Anthropology and Racism

Richard Reichart (reichart@PLUTO.NJCC.COM)
Thu, 30 Nov 1995 04:09:30 -0500

It has been very interesting and helpful to read the recent postings on
this subject, and particularly with regard to Carleton Coon. Here is a
recent letter to the editor from me (not published). I wonder whether
is isn't the responsibility of the anthropological discipline to address
the public and clearly explain its failed historical efforts to associate
cultural characteristics with physical traits, as Prof. Eugenia Shanklin
did in her 1994 book "Anthropology and Race."

Letters Editor
The New York Times

Re: Race as a Social Construct

Law Professor Kingsley Browne (letter, Nov. 4) correctly asserts that the
word "race" reflects an "underlying biological reality." However, those
who employ the term almost always do so merely as a convenience in
discussing human traits which are patently not biological, but cultural or
social or political.

For almost a century, anthropology scholars undertook the systematic study
of human populations which showed the biological and behavioral
commonalities which had historically been described as "racial." For
example, Carleton Coon, almost the last of the great physical
anthropologists to assert the reality of a connection between biology and
cultural behavior, in 1939 published "The Races of Europe" in which he
identified four categories containing ten major and nine minor racial
subtypes within that continent alone!

However, 40 or 50 years ago the bulk of anthropologists gave up the effort
to define race, and to specify races, on the ground that these terms have
no referent useful in scholarly investigation of the human species. So
little is known about a person on the basis of some physical
characteristics which present that person as belonging to some "racial
type" that such classifications are of use only to those who wish to make
invidious contrasts among social groups.

In continuing to make so-called racial distinctions, whether superficially
as from skin color or carefully through multiple measurements of skulls
and other body parts, we adhere to a thoroughly discredited set of ideas
which are accurately termed "racism." Whether used negatively or
positively, these ideas blind us to the greater reality of the uniqueness
of every individual human being, including our abilities to learn and use
any culture regardless of our physical characteristics.

R. B. Reichart