WITH ALAN GOODMAN
Alan Goodman is professor of biological anthropology at Hampshire
College and co-editor of Genetic Nature / Culture: Anthropology
and Science Beyond the Cultural Divide and Building a New
How difficult is it to jettison the idea of race as biology?
understand why the idea of race is a biological myth requires
a major paradigm shift - an absolutely paradigm shift, a shift
in perspective. And for me, it's like seeing what it must have
been like to understand that the world isn't flat. The world looks
flat to our eyes. And perhaps I can invite you to a mountaintop
or to a plain, and you can look out the window at the horizon,
and see, "Oh, what I thought was flat I can see a curve in now."
And that race is not based on biology, but race is rather an idea
that we ascribe to biology.
That's quite shocking to a lot
of individuals. When you look and you think you see race, to be
told that no, you don't see race, you just think you see race,
you know, it's based on your cultural lens - that's extremely
What's heartening is that so many students love
it. They feel liberated by beginning to understand that, in fact,
whiteness is a cultural construction, that race is a cultural
construction, that we really are fundamentally alike. It's our
politics, it's political economy, it's an old ideology that tends
to separate us out. It's institutions that have been born with
the idea of race and racism that tend to separate us out.
children today, kids today, in my experience, love it that we
can have some common humanity, that we can come together as one,
that this idea of biological race is a myth that's separating
us. They love the idea that there's really some wall that can
be smashed down and help bring us together.
What's wrong with classifying by race as biology?
Scientists have actually been
saying for quite a while that race, as biology, doesn't exist
- that there's no biological basis for race. And that is in the
facts of biology, the facts of non-concordance, the facts of continuous
variation, the recentness of our evolution, the way that we all
commingle and come together, how genes flow, and perhaps especially
in the fact that most variation occurs within race versus between
races or among races, suggesting that there's no generalizability
to race. There is no center there; there is no there there in
the center. It's fluid.
But many individuals will say, "Well,
that's okay, at least it's an approximation. It at least gives
us a way to classify. Hey, you know, our head size may be continuous
and shoe size may be continuous, but we developed a way to classify
people by hat size and shoe size. And it kind of works. Your shoe
may be a little bit crunchy but you basically know to go in and
start somewhere, So what's wrong with doing it for race?"
I'll tell you, there's a couple things that are wrong with it,
where that analogy really breaks down. We've developed a universal
system for thinking about hat size that's measurable, for example.
So you can go into Sao Paulo Brazil and the hat merchants there
have the same scale that the hat merchants do in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
And we can have universality because it's objective, it's measurable,
we're just measuring the circumference around the head. It doesn't
change culturally from one place to another.
But think about
race and its universality or lack thereof. Where is your measurement
device? There is no way to measure race first. We sometimes do
it by skin color. Other people may do it by hair texture. Other
people may have the dividing lines different in terms of skin
color. What's black in the United States is not what's black in
Brazil or what's black in South Africa. What was black in 1940
is different from what is black in 2000. Certainly, with the evolution
of whiteness, what was white in 1920 - as a Jew I was not white
then, but I'm white now, so white has changed tremendously.
no stability and constancy. That's life. That's fine as social
ideas go, that we all have our individual classification systems
and may use them, but for science, it's death. It does not work.
Science is based on generalizability, it's based on consistency,
it's based on reproducibility. If you have none of that, you have
What is non-concordance and what does that tell us about race?
For race to have meaning, for race to be more
than skin-deep, for race to be more than a typology, one has to
have concordance. In other words, skin color needs to reflect
things that are deeper in the body, under the skin. But, in fact,
human variation is rather non-concordant.
I'll give you an example
of concordance. Height is actually quite concordant with weight.
As we get taller, we gain weight, we have more weight. One aspect
of size is concordant with another aspect of size.
of human variation is non-concordant. Skin color or eye color
or hair color is not correlated with height or weight. And they're
definitely not correlated with more complex traits like intelligence
or athletic performance. Those things evolve and develop in entirely
different ways. Just as skin color develops in a different way
from size, intelligence, athletic performance, other traits develop
in different and independent ways.
A map of skin color gradients
looks sort of like the map of temperature. It gets lighter, as
you go towards the poles and it's darker near the equator. But
then take a map of, say, the distribution of blood type A. Looks
entirely different. There's no relationship between the two maps.
The distributions are non-concordant. Simply, one is not related
to the other.
When we adopt a racial view, we have to see concordance.
And perhaps if we don't see it, we make it up. Because if there's
no concordance, there is no race. So, racist scientists, for example,
have to see a concordance between skin color and IQ, otherwise
there's no meaning there, there is no there there. There's nothing
under the skin. Race stops at the color of your skin.
at risk? Quite a bit is at risk. It's how we see each other, how
we respect each other. It's about understanding that somebody
from one town in Poland, and somebody from the next town in Poland,
could be more different from each other than a Pole and a person
from South Africa.
It's about knowing that our assumptions
about difference and who we're related to and who we're most alike
may be entirely wrong. It's ultimately about a revolution in how
we think about human difference and similarity.
How much human variation falls within any population, and
how much between "races"?
Lewontin did an amazing piece of work which he published in 1972,
in a famous article called "The Apportionment of Human Variation."
Literally what he tried to do was see how much genetic variation
showed up at three different levels.
One level was the variation
that showed up among or between purported races. And the conventional
idea is that quite a bit of variation would show up at that level.
And then he also explored two other levels at the same time. How
much variation occurred within a race, but between or among sub-groups
within that purported race.
So, for instance, in Europe, how
much variation would there be between the Germans, the Finns and
the Spanish? Or how much variation could we call local variation,
occurring within an ethnicity such as the Navaho or Hopi or the
And the amazing result was that, on average, about 85%
of the variation occurred within any given group. The vast majority
of that variation was found at a local level. In fact, groups
like the Finns are not homogeneous - they actually contain, I
guess one could literally say, 85% of the genetic diversity of
Secondly, of that remaining 15%, about half of that,
seven and a half percent or so, was found to be still within the
continent, but just between local populations; between the Germans
and the Finns and the Spanish. So, now we're over 90%, something
like 93% of variation actually occurs within any given continental
group. And only about 6-7% of that variation occurs between "races,"
leaving one to say that race actually explains very little of
You know, geography perhaps is the better way
to explain that 15% more than race or anything else. For instance,
there can be accumulations of genes in one place in the globe,
and not another.
But, for the most part, you know that basic
human plan is really a basic human plan, and is found almost anywhere
in the world. Most variation is found locally within any group.
Why don't we believe that? Because we happen to ascribe great
significance to skin color, and a few other physical cues that
tell us that that's not so. And, in fact though, these may happen
to be a few of the things that do widely vary from place to place.
But, that's not true under the skin. Rather, quite another story
is told by looking at genes under the skin.
Are there boundaries dividing populations?
The idea of race, of course, assumes
that there are set boundaries between the races, but we know that
to be untrue. You know, there's no racial boundary that's ever
been found. Any trait that one looks at, one tends to see gradual
variation from one group to another. The facts of human variation
are that it's continuous, it's not lumped into three or four or
five racial groups.
One of the ways to begin to see a different
paradigm, to see that the world really isn't divided into three
or four or five types of individuals, is to really try to locate
those individuals, to find them and to locate the racial boundaries
between them. You could take any characteristic you want, but
the most frequently used is skin color. We think that each type
of person has a different skin color.
But do this as a thought
experiment: start off in northern Scandinavian, say northern Finland,
and take a walk in your mind through Scandinavia, perhaps into
Germany, down through Germany into southern Europe, through the
Mediterranean perhaps, circle around until you get to Algeria,
into northern Africa, and continue on your way down towards the
equator, and finally from the equator to South Africa.
challenge would be to say where does one race begin, and where
does another race end. Or even where does dark skin begin, and
light skin end? Or, perhaps as you leave the equator, where does
light skin begin to show up again? In fact, what you find is a
rather subtle gradation in skin colors. This is called "clinal
variation", and it's really quite like what you see in your weather
maps of temperature in the back of USA Today, or your 11 o'clock
weather forecast, where you can see how temperature grades change
ever so slightly as you go from north to south. Well, skin color
is actually quite the same thing. It varies clinally - continuously.
There is no abrupt change from one skin color to the next.
How is human genetic difference - and similarity - traced
to our history?
basically are the same plan, and we don't need to alter our plan.
In fact, one of the hallmarks of humans is that we're flexible.
We are built with this very flexible brain and flexible structure
that lets us go into a lot of new situations without needing to
genetically adapt to it. We're kind of like the Swiss Army knife
of species. We can apply culture and our ideas to conquer different
environments. When we go into the cold we don't need to grow hair.
We just need to find a buffalo skin to put on. Or better yet,
we invent central heating.
As best we know, humans started in
Africa. And they had a lot of time working out what they were
going to be like in Africa. And through that time of working out
what they were going to be like in Africa, they began to diverge
and change slowly, ever so slowly.
Some of that change may have
been due to selective pressures in different parts of Africa.
And Africa is a very diverse place, with different climates, different
eco-zones. There may have been some selection from that, and selection
from diseases, with sickle cell being one concrete example of
that, since sickle cell is a response to malaria. And malaria
is not something that's a big problem throughout Africa, but is
a huge problem, a huge selective force, in certain parts of Africa.
to different environments and circumstances is one way that we
see change develop. However, it's probably not the major thing
that makes us different clinally, geographically different. After
all, we are a young species, and we're generalists.
Another way we change is more or less by random flow of genes.
This is one of the big hallmarks of humans, that we tend to be
very mobile. We've always been very mobile. And our genes are
even more mobile. We may not move, but our genes may move because
somebody we mated with, or the grandchild of somebody we've mated
with, that person moves. And that person's great, great, great
grandchild moves, and so our genes are constantly on the move
and literally moving around the planet.
That was the story 100,000 years ago. It
was the story 75,000 years ago. It's the story 50,000 years ago,
and up to the present. We've had maybe 100,000 years of having
genes move out and mix and re-assort in countless different ways.
Some of those movements may follow major migrations as agricultural
people came into Europe, as people crossed the Bering Strait and
came into the Americas. But, other movements are much more subtle.
They're smaller groups of individuals that moved, or their genes
moved from place to place, and time to time. We're constantly
out-migrating and mating outside our group, responding to the
urge to merge. And that happens all the time. And that is us.
So, what you end up with, mathematically and in reality, are subtle
gradations; one gene grading one way, another gene grading another
Are we all Africans?
Well, we all spent a lot of time
in Africa. Our genes certainly spent a lot of time in Africa.
If we are anything, we are African. I think my genes spent less
time in Europe, and less time in Asia, than they spent as an African,
being in Africa. So, yes, I'm African, except that my skin color
changed perhaps when the lineage that led to me left Africa. So,
yeah, we are all Africans under the skin.
But, that's an idea
too. I think the more accurate idea, or the way to think about
things, is that we're all mongrels. People moved around in Africa,
they moved around when they came out of Africa, they constantly
inter-bred with each other. So today we have this notion that,
"Oh, you're multi-racial. Oh, you're this and that." Or, "Wow!"
like that was a new concept, that all of a sudden the races are
mixing together. Well, not so. We've always been mixing. We're
always mongrels. Every single one of us is a mongrel.
constantly going across barriers, over barriers, under barriers.
There's been no breeding isolation really that's occurred at all.
So, the combination of ours being a young species, and there being
no breeding isolation is what generates the fact that all you
see is very little variation among peoples. That the variation
is rather continuous, and localized.
How do diseases become racalized?
It used to be at the turn of the century that we
would think of individual races as having very specific diseases.
Well, that idea of race-specific diseases was soon shown to be
not true. But, what we are ending up with is the idea that race
is a risk factor, and osteoporosis is an interesting example of
For instance, if you look at any review article on osteoporosis,
it may suggest race is a risk factor. But, when you try to interrogate
that a little bit, it's not totally clear what they mean by race.
Do they mean genetics? Do they mean something about life experience?
It isn't quite clear.
And this is where, I think, some medical
theory actually hits the marketplace and our day-to-day lives.
That's the important intersection. How do ideas about race take
on material reality?
A couple of ways this one takes on material
reality is that doctors are trained to think that Black people
are somewhat immune to osteoporosis because that's what their
textbooks say. And that then reflects what they do in actual practice.
And that's a point I'd like to get back to.
It also reflects
the label on a Tums calcium bottle. The label on the back of the
Tums bottles suggests that white, or sometimes Caucasian and Asian,
women are more prone to osteoporosis. The label doesn't mention
anything about the potential benefits of taking a calcium supplement
for Black people.
So, the interesting point is where did that
information come from? Well, here we have the Tums bottle that
we can get off our drugstore shelf today. The information on the
label comes from the Food and Drug Administration. Now, the Food
and Drug Administration has to get their information from somewhere.
And the one study that is cited most frequently was actually a
1962 study that was done comparing 40 cadavers of whites and 40
cadavers of Blacks. The individuals died and were basically made
into cadavers because nobody claimed them. They were rather poor
individuals in this particular circumstance who grew up around
So, the information that finds its way onto Tums
labels is actually a study of the bones of 80 individuals. What
did the study actually show? What did it do?
Well, one of the
things it mostly showed is that we lose bone as we get older.
It also showed that females have less bone than males, so they
tend to lose it more quickly and are susceptible to fractures
earlier than men are. And then it also showed a little bit of
a lag between the loss of bones in Blacks and whites, perhaps
about a three-to-five year gap. So the authors of this study actually
don't conclude that Blacks don't lose bone, don't get osteoporosis.
They just suggest that in certain bones it takes longer to reach
a point where they would be susceptible to osteoporosis. But that's
still based on those 80 bones.
But that study gets in the literature,
it becomes commonly cited, and the FDA picks it up. And from the
FDA it gets on the back of the Tums bottle, Total cereal, Maalox,
all sorts of calcium supplements, about who is susceptible to
osteoporosis. So, the racial ideology becomes built-in in a very
subtle way. We read the label, we read the word "Caucasian", and
that tells us there is such a thing on Caucasian. If not, how
could it be on the back of a label?
And then look at how doctors
and medical personnel take that information. They generally accept
it. So individuals walking into their offices looking for potential
care for osteoporosis may be shifted one place or the other, depending
on how the doctors perceive their race. If they perceive them
to be white or Asian, they will get more aggressive screening
and treatment. And if they're not perceived as Asian or white,
then they go in a different place.
In fact, a friend of mine
went in for a bone screen, and the doctor said, "Oh, you don't
need one." Why? "Because you're Black." But of course, Black women
are breaking hips literally every day.
What is the false logic behind the racialization of disease?
If we look at race and
diabetes we can see a double leap of faith. There are two leaps.
Frequently, one finds that there may be something genetically
involved in a trait - for instance, diabetes, where there may
be a possibility that diabetes is partly genetic. And what that
does is it casts the lens on looking for genetic differences,
so that all those environmental things that may go into diabetes
are sort of put aside for the moment as less controllable, perhaps
So the Pima Indians, who have a 50% adult
diabetes rate, don't think about their diabetes as related to
the changes that have taken place in their lifestyle - from heavy
activity to low activity, from diverse diets to junk food, fast
food diets - that are consistent with the epidemic of diabetes.
Rather, what they're told by the medical people who work on them
is that it's in their genes, it's in their blood. And so they
focus there. So, the first problem is thinking exclusively that
a condition is due to genetics and not looking at environmental
Then perhaps the second and greatest leap is to think
that just because it's genetic it's racial, that genetics break
down along racial lines, or that individuals on one side of a
racial line had those genes and the individuals on the other don't.
Of course, we now know that that's ludicrous, that in fact genes
and race don't mix together.
But don't different groups have
different rates of diseases?
Frequently studies are done that
show that there are racial differences in all sorts of diseases.
Blacks, for example, have twice the rate of infant mortality in
the United States than whites. Native Americans, overall, have
higher rates of diabetes. And so the question is, how do you interpret
First, that may mean to some people - oh, the differences
between blacks and whites are really about prenatal nutrition.
That's why there are differences in infant mortality. Other individuals
may think that that has something to do with medical care. And
other individuals may think it has to do with genetics - that
there really is something about African-American genes.
we address that fundamental confusion about what race is, you
know, we're going to be open to different actions and interpretations.
And clearly, if you think it's genetics, it may lead to one medical
intervention or maybe no medical intervention. If you think it's
nutritional, it leads to another. If you think it's medical care,
it leads to yet another potential medical intervention.
How did sickle cell originate and what does that reveal about
the racial world view?
Sickle cell is a nice way to think about
the difference between a racial world view and a world view in
which you look at adaptation, change, adjustment to different
environments. To the racial world view, sickle cell was seen as
a disease of African-ness, a condition of African-ness, perhaps
even a pathology of African-ness.
And so to find sickle cell
was to find evidence of African-ness by definition. It was typological.
If a person from Italy had sickle cell, it must be because they
had some African blood - they must be polluted with African blood.
And that was the end of the story. If you had sickle cell, you're
African; if you're African, you might have sickle cell. And it's
a rather pre-Darwinian and perhaps comforting story. But, it's
also a very wrong story.
The right story - and I think the much
more interesting story - emerged in the 1950s. And that was with
a couple of discoveries. The first one was a discovery that sickle
cell, which is a change in red blood cells that gives it a sickle
shape, actually confers an advantage in fighting malaria. An individual
who has one sickle cell allele, but not both - what we call sickle
cell 'trait' - has a selective advantage in situations in which
you have endemic malaria. Individuals who had sickle cell trait
seemed to resist malaria better than other individuals. And malaria
is, and has been, one of the greatest killers of humanity of all
time. If ever there is a selective pressure, malaria is it. And
so those individuals might actually survive and prosper, and then
the number of subsequent individuals with sickle cell trait would
increase in a population because that allele would be selected
Well, that's one thing. The other thing was to actually
take a close look at where malaria actually arose and became endemic
and severe. Then also to look at who has sickle cell. Frank Livingston
did this, and lo and behold the two maps matched extremely well.
Places in which malaria was endemic, and had been endemic for
a long time, were exactly the places in which sickle cell was
highest. Conversely, places where endemic malaria was rather low
were places in which sickle cell was virtually non-existent.
had more than a smoking gun there. He had a nice evolutionary
story and a rather tight one about how, perhaps, 5,000 years ago,
for instance, in West Africa, endemic malaria became a serious
problem when people started cutting down forests in the origins
of agriculture. And individuals who had sickle cell were selected
for, and it expanded.
Sickle cell isn't an African disease.
It is true that some Africans have sickle cell, particularly individuals
who have ancestry around West Africa. That's one of the highest
places of sickle cell. But, it's also true that East Africans
hardly have any sickle cell. South Africans don't have any sickle
cell. But, it's also a Middle Eastern disease, and it's also a
Mediterranean disease. Individuals in Turkey and Greece and Italy,
Sicily, have sickle cell; more than individuals do in South Africa,
or in East Africa. So, sickle cell is not an African disease;
it's a condition that developed in response to malaria.
What made Jesse Owens and other great black athletes great?
the rise of the great Negro athletes in the 1930s, it became this
question about where did they come from and that there must be
a reason that they're great, and that that reason must reside
in biology rather than in culture or history or circumstance.
And one of the tie-ins here is that there's this shifting relationship
between athleticism and intelligence. In the early part of the
century, when blacks were considered to be less athletic, less
robust, perhaps even a dying race because of their inability to
deal with the stresses of civilization, there was an obvious belief
that intelligence was associated with athleticism and Europeans
have the best of both.
All of a sudden in the 1930s this begins
to shift with Joe Louis and Jesse Owens in particular. And so
now society has to decouple athletic performance from intelligence
and go to the totally opposite view that you can either have one
or the other as a race. You can either be intelligent or athletic.
And so the hunt was on, looking for the biological seed of the
great first black athletes. And Jesse Owens was picked apart.
Did he have an extra bone in his leg, an elongated bone in his
leg; what could possibly explain why he was so great?
Cobb was one of the people that finally put to rest this myth
that there was something special or unusual about Jesse Owens.
In fact, part of what he found was that Jesse Owens' bones looked
just as much like the average white person's bones as they did
a group of black individuals' bones. There was just nothing superior
about his bone structure at all.
But obviously he was a great
athlete. Where did his greatness came from? Was it determination,
was it his muscle structure, was it his training, was it his desire,
was it his circumstance? All of those things certainly came into
play. Exactly what it was, we don't know. But I think that's an
interesting story, that there isn't a simple answer. It wasn't
located in one place, it was located in the complexities of his
historical development in a culture with his biological basis,
whatever he was born with, biologically, genetically, culturally,
how it came that he was motivated in 1936. All of those things
came into play. It's not a simple answer. What made Jesse Owens
great? Many things made him great and unique.
Aren't great sprinters more genetically endowed with fast
fast twitch muscles and go forward and back with them. Let's go
back with them and try to understand, what are the genetics of
fast twitch muscles. Well, three words - I don't know. I don't
really know. I think nobody really knows what the genetics are
behind something that's really quite complicated.
Let's go forward
again. Is there a pure genetics to that? Is fast twitch, that
phenotype, is it a straight expression of genotype? Most scientists
would say no, that actually you can train your muscles, and the
amount of fast twitch you have, changes over time. So, actually
muscle use affects the amount of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle.
Then let's go forward a little bit more.
Does fast twitch make
you fast? Not so sure, it turns out. It may be just one factor
in making you fast. Is it the primary factor, or is it just like
looking for long bones in Jessie Owens' feet? You know, looking
for that one answer to it.
My guess is it's trying to simplify
something that's very, very complicated. To try to just explain
the greatness of West African descended sprinters by fast twitch
muscles involves many, many things we don't know - all assumptions.
How does Social Darwinism - and race - rationalize inequality?
Darwinism was really just an explanation for the order of things.
We had to come up with an explanation for why certain Europeans
had more access to power and were wealthier than others.
we use nature as an explanation for what we saw, or seem to think
we saw in nature: those who were more aggressive, or more intelligent,
got things, and those who weren't got less. So that became the
continuing justification for taking over lands, for slavery, for
competition. That competition was good. And to the winners went
the spoils. And there's no need to feel guilt or anxiety about
that, because that's natural, it's a reflection of nature. And
to the winner go the advantages of having been a winner.
there are many, many legacies of social Darwinism today. We don't
see how uneven the playing field is, for one. We don't acknowledge
that individuals grow up with less advantage and more advantage.
We seem to think that in America we all are born with a blank
slate and an equal ability to get ahead.
What about studies equating race with intelligence?
Scientific work abetting the
idea that race is real, typological, and hierarchically arranged
is actually rather an old occupation, you know. In the mid-1840s
we see Samuel Morton measuring crania to get at cranial capacity
and then to try to rank the races on the amount of cranial capacity
they have, and to equate that with racial differences and intelligence.
really about every 20 years somebody else comes along, almost
with a best-seller, perhaps with a new method for measuring intelligence,
ultimately to show that there is a ranking in intelligence, usually
with whites up top.
The most recent effort was The Bell Curve,
which came out in 1994 and literally reached number two on the
best-seller list in 1994, behind a book, by the way, written by
Pope John Paul. The Bell Curve threw a couple spins into this.
One is that it actually promoted Asians as being closer to the
top, also broke down whites a little bit more. But fundamentally
it was the same type of book as was written by Morton in 1850;
you use the same basic methods and the same basic logic.
argument went something like this: there is something called intelligence
that we can put our fingers on, that we can measure; intelligence
is some sort of univariable; it's one-dimensional. That intelligence
then is measurable by something called an intelligence test that
actually measures intelligence. And then that intelligence is
highly heritable; it's something we really do get in our chromosomes,
in our genes; it comes to us that way, it is highly heritable.
Then one has to say that there is such a thing as white, black,
and Asian, or whatever groups you're comparing, that they are
real, that they are measurable, that they are reproducible.
then let's to back and look at the assumptions again. Is there
a white group, a black group, an Asian group? Are these reproducible?
Are they trained equally? Can we really measure a variable called
intelligence? Is it really something that's not affected by environment,
about how we're trained, how we grow up, what stimulation we have
I'll give you an example. One test has shown that
just a little bit of lead in the blood can affect intelligence
- a little bit of lead in the blood, prenatal, can affect intelligence
by easily eight points on an intelligence score. Are we to believe
that those factors were unimportant in looking at the differences
in IQ scores? Of course not.
The assumptions that go into believing
that there are racial differences in intelligence are absurd ones.
They're ones that we shouldn't even be coming close to as scientists.
The chief one is that here's such a thing as race, that there
are races, and that a score on a test, an average group score,
has any meaning for an individual.
What was the significance of Franz Boas' skull experiments?
Franz Boaz was a very prominent
public intellectual, and he taught at Columbia and gave birth
to a brand of anthropology that was labeled "cultural relativism."
Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Zora Neal Hurston were among
But earlier he found himself in an unremarkable
place and did remarkable things with it. He actually worked with
the immigration office at Ellis Island, and had the opportunity
to measure skulls of individuals in families - of which some of
the siblings were born in Europe and some were born in the United
It was assumed that different groups of Europeans -
Slavs, Jews, Italian, Irish - that they had distinct skull types
and shapes, and that these wouldn't change with environmental
circumstances; they were primordial. There was an Irish type,
a Jewish type - all were types and races, and all unchanging.
So if you knew that, you could then read into the skull certain
characteristics such as intelligence.
But what Boaz noticed
and wrote about in the early 1900s was that the skulls differed
depending on whether the individuals were born overseas or here
in the United States. In fact, as Eastern European immigrants'
children were born in the United States, they began to look more
like the Western Europeans that were already here in the United
States. They became more Americanized, rounded in their skull
His assumption, although he wasn't so sure of it then
- the assumption now is the diet changed and the diet allowed
for greater skull growth and allowed it to round out a little
bit. So within the same family he saw changes in skull shape.
And the bottom line of all this is that it really showed that
skulls don't reflect something deep and genetic, or if they do,
it's definitely hidden by the way the skull reflects even subtle
changes in nutrition - changes that we didn't expect would have
dramatic effects on the skull shape.
Boaz would not have done
his experiment, would not have asked the question, "Do skull shapes
change between boys who were born in the United States and those
who were born in Europe?" if he had believed in a racial typology.
If he had believed that race and culture were the same, that culture
was a reflection of racial biology, he would not have asked the
question, he would not have done the experiment.
And so that,
I think, is the fascinating point. Somehow he had his suspicions
and he went ahead and asked the question and did the experiment,
and that was what I think his real contribution was.
Why is it important to overturn the idea of race as biology?
in racial smog. This is a world of racial smog. We can't help
but breathe that smog. Everybody breathes it. But what's nice
is that you can recognize that you are breathing that smog, and
that's the first step.
We all live in a racialized society.
And individuals of color are exposed to it more obviously, with
more virulence, more force, than anybody is.
But what is important
is that race is a very salient social and historical concept,
a social and historical idea. It's shaped institutions, it's shaped
our legal system, it shapes interactions in law offices and housing
offices and in medical schools, in dentist's offices. It shapes
that. And I think by stripping the biology from it, by stripping
the idea that race is somehow based in biology, we show the emperor
to have no clothes, we show race for what it is: it's an idea
that's constantly being reinvented, and it's up to us about how
we want to invent it and go ahead and reinvent it. But it's up
to us to do it.
Racism rests in part on the idea that race is
biology; it is based on biology. So, the biology becomes an excuse
for social differences. The social differences become naturalized
in biology. It's not that our institutions cause differences in
mortality; it's that there really are biological differences between
So, until we address that there is no race in biology,
that race is an idea that we ascribe to biology, that there's
no race there, there's a possibility that well-meaning and not-so-well
meaning individuals will drag that up and will inevitably put
that in our faces as the reasons why there are differences in
life circumstances between different groups.
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