 10: Contemporary United States (1968 to the present)
  • Standard 2: Economic, social, and cultural developments in contemporary United States
Media Components:

African American Lives 2 (2008), selected segments

Clip 1: "More Than Meets the Eye"

Sorry, you need the latest version of the free flash player in order to watch the video clips.

Right-click here to download this video in Quicktime format.

Clip 2: "A Fine Mocha"

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Right-click here to download this video in Quicktime format.

Clip 3: "Mixed-Race Ancestry"

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Clip 4: "Black, White, or Other?"

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Right-click here to download this video in Quicktime format.

Web sites:

Race: The Power of an Illusion - Sorting People
This is an interactivity that presents photographs of 20 people and asks the user to sort them into racial categories based on appearance. It then gives the user the results - how the people are actually classified according to US categories of race.

US Census Forms (1850, 1880, 1950, 1970, 2000) (1850 and 1880) (1880, 1950, 1970) (2000 - only the first page is needed)
The above links provide the original forms of the US Censuses of 1850, 1880, 1950, 1970, and 2000. The forms can be printed out for students.

The US Constitution (1787)
This site contains a transcript of the US Constitution. In Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3, it contains the wording of the "3/5 compromise" that qualified enslaved persons as 3/5 of other persons for the purposes of apportioning government representatives and taxes. This site also directly links the text of the 3/5 compromise to the 14th Amendment that replaced it in 1868.

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
This page from the OYEZ Web site summarizes the facts of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case of 1896. The case investigated Homer Adolph Plessy's challenge to a Louisiana law segregating blacks and whites into separate railway cars. In its decision, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of state-imposed racial segregation based on the "separate-but-equal" doctrine.

Japanese Relocation (1942)
Executive Order 9066 (high reading level)
Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry (lower reading level)
These Web sites provide primary source documents key to the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II: President Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 which authorized the evacuation of all persons deemed a threat to national security to relocation camps in the interior of the country; and a notice posted to advise all Japanese Americans in San Francisco of their imminent evacuation from the area. Either Web site can be used by students to explore the issue of Japanese relocation during World War II.


For the class:
  • Chalkboard or whiteboard
  • Computers with internet access
  • Projector and screen to view video clips
  • 3 sets of grouping signs on 8 by 11 paper:

      Set One: Pet Groups
      • Sign 1: Cat
      • Sign 2: Dog
      • Sign 3: Both
      • Sign 4: Neither
      Set Two: Birthday Groups
      • Sign 1: Fall
      • Sign 2: Winter
      • Sign 3: Spring
      • Sign 4: Summer
      Set Three: Hair Length Groups
      • Sign 1: Very Short
      • Sign 2: Short
      • Sign 3: Long
      • Sign 4: Very Long

  • US Census Student Organizer Answer Key (download here)
  • Case Study Student Organizer Answer Key (download here)

For each student group:

  • US Census Student Organizer (download here)
  • One copy of the US Census form from each of the following years: 1850, 1880, 1950, 1970, and 2000 (see Media Components above for online source information)
  • Case Study Student Organizer (download here)

Prep for Teachers:
Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Bookmark the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom, or upload all links to an online bookmarking utility such as Preview all of the video clips and Web sites used in the lesson to make certain that they are appropriate for your students, currently available, and accessible from your classroom. Download the video clips used in this lesson onto your hard drive, or prepare to stream the clips from your classroom.

Make copies of the 1850, 1880, 1950, 1970 and 2000 US Census forms (see links above in Media Components); the "US Census Student Organizer;" and the "Case Study Student Organizer" for each student group. Print out the two Teacher Answer Keys to use as reference. Create the three sets of grouping signs described above.

When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing of video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

Background reading: this lesson is based on a presupposition that "race" is a socially constructed means of categorizing people. This view of race sees racial distinctions as fluid and subjective, with no fixed boundaries between racial groups. To further your understanding of the complexities of race, consider consulting the following resources for background information: The American Anthropological Association's Statement on Race, available on the "Race: Are We So Different?" Web site, at; and California Newsreel's "What is Race?" online interactivity, available on the "Race: The Power of an Illusion" Web site, at

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Major corporate funding for African American Lives 2 and its outreach initiatives is provided by The Coca-Cola Company and Johnson & Johnson. Additional corporate funding is provided by Buick.
The Coca-Cola Company Johnson & Johnson Buick
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