Anthropology and Race 1: The Rise and Persistence of Scientific Racism

There is little question that we live in a racist society.  Economic indicators alone reveal the price that people pay because they have a  heavier skin pigmentation than others. The poverty rate among   Blacks and Hispanics in the United States is three times that of whites.  African Americans account for 10.7 percent of the workforce, but only 6.9 percent of executive or managerial positions. Hispanics account for 9.2 percent of the labor force, but only 4.8 percent of executive positions.  You can get addition information on economic inequality in America in the report by Woodrow Ginsburg, Income and Inequality.   Yet while racism is obviously pervasive,  people often are unaware of the racist attitudes that they hold (you can test yourself using the Implicit Association Test developed by Washington and Yale University).  One of the questions asked by anthropologists is why do racist attitudes persist?  Are people naturally inclined to denigrate people of other groups?  Does it have to do with historical attitudes that were used to justify slavery that have persisted?  Or is there something about specific cultures that encourage racism?

Most anthropologists recognize that race is a social concept, not a biological one.  That is, it stigmatizes some individuals as different and reinforces the privileges of others.  There is no evidence that there are large groups of biologically distinct human beings (i.e. subspecies) that correspond to what people refer to when they talk about "race."   Furthermore, to base any kind of biological category on a single physical characteristic, such as skin color (which, in itself is incredibly varied and determined by multiple genes), is clearly nonsense.  Yet the concept of race persists in our popular culture, and is occasionally given legitimacy by researchers from fields as varied as psychology and political science.    (Check out the American Anthropological Association Statement on Race and the statement on "Race" and Intelligence).

In the next few  Editor's Choice columns we'll explore the phenomenon of race and racism to try to understand why it persists and point the way to some valuable resources on the Internet.  In this column we will explore the history of "scientific racism," that is the attempt to "prove" scientifically that some "races" are qualitatively superior to others.  In effect, scientific racism attempts to use science to legitimate racist beliefs.  Scientific racism has a long history.  In the nineteenth century scholars such as Samuel George Morton attempted to prove that some "races" were superior to others by measuring the cranial capacity (brain size) of skulls representing different groups (e.g. "Blacks," "American Indians," "Whites"); his concluded, based on his measurements, that Whites were superior to other groups. 

Almost a century later, Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould described in his book, The Mismeasure of Man, how he remeasured the same skulls used by Morton.  He discovered that Morton must have attempted to confirm to himself what he and other Americans already "knew": that whites were superior to blacks and to Indians.   He did this by accepting data that confirmed his biases, and rejecting data that did not support them.  For example, he included in his sample of black skulls more females than he included in the white sample.  In his American Indian sample, he included more small-brained Inca skulls than large-brain Iroquois skulls.  In addition, he omitted small-sized Hindu skulls from his white sample.  In fact when Gould remeasured the skulls, he found that the average size of black male skulls was larger than that of white males.  He know now that skull size or cranial capacity tells us nothing about intelligence, but in the nineteenth century such "scientific" efforts were used by people to legitimate their racial biases.

Most anthropologists no longer take the idea of race seriously.    Human populations do differ in some respects in their genetic makeup (e.g. blood types), but there is little use in trying to lump groups into racial groupings based on often, physically meaningless characteristics (e.g. skin pigmentation).  As such, the efforts of people such as Samuel George Morton to "prove" the superiority of one "race" over another, might be dismissed as historical oddities, except for one thing.  There are still people who believe that they can scientifically prove that some groups of people are genetically superior to other groups.  Much of this effort  derives from eugenics, the attempt to distinguish between people with "good" and "bad" genes, and to foster social legislation that would encourage those with good genes to have more children than those with bad genes.  You can find a wealth of information about the eugenics at the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.  Check out particularly the link on the social origins of eugenics.  As the authors of the site note, eugenics, which was behind much of the Nazi effort to "eliminate" undesirable peoples such as Jews, Gypsies, Catholics, and Gays, has been thoroughly discredited.   Yet it continually resurfaces in other guises, and may yet be fully revived with the discovery of techniques to modify the human genome.

Two of the most recent attempts to revive eugenic ideas about racial superiority are The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray and the various writings of psychologist J. Philippe Rushton particularly his Race, .  You can get both positive and negative views of The Bell Curve at Two Views of the Bell Curve and at Upstream (and you can enter The Bell Curve at any search engine and get many more critiques).   One of the more distressing facts about works such as The Bell Curve is the attention and legitimacy they are given by the media.  Yet rarely do media commentators fully understand the fallacies that lie behind the basic building blocks of scientific racism (e.g. "intelligence," IQ, "race," etc), and manage to simply reinforce social biases that privilege some people and penalize others.

One of the best sites on the Web to get information about scientific racism is The History of Race in Science.  Particularly valuable is the link page that will take you to some good examples of so-called "scientific racism."   One of the more controversial theorists is psychologist J. Phillipe Rushton, whose work manages to reinforce virutally every racial stereotype common in American folk culture from the nineteenth century to the present.  You can get a sample of his writings at Upstream.

The big question, of course, is why do people like Rushton continue to attract attention, and why does the racism that they reinforce persist.  In our next Editor's Choice column we'll offer some possible explanations.

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