At what point do physical differences become powerful social divisions that
affect what we believe is possible for others and ourselves? How are such differences used to justify social inequalities? What role do scientists, educators, religious leaders, and the media play in the process? How does history shape the value we place on us and them? This book explores how such questions were answered at specific times in American history. Chapter 1 introduces these questions by examining the idea of difference through various lenses.
In every society some differences matter more than they do in others. The way a society responds to differences affects the way individuals see themselves and others. Those responses are especially important at a time when scientists are completing “the first survey of the entire human genome”—a scientific milestone that promises to enhance our understanding of the ways inherited traits influence who we are and what we become. The readings in this chapter raise important questions about the relationship between our genetic inheritance and our identity. In doing so, they increase our awareness of the factors that shape not only how we see ourselves and others but also the value we place on our observations.