Race: Are We So Different? American Anthropological Association
At a time when the election of the first African-American president of the United States has increased the amount of overt racism and racially tinged rhetoric in our national discourse, it is important that we examine what we know, or think we know, about "race."
We sit ensconced in racial certainties. We fill out forms and check boxes asking us for our "race" in everything from census data to consumer spending surveys. And yet social scientists, particularly anthropologists, have thrown out race as a valid scientific variable for years. The gap between science and public perception shows few signs of narrowing, despite the best efforts of certain sectors of academia.
I often wonder what it would have been like to live in ancient times when everyone "knew" the world was flat. This is just how I feel each semester when I have to teach introductory courses in both cultural anthropology and women's studies, which include key discussions of race, ethnicity and gender as part of the curriculum.
When I first started teaching about "race" to students who are predominantly U.S. born—hence, steeped in the culture of race as an ideology—there were not very many materials available that were easy to use to illustrate effectively the historical quagmire of "scientific racism" we are still embedded in up to our necks. I decided to develop some of my own teaching tools to help students begin to understand and deconstruct a subject that is divisive and misunderstood, notwithstanding the current science. Since that time I have also added two online sources I would highly recommend: Race, Are We So Different? a project of the American Anthropological Association, and Race-The Power of an Illusion, a PBS program produced by California Newsreel.
The first exercise is simple. All the students who are over 5'8" stand on one side of the room; the under 5'8" students stand on the other side. I then dub each group a "race." The students laugh. We do a second formation, this time by eye color. Blue, brown or hazel. More giggles. I announce that all the students with brown eyes in the tall group (the majority) will automatically get an A in the course. The hazels get Bs, and the blues get Cs. All those in the short group fail (no matter the eye color).
More laughs, groans, and mock protestations about the absurdity of this measure of academic performance.
I ask, "Is this any more absurd than the divisions we currently accept based on the 'science' of 'race,' which have directly affected racial socio-economic divisions and hierarchies in our society?"
They grow thoughtful.
We then move into part two.
I ask the students to write down what their "race" is. About 80 percent call themselves either "Caucasian" or "white." Of those who are left, some say Hispanic/Latino, others Black/African-American, Asian or Indian (Native American), "mixed race" and one or two say Jewish. I ask those who dub themselves "Caucasian" where their ancestors came from. None have ever had ancestry from the Caucasus Mountains region of Europe. No Asian-American students have ever chosen "Mongoloid" as their "race," nor has any African-American written "Negroid."
In 2011, despite all current science to the contrary, we are still trapped in historical social constructions of race, which were perpetuated by scientific racism.
Scientific racism is the use of scientific techniques to sanction the belief in racial superiority or racism.This is not the same as using scientific findings and the scientific method to investigate differences among the humans and argue that there are races. In biological classification differences between animal groups are investigated without necessarily claiming that one group is superior to others. Racism or racial supremacy is the additional claim that some races are superior to other races.
However, scientific racism is often used more narrowly as a synonym for the contemporary and historical theories that employ anthropology (notably physical anthropology), anthropometry, craniometry, and other disciplines, in fabricating anthropologic typologies supporting the classification of human populations into physically discrete human races that are claimed to be superior or inferior, specifically in a historical context of ca. 1880 to 1930. Scientific racism was thus most common during the New Imperialism period (ca. 1880s–1914), in the second half of the 19th century, and used in justifying white European imperialism.
After the end of the Second World War (1939–45) and the occurrence of the Holocaust, scientific racism in theory and action was formally denounced, especially in UNESCO's antiracist statement "The Race Question" (1950): "The biological fact of race and the myth of ‘race’ should be distinguished. For all practical social purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth. The myth of 'race' has created an enormous amount of human and social damage. In recent years, it has taken a heavy toll in human lives, and caused untold suffering." However, the statement acknowledged that different human races exist. Beginning in the later 20th century, scientific racism has been criticized as obsolete, and as historically used to support or validate racist world-views, based upon belief in the existence and significance of racial categories and a hierarchy of superior and inferior races.
None of my self-identified "Caucasian" students is even vaguely aware of the history of this taxonomic category.
Birth of "Caucasian"
Johann Blumenbach, one of many 18th-century naturalists, lays out the scientific template for race in On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. Although he opposes slavery, he maps a hierarchical pyramid of five human types, placing "Caucasians" at the top because he believes a skull found in the Caucasus Mountains is the "most beautiful form...from which...the others diverge." This model is widely embraced, and Blumenbach inadvertently paves the way for scientific claims about white superiority.
So … Caucasian = white.
Despite the best efforts of contemporary anthropologists to undo the damage created in part by our academic ancestors, this term is still in use—in the news, in daily life, in textbooks and data collection.
In the United States, the term Caucasian has been mainly used to describe a group commonly called Whites, as defined by the government and Census Bureau.] Between 1917 and 1965, immigration to the US was restricted by a national origins quota. The Supreme Court in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) decided that Asian Indians and Middle Easterners – unlike Europeans – were Caucasian, but were not white, because most laypeople did not consider them to be white people. This was important for determining whether they could become naturalized citizens, then limited to free whites. The court and government changed its opinion in 1946. In 1965 major changes were made to immigration law, lifting earlier restrictions on immigrants from Asia.
The United States National Library of Medicine has used the term "Caucasian" as a race in the past, but has discontinued its usage in favor of the term "European"
Part 3 of my class is a visual quiz. Depending on how each of us is acculturated, we respond to visual cues about "race," and often our conclusions also include preconceptions about social class and status. "Race markers" are phenotypic—meaning expressed physical traits like skin color, hair texture and facial features.
However, depending on the culture we grow up in, the same markers may have different meanings. Ergo "white" in the U.S. may not be the same as "white" in Brazil.
I published this visual quiz once before here at Daily Kos in 2009. For those who missed it, join me below the fold.
You are now a census taker.
Below are photos of people born before 1930. Using U.S. census categories for "race" that were available at that time, please select the race of each person.
You may select from the following categories.
Mulatto (mixed "race")
Indian (Native American)
Hispanic (a later category, but I have added it here because it helps me discuss race/ethnicity with students)
In the interest of time and brevity, I will not ask you to do the extended exercise I do with students, because they are asked to assign ethnicity/nationality, occupation and and social status to the people in the photos. They also get 20 photos.
They are also asked to pick the person with the highest social status from among the group. I will ask you to make that choice. Then explain why you made that selection.
Answers will be posted to my first comment in the diary (no peeking).
You have now done what many census takers did in the past—identified someone's "race" by looking at them.
Some of the people in these photos were identified differently depending on the census taker and the context. The ways in which the government collects these data have changed significantly over time. But it is still collected based on a system of pseudo-science that re-enforces racism.
Currently, "race" and ethnicity data are collected under these definitions:
Race and ethnicity in the United States Census, as defined by the United States Census Bureau and the Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB), are self-identification data items in which residents choose the race or races with which they most closely identify, and indicate whether or not they are of Hispanic or Latino origin (ethnicity).
The racial categories represent a social-political construct designed for the race or races that respondents consider themselves to be and "generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country." The OMB defines the concept of race as outlined for the US Census as not "scientific or anthropological" and takes into account "social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry" using "appropriate scientific methodologies" but not "primarily biological or genetic in reference."
Race and ethnicity are considered separate and distinct identities, with Hispanic or Latino origin asked as a separate question. Thus, in addition to their race or races, all respondents are categorized by membership in one of two ethnicities: Hispanic or Latino, and Not Hispanic or Latino. In 1997, OMB issued a Federal Register Notice which provided revised racial and ethnic definitions.
The methodology of self-identification is rather new. In the past, when census data was collected door to door, the census taker had the responsibility to determine "race" by visually examining a person in a household and selecting from a narrow group of categories.
Data has been collected on "race" since the first census, as mandated by the Constitution.
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
The 3/5 persons were "black" people who were enslaved. So "race" and how it was determined was built into the founding stones of the census and our democracy.
Let us look at the census of 1880, and instructions to enumerators.
Color.—It must not be assumed that, where nothing is written in this column, "white" is to be understood. The column is always to be filled. Be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto. The word is here generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood. Important scientific results depend upon the correct determination of this class in schedules 1 and 5.
By the phrase "Indians not taxed" is meant Indians living on reservations under the care of Government agents, or roaming individually, or in bands, over settled tracts of country.
Indians, not in tribal relations, whether full-bloods or half-breeds, who are found mingled with the white population, residing in white families, engaged as servants or laborers, or living in huts or wigwams on the outskirts of towns or settlements are to be regarded as a part of the ordinary population of the country for the constitutional purpose of the apportionment of Representatives among the States, and are to be embraced in the enumeration.
How interesting that none of this is in reality scientific. It certainly points to the politics of categories and classifications and to the development of what anthropologist Marvin Harris has defined as the rule of hypodescent, more often known as the "one-drop rule"
In societies that regard some races of people as dominant or superior and others as subordinate or inferior, hypodescent is the automatic assignment of children of a mixed union or mating between members of different socioeconomic groups or ethnic groups to the minority group...In its most extreme form in the United States, hypodescent was the basis of the "one drop rule", meaning that if a individual had any black ancestry, the person was classified as black. New laws were passed in southern states and others long after the end of slavery to define white and black, under associated laws for segregation. Tennessee adopted such a "one-drop" statute in 1910, and Louisiana soon followed. Then Texas and Arkansas in 1911, Mississippi in 1917, North Carolina in 1923, Virginia in 1924, Alabama and Georgia in 1927, and Oklahoma in 1931. During this same period, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Utah retained their old "blood fraction" statutes de jure, but amended these fractions (one-sixteenth, one-thirtysecond) to be equivalent to one-drop de facto.
The American Anthropological Association, after much discussion, issued this statement on "Race" in 1997. It is well worth reading the entire statement. I am selecting but one segment.
Historical research has shown that the idea of "race" has always carried more meanings than mere physical differences; indeed, physical variations in the human species have no meaning except the social ones that humans put on them. Today scholars in many fields argue that "race" as it is understood in the United States of America was a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.
From its inception, this modern concept of "race" was modeled after an ancient theorem of the Great Chain of Being, which posited natural categories on a hierarchy established by God or nature. Thus "race" was a mode of classification linked specifically to peoples in the colonial situation. It subsumed a growing ideology of inequality devised to rationalize European attitudes and treatment of the conquered and enslaved peoples. Proponents of slavery in particular during the 19th century used "race" to justify the retention of slavery. The ideology magnified the differences among Europeans, Africans, and Indians, established a rigid hierarchy of socially exclusive categories underscored and bolstered unequal rank and status differences, and provided the rationalization that the inequality was natural or God-given. The different physical traits of African-Americans and Indians became markers or symbols of their status differences.
As they were constructing US society, leaders among European-Americans fabricated the cultural/behavioral characteristics associated with each "race," linking superior traits with Europeans and negative and inferior ones to blacks and Indians. Numerous arbitrary and fictitious beliefs about the different peoples were institutionalized and deeply embedded in American thought.
Early in the 19th century the growing fields of science began to reflect the public consciousness about human differences. Differences among the "racial" categories were projected to their greatest extreme when the argument was posed that Africans, Indians, and Europeans were separate species, with Africans the least human and closer taxonomically to apes. Ultimately "race" as an ideology about human differences was subsequently spread to other areas of the world. It became a strategy for dividing, ranking, and controlling colonized people used by colonial powers everywhere. But it was not limited to the colonial situation. In the latter part of the 19th century it was employed by Europeans to rank one another and to justify social, economic, and political inequalities among their peoples. During World War II, the Nazis under Adolf Hitler enjoined the expanded ideology of "race" and "racial" differences and took them to a logical end: the extermination of 11 million people of "inferior races" (e.g., Jews, Gypsies, Africans, homosexuals, and so forth) and other unspeakable brutalities of the Holocaust.
The AAA also made strong recommendations to the U.S. government in response to OMB directive 15, before the 2010 census decision to phase out "race" as a category and to use ethnicity.
Here is the most important part:
5. The American Anthropological Association recommends the elimination of the term "race" from OMB Directive 15 during the planning for the 2010 Census. During the past 50 years, "race" has been scientifically proven to not be a real, natural phenomenon. More specific, social categories such as "ethnicity" or "ethnic group" are more salient for scientific purposes and have fewer of the negative, racist connotations for which the concept of race was developed.
Yet the concept of race has become thoroughly--and perniciously--woven into the cultural and political fabric of the United States. It has become an essential element of both individual identity and government policy. Because so much harm has been based on "racial" distinctions over the years, correctives for such harm must also acknowledge the impact of "racial" consciousness among the U.S. populace, regardless of the fact that "race" has no scientific justification in human biology. Eventually, however, these classifications must be transcended and replaced by more non-racist and accurate ways of representing the diversity of the U.S. population.
This is the dilemma and opportunity of the moment. It is important to recognize the categories to which individuals have been assigned historically in order to be vigilant about the elimination of discrimination. Yet ultimately, the effective elimination of discrimination will require an end to such categorization, and a transition toward social and cultural categories that will prove more scientifically useful and personally resonant for the public than are categories of "race." Redress of the past and transition for the future can be simultaneously effected. The American Anthropological Association recognizes that elimination of the term "race" in government parlance will take time to accomplish. However, the combination of the terms "race/ethnicity" in OMB Directive 15 and the Census 2000 will assist in this effort, serving as a "bridge" to the elimination of the term "race" by the Census 2010.
Unfortunately, the 2010 census "racial" data did not include the steps recommended.
So how long will it take for us to abandon what we think we know about "race"?
Let me be clear: I am not talking about "culture." Any number of ethnic groups have learned or acquired cultures that enrich our national patchwork quilt. I am not advocating that we disassociate the roots of jazz, Delta blues or R&B as cultural contributions that were birthed in African-American communities.
I am not suggesting that we do not collect demographic data that can assist in allocating funding or passing legislation to redress systemic imbalances.
But as long as we cling to the idea of "race" as real, we will never eliminate the racism with which it is intertwined.