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THE RACE PIT

By Alan H. Goodman
Anthropology Newsletter, May 1998

Recent commentaries and letters in Anthropology Newsletter show that many of my biological anthropology colleagues have fallen into the race pit. Let's pull them out! But first, they must realize they are in a pit so that they will extend a hand.

Falling into the race pit is easy to do. Racial terms are frequently used and are very familiar. To paraphrase Henry Louis Gates, we see and are seen as race. Race is a trope, a floating signifier. Race is lived experience and a sociopolitical construct. It is not biology.

Falling into the race pit starts with thinking that race is a biological and scientific concept. It is as easy as unreflectively using racial terms to describe a skull. The racial terms than take on power when they connect to imbued meanings.

It takes vigilance to avoid falling into the race pit; and it takes a thoughtful and scientific effort to get to deeper meaning. The race pit is most harmful because it is a place from which one cannot advance to understand human variation. Medical proclamations made without a biological basis result in a great deal of unseen harm. And, in some cases, scientific statements feed political abuse.

Silent Violence and Racism

It is hardly radical to suggest that there are connections - sometimes subtle and indirect through words, ideas, programs and actions - between soft uses of race in everyday science and blatant racism. Falsely maintaining that race is real biologically leaves the door open to misuse. It is an easy step from the misuse of race in studies of skull shape or hemoglobin levels to its misuse in studies of intelligence.

We have also seen many times the leap from the misuse of race in science to its misuse in public policy. Bad science always makes bad policy. But educating that biological differences between groups are not deep, hereditary and fixed eliminates a major weapon in the racists' arsenal. It exposes racism as the human social evil that it is.

Kennewick Man continues to be a clear example of not just what is wrong scientifically with race, but also of the potential misuse by racists. James Chatters suggests that he did not intend to racialize Kennewick Man (February 1998 AN, p. 19). But it was not just I who saw race in racial words. Jonathan Mozzochi, research director of the Coalition for Human Dignity, has been following reports of Kennewick Man in the right-wing press. He shows that the Asatru Folk Assembly, partners with anthropologists on the legal suit to allow study of Kennewick Man, is not a harmless bunch of spiritualist crazies. Their leaders have extensive neo-Nazi connections. Additionally, Louis Beam, a former Texas Klansman and "ambassador at large" for the Aryan Nations, has written numerous articles in such rags as The Spotlight, a large circulation, anti-Semitic weekly, in which he uses the identification of Kennewick Man as a "Caucasoid" to support the view that the Americas were first settled by whites ("Races and Relics," The Dignity Report, 1998, 5, p. 4). Aren't scientists responsible for speaking out against unintended interpretations of their words and ideas?

Back to Basics

To judge from the discussions at the 1997 AAA presidential panel on race, it is now widely accepted in anthropology that race is a biological myth but that racial discrimination and racism are all too real (C Mukhopadhyay, March 1998, AN, p. 28). This consensus, however, does not yet include many physical anthropologists. Fundamental errors are voiced in recent letters and commentaries in the AN submitted by skeletal biologists who, with other physical anthropologists, lay claim to scientific authority and are key to articulating anthropological perspectives on human diversity. The first error is that the idea of race is confused with the reality of human biological variation. A second error occurs when race as biology is confused with race as sociocultural construct. It's time to go back to basics.

It has been known for decades that racial typology fails to explain human variation, that is, our species does not fit into a small number of fixed, ideal types. We know, for example, that:

  • Human variation is generally continuous, with no clear points of demarcation. (It is impossible to reliably say where one race ends and another begins. Groups living close to each other tend to be biologically alike, and so race has an appearance of reality, but this is only geographic similarity.)

  • Human variation is highly nonconcordant. One trait infrequently predicts for another. (One can not read deeper meanings into physical cues.)

  • There is greater variation within than among purported races. (Knowing an individual's purported race tells us little about the individual.)

Although there is no disagreement with these points, about half of all physical anthropologists continue to think race is a salient concept and many teach and do research on human variation from a racial approach. They continue to use race because they think that race shifted from a typological to a population concept starting with Carleton Coon's work after World War II. Gill writes that Ashley Montagu and his followers failed to notice (1990).

But as much as my colleagues might want to see racial analysis as having made a paradigm shift from a typological to population concept, this is not possible because races are not populations, and adaptation and evolution work locally rather than at the abstracted level of races. In common usage, scientists, students and the public reduce human variation to 3 or 4 types, just as they did a century ago. Color lines shift, but the underlying concept, contra Gill, endures. Montagu did notice; he just did not buy it. As J. Buettner-Janusch remarked in his review of Coon's The Living Races of Race (1965), "Typology, typology, typology, nothing by typology" (American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 1966, p. 187).

George Armelagos has characterized the race concept as a chameleon, which changed its color, but not its reality as a folk concept, to survive the Darwinian revolution, the evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and the new physical anthropology of more recent years. Compare this with the common refrain that those who deny race are simply trying to be "politically correct." Gill writes that "they have their hearts, but not their heads in the right place." (Gill and S. Rhine, Skeletal Attribution of Race, 1990, p. viii). What is so "heady" about a concept that cannot be explained or defined?

Classification Wrongs

In addition to convincing themselves that race is an evolutionary concept, there is an additional reason why anthropologists still use the concept: race is convenient. By analogy, classifying hats by size allows us to pick those most likely to fit. The classification may not be perfect, but it is a useful start. Gill suggests that racial classification is no different than classification by sex, age or height (March 1998 AN, p. 1). The analogy, however, falls on its nasal spine.

When a hatter sizes a hat, she knows what she is measuring and her work can be repeated. Classifications by sex, age or height might not be perfect, but the criteria are sensible, they fit the problem and they are agreed upon. Conversely, because race is socially defined, it is first like classifying by a concept such as "beauty," with no way to compare standards of beauty across classifiers and then having others decide to classify by "purity." The problem is that there is no objective and repeatable standard of classification. As a result, use of race in biomedicine, where repeatability is monumentally important, courts disaster.

It gets worse. The unexamined movement from social definition of race to biology leads to conflation of nature and lived experience. This clouds whether observed racial differences in athletic performance, birth weight or IQ are due to lived experience, genes, or a tangled gene-environment combination.

Furthermore, when genes come into play, the assumption is that a racial analysis might substitute for a more detailed individual genetic analysis. Separate U.S. black and white standards for diagnosis of anemia have been constructed because it was found that blacks have lower mean hemoglobin concentrations (the basis of diagnosis of anemia) than whites. It was thus suggested in the 1970s that the standard for diagnoses of anemia in blacks should match this inherited, pan-racial characteristic. The consequence of lowering the black standard halves the number of black women diagnosed as anemic and probably too the percent treated.

Robert and Fatimah Jackson have demonstrated two grand leaps of scientific faith in constructing race specific standards (Ethnicity and Disease, 1991, p. 1). First, hemoglobin differences between blacks and whites are almost entirely explained by environmental factors (conflation of nature and lived experience). Second, there is no basis to assume that a genetic difference is pan African American (conflation of genes and race). Race as biology is not just wrong, it is harmful.

James Chatters apologizes for using the term "Caucasoid" to describe Kennewick Man's biology and then excuses himself by saying no other words would do. But there are many precise terms that are nonracial. For example, Chatters could have described Kennewick Man as having a large nasal spine. Because this trait is frequently seen in some contemporary groups, its presence in Kennewick Man might suggest a biological relationship. This is different, however, from proclaiming that Kennewick Man is a member of a group that only exists in an individual's mind.

If Frank Livingstone (U. Michigan) had continued to think of it as a racial disease (rather than as clinally distributed), he likely would not have so clearly seen the relationship between sickle cell anemia and the spread of malaria. Race science is bad science because it inhibits deeper understanding.

From Biology to Lived Experience

Human biological variability is real. But race is a biological sham: it is theoretically passť, does not fit the facts, holds back science and causes harm. A common sleight of hand of the political right is to conflate the myth of biological race with the cultural experience of race, e.g., "If race is a (biological) myth, let's get rid of affirmative action." But the truth is just the opposite. Showing that race is a biological myth leads us to clarify the sociopolitical salience of race and racism. Race as biology does not explain the persistent and shameful rate at which black babies suffer low birth weight and infant mortality. It doesn't explain why the death rate from breast cancer recently fell for all women but did not budge for black women, who already had a higher rate of death. Nor does race as biology explain why black male life expectancy in Harlem is less than the life expectancy of men in Bangladesh. But the suffering is still there.

There is no half way between seeing race as biologically valid or not. Any reformation of race as biology will simply be interpreted as race in the older typological paradigm. What do we lose by giving up race as a biological concept? We lost some instant recognition of what we do. It takes a bit longer to explain human variation.

What do we gain by sending race to the dust heap of history? The possibilities are awesome. We could develop a new and exciting biocultural paradigm. More important still, we would literally save lives.

Alan Goodman is professor anthropology at Hampshire College and co-author of Building a New Biocultural Synthesis.

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