Does Race Exist?
Dr. George Gill (and Jaime Stuart)
A proponent's perspective
by George W. Gill
Slightly over half of all biological/physical anthropologists today
believe in the traditional view that human races are biologically valid and
real. Furthermore, they tend to see nothing wrong in defining and naming the
different populations of Homo sapiens. The other half of the biological
anthropology community believes either that the traditional racial categories
for humankind are arbitrary and meaningless, or that at a minimum there are
better ways to look at human variation than through the "racial lens."
Are there differences in the research concentrations of these two groups of
experts? Yes, most decidedly there are. As pointed out in a recent 2000 edition
of a popular physical anthropology textbook, forensic anthropologists (those
who do skeletal identification for law-enforcement agencies) are overwhelmingly
in support of the idea of the basic biological reality of human races, and yet
those who work with blood-group data, for instance, tend to reject the
biological reality of racial categories.
I happen to be one of those very few forensic physical anthropologists who
actually does research on the particular traits used today in forensic racial
identification (i.e., "assessing ancestry," as it is generally termed today).
Partly this is because for more than a decade now U.S. national and regional
forensic anthropology organizations have deemed it necessary to quantitatively
test both traditional and new methods for accuracy in legal cases. I
volunteered for this task of testing methods and developing new methods in the
late 1980s. What have I found? Where do I now stand in the "great race
debate?" Can I see truth on one side or the other—or on both sides—in this
Where does George Gill stand in the
"great race debate?" Read on.
First, I have found that forensic anthropologists attain a high degree of accuracy in
determining geographic racial affinities (white, black, American Indian, etc.)
by utilizing both new and traditional methods of bone analysis. Many
well-conducted studies were reported in the late 1980s and 1990s that test
methods objectively for percentage of correct placement. Numerous individual
methods involving midfacial measurements, femur traits, and so on are over 80
percent accurate alone, and in combination produce very high levels of
accuracy. No forensic anthropologist would make a racial assessment based upon
just one of these methods, but in combination they can make very
reliable assessments, just as in determining sex or age. In other words,
multiple criteria are the key to success in all of these determinations.
I have a respected colleague, the skeletal biologist C. Loring Brace, who is as
skilled as any of the leading forensic anthropologists at assessing ancestry
from bones, yet he does not subscribe to the concept of race. [Read Brace's
position on the concept of race.] Neither does Norman Sauer, a
board-certified forensic anthropologist. My students ask, "How can this be?
They can identify skeletons as to racial origins but do not believe in race!"
My answer is that we can often function within systems that we do not
While he doesn't believe in
socially stipulated "age" categories, Gill says, he can "age" skeletions with
As a middle-aged male, for example, I am not so sure that I believe any longer
in the chronological "age" categories that many of my colleagues in skeletal
biology use. Certainly parts of the skeletons of some 45-year-old people look
older than corresponding portions of the skeletons of some 55-year-olds. If,
however, law enforcement calls upon me to provide "age" on a skeleton, I can
provide an answer that will be proven sufficiently accurate should the decedent
eventually be identified. I may not believe in society's "age" categories, but
I can be very effective at "aging" skeletons. The next question, of course, is
how "real" is age biologically? My answer is that if one can use biological
criteria to assess age with reasonable accuracy, then age has some basis in
biological reality even if the particular "social construct" that defines its
limits might be imperfect. I find this true not only for age and stature
estimations but for sex and race identification.
The "reality of race" therefore depends more on the definition of reality than
on the definition of race. If we choose to accept the system of racial taxonomy
that physical anthropologists have traditionally established—major races:
black, white, etc.—then one can classify human skeletons within it just as
well as one can living humans. The bony traits of the nose, mouth, femur, and
cranium are just as revealing to a good osteologist as skin color, hair form,
nose form, and lips to the perceptive observer of living humanity. I have been
able to prove to myself over the years, in actual legal cases, that I am
more accurate at assessing race from skeletal remains than from looking
at living people standing before me. So those of us in forensic anthropology
know that the skeleton reflects race, whether "real" or not, just as well if
not better than superficial soft tissue does. The idea that race is "only skin
deep" is simply not true, as any experienced forensic anthropologist will affirm.
"I am more accurate at
assessing race from skeletal remains that from looking at living people
standing before me," Gill says.
Position on race
I stand today in the "great race debate" after a decade and a half of pertinent
skeletal research is clearly more on the side of the reality of race than on
the "race denial" side. Yet I do see why many other physical anthropologists
are able to ignore or deny the race concept. Blood-factor analysis, for
instance, shows many traits that cut across racial boundaries in a purely
clinal fashion with very few if any "breaks" along racial boundaries. (A
cline is a gradient of change, such as from people with a high frequency of
blue eyes, as in Scandinavia, to people with a high frequency of brown eyes, as
Morphological characteristics, however, like skin color, hair form, bone
traits, eyes, and lips tend to follow geographic boundaries coinciding often
with climatic zones. This is not surprising since the selective forces of
climate are probably the primary forces of nature that have shaped human races
with regard not only to skin color and hair form but also the underlying bony
structures of the nose, cheekbones, etc. (For example, more prominent noses
humidify air better.) As far as we know, blood-factor frequencies are
not shaped by these same climatic factors.
gradients of change, such as that between areas where most people have blue
eyes and areas in which brown eyes predominate.
So, serologists who work largely with blood factors will tend to see human
variation as clinal and races as not a valid construct, while skeletal
biologists, particularly forensic anthropologists, will see races as
biologically real. The common person on the street who sees only a person's
skin color, hair form, and face shape will also tend to see races as
biologically real. They are not incorrect. Their perspective is just different
from that of the serologist.
So, yes, I see truth on both sides of the race argument.
Those who believe that the concept of race is valid do not discredit the notion
of clines, however. Yet those with the clinal perspective who believe that
races are not real do try to discredit the evidence of skeletal biology. Why
this bias from the "race denial" faction? This bias seems to stem largely from
socio-political motivation and not science at all. For the time being at least,
the people in "race denial" are in "reality denial" as well. Their motivation
(a positive one) is that they have come to believe that the race concept is
socially dangerous. In other words, they have convinced themselves that race
promotes racism. Therefore, they have pushed the politically correct agenda
that human races are not biologically real, no matter what the evidence.
Consequently, at the beginning of the 21st century, even as a
majority of biological anthropologists favor the reality of the race
perspective, not one introductory textbook of physical anthropology even
presents that perspective as a possibility. In a case as flagrant as this, we
are not dealing with science but rather with blatant, politically motivated
censorship. But, you may ask, are the politically correct actually correct? Is
there a relationship between thinking about race and racism?
Race and racism
Does discussing the concept of race promote racism?
Does discussing human variation in a framework of racial biology promote or reduce
racism? This is an important question, but one that does not have a simple
answer. Most social scientists over the past decade have convinced themselves
that it runs the risk of promoting racism in certain quarters. Anthropologists
of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, on the other hand, believed that they
were combating racism by openly discussing race and by teaching courses on
human races and racism. Which approach has worked best? What do the
intellectuals among racial minorities believe? How do students react and
Three years ago, I served on a NOVA-sponsored panel in New York, in which
panelists debated the topic "Is There Such a Thing as Race?" Six of us sat on
the panel, three proponents of the race concept and three antagonists. All had
authored books or papers on race. Loring Brace and I were the two
anthropologists "facing off" in the debate. The ethnic composition of the panel
was three white and three black scholars. As our conversations developed, I was
struck by how similar many of my concerns regarding racism were to those of my
two black teammates. Although recognizing that embracing the race concept can
have risks attached, we were (and are) more fearful of the form of racism
likely to emerge if race is denied and dialogue about it lessened. We fear that
the social taboo about the subject of race has served to suppress open
discussion about a very important subject in need of dispassionate debate. One
of my teammates, an affirmative-action lawyer, is afraid that a denial that
races exist also serves to encourage a denial that racism exists. He asks,
"How can we combat racism if no one is willing to talk about race?"
Who will benefit?
"How can we combat racism," asks an affirmative-action lawyer, "if
no one is willing to talk about race?"
In my experience, minority students almost invariably have been the strongest
supporters of a "racial perspective" on human variation in the classroom. The
first-ever black student in my human variation class several years ago came to
me at the end of the course and said, "Dr. Gill, I really want to thank you for
changing my life with this course." He went on to explain that, "My whole life
I have wondered about why I am black, and if that is good or bad. Now I know
the reasons why I am the way I am and that these traits are useful and good."
A human-variation course with another perspective would probably have
accomplished the same for this student if he had ever noticed it. The truth is,
innocuous contemporary human-variation classes with their politically correct
titles and course descriptions do not attract the attention of minorities or
those other students who could most benefit. Furthermore, the politically
correct "race denial" perspective in society as a whole suppresses dialogue,
allowing ignorance to replace knowledge and suspicion to replace familiarity.
This encourages ethnocentrism and racism more than it discourages it.
Dr. George W. Gill is a professor of anthropology at the University of
Wyoming. He also serves as the forensic anthropologist for Wyoming
law-enforcement agencies and the Wyoming State Crime Laboratory.
Does Race Exist? |
Meet Kennewick Man
Claims for the Remains |
The Dating Game |
Site Map |
Mystery of the First Americans Home
Editor's Picks |
Previous Sites |
Join Us/E-mail |
About NOVA |
Site Map |
PBS Online |
NOVA Online |
© | Updated November 2000