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
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
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
- There is greater variation within than among purported races.
(Knowing an individual's purported race tells us little about
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,
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
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
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
Alan Goodman is professor anthropology at Hampshire College
and co-author of Building a New Biocultural Synthesis.
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