There's No Place for Racism in the Final Frontier: Star Trek's Brilliant Episode on Discrimination

We Earthlings have lots of growing up to do before we reach the shimmering standard of equality set by Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. 

This post originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here.


Star Trek has ever been a beacon for equality. In the sci-fi show's bold vision for a space-faring future, mankind is united. All of Earth's genders and races step out into the vastness of space together.

When the original series first aired back in 1966, such a future was difficult to grasp. Though the Civil Rights Movement opened a portal to equality through which our country walked, not everyone was transported. Individual minds are not as easily changed as laws. No doubt many were uncomfortable when an African American actress, the stunning and intelligent Nichelle Nichols, appeared on screen, not as a futuristic maid, but as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. No doubt even more people were irked when she and William Shatner, better known as Captain James T. Kirk, shared what's popularly considered as the first interracial kiss on television.

Over Star Trek's six television iterations, there have been many episodes dealing with discrimination, but none perhaps so masterful and poignant as "Far Beyond the Stars." Appearing in the sixth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the episode sees Captain Benjamin Sisko, portrayed by Avery Brooks, fall into a coma of sorts. In an altered state of consciousness, he becomes Benny Russell, an African-American science fiction writer on Earth in 1950s New York City. There, Russell is inspired to write a science fiction story about a futuristic space station called Deep Space Nine, captained by a black man: Captain Benjamin Sisko. At first, the story is rejected by his editor, simply for the reason that the protagonist is black. "People won't accept it; it's not believable," he argues. "For all we know it could cause a race riot." But a compromise is reached: what if the entire story is just a vision, dreamt up by a "poor negro"? Excited to have his story published, Russell celebrates with his fellow writers and his girlfriend. Sadly, the compromise fails when the owner of the magazine decides to scrap the entire issue and fire Russell rather than publish his story.

The episode broke through when it originally aired back in 1998, because unlike other charming Star Trek episodes that dealt with social issues, this one did not employ metaphor. It was brutal, at least as much as primetime television would allow. At one point, Benny Russell is beaten by bigoted white cops, similar to how his story is later pulped. The "N-word" was actually used and uncensored, a rarity for the series and for modern American television in general. Russell's story does not end happily. It ends with him, mentally and physically beaten, breaking down and sobbing among his co-workers.

"You can pulp a story, but you cannot destroy an idea!" he cries. "Don't you understand? That's ancient knowledge. You cannot destroy an idea! That future, I created it, and it's real! Don't you understand? It is REAL! I created it and IT'S REAL!"

Keep in mind, it wasn't the mental beating and anguish of being fired and having his story turned down that spurred Russell's breakdown. Nor was it even the physical beating he endured earlier. No, it was fomented by years of pernicious, prejudiced flogging that, ever so gradually, wore away at his psyche. Ounce by ounce, veiled racism weighed him down, until he collapsed.

“What’s insidious about racism is that it is unconscious,” Avery Brooks later explained. “It’s in the culture. It’s the way people think." The only overt racism in the episode came from the two intolerant cops that beat Russell, the rest of it was concealed in institution.

"It's not personal, Benny," Russell's editor explained when Russell is told that he can't have his picture appear in the science-fiction magazine. The readers simply can't know he's black. That's just the way things are, and the way things have to be. Sexism also made an appearance in the episode. One of Russell's co-workers, a woman, had to use a man's name just to be published.

It was the same institution portrayed in the episode that -- back in 1967 -- attempted to thwartSamuel R. Delany, a distinguished science fiction writer, and yes, an African American. Just like Russell, when Delany submitted his novel Nova to John W. Campbell, Jr., the famous sci-fi editor for Analog Magazine, Campbell rejected it because he didn't feel his readership would be able to relate to a black character.

"It was all handled as though I’d just happened to have dressed my main character in a purple brocade dinner jacket," later remembered. "Purple brocade just wasn’t big with the buyers that season. Sorry..."

Too bad for Campbell, because Delany's Nova, would turn out to be a smash success.

Unlike what happened to Russell in "Far Beyond the Stars," Delany's experience ended happily. But, all too often, situations like those do not. We Earthlings have lots of growing up to do before we reach the shimmering standard of equality set by Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. Eliminating racism is just as challenging as traveling amongst the stars. But if Star Trek is any portent, those two bright outcomes are inexorably linked. And just maybe, by the 24th century, they'll both be realized.

(Image: Star Trek)

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Image: The Pudding
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  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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