Re: Anthropology and Racism

Vance Geiger (geiger@PEGASUS.CC.UCF.EDU)
Thu, 30 Nov 1995 14:20:46 -0500

Richard Reichart <reichart@PLUTO.NJCC.COM> wrote:

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.


I followed the discussion from Shelby Steele through Ira Glasser
to the response of Browne the Reichart refers to. Please bear
with me as I give some examples, there is a trend here and a

Shelby Steele (NYT 10/24) writing against affirmative action

"Americans seem to have forgotten something that was more obvious
during the cicil rights movement: that race, though a biological
fact, is a dangerously empty distinction because it can carry
whatever meaning we give it without the support of reason or

through Ira Glasser (NYT 10/28) referring to Steele:

He himself reinforces what he says he wants to avoid when he
concedes that race is "a biological fact." It is not. Skin
color is a biological fact, but "race" implies more. Race
implies that skin color is linked genetically and biologically to
other characteristics, such as intelligence, responsibility and
moral capacity. There is no credible evidence for that, and most
biologists have rejected the notion of race as a biological

Then comes Kingsley R. Browne (NYT 11/04) taking issue with Ira
Glasser's assertion that race is not a biological fact:

"Using this reasoning, an African and a native of India are of
the same race if their skin color is identical. Yet few would
consider this pair to be of the same race, no matter which of the
many racial classifications is used."
"Contrary to Mr. Glasser, acceptance of race as a biological
construct does not imply that racial groups necessarily vary in
'intelligence, responsibility and moral capacity.' It means they
differ in genetic material as a consequence of historical
seperation. If race were purely a social construct, the proposal
that the Human Genome Diversity Project inventory the genes of
African-American seperately from American whites would be as
frivolous as having a seperate inventory for Republicans."

Comment Cont'd"

Browne's response is the most interesting of those in the NYT.
In the first paragraph of Browne's provided above we can see how
Browne supports his assertion through a tautology (and implies
that Glasser would have to concede it as well). He identifies
two populations that he implies are different racial populations
as a result of different geographical origins and suggests that
even if they share a commonly used physical trait to infer race,
i.e. skin color, they would still be of different races. The
problem with making this argument as a counter to Glasser is that
if Glasser is serious then he would consider Africans and Indians
to be of the same race, the human race, thus rendering Browne's
implied distinction meaningless. In Browne's second paragraph he
contradicts himself and hopefully misrepresents the HGDP. Browne
aserts that it would be as frivolous, if race is not a biological
fact, to inventory the alleles of African-Americans seperately
from American whites as inventorying the alleles of Republicans
seperately. In fact, by Browne's own definition of what a race
is supposed to be, a difference in "genetic material as a
consequence of historical seperation" it is frivolous to
inventory the alleles of African-Americans seperately from
American whites as they are not historically seperated,in fact
quite the reverse, they are historically unfied. Hopefully the
HDGP is not trying to do this. It is my understanding that the
HGDP is in the business of trying to incorporate the genetic
diversity of populations that have historically been isolated. I
could be wrong about this.

The point about "race" as a biological fact as revealed in these
exchanges, aand most revelingly in Browne's, is that race IS a
social construct not a biological one because race is a discrete
category while individuals as well as populations of humans show
statistical variation. The concept of race turns that variation
into discrete entities. Browne above, for example, considers
Africans and Indians to be discrete, distinctly different

As Brace et al (Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 1993, 36:1-39)
point out, as well as Halloway in an earlier post on Anthro-l,
there are populations that show clustering of physical
characteristics (as well as clinal distributions). The
clustering, however, represents a greater statistical likelihood
to among people in a particular population to exhibit a physical
characteristic than people in another population. The difference
is, however, not absolutely discrete. We can use this
information to explore the selection pressure on these different
populations but not to create absolute distinctions between them.

Reichart in his post also writes:

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."


Shanklin points out in Anthropology and Race that in a survey in
1984-85 52% of cultural anthropologists dissagreed that there are
biological races while only 42% of physical anthropologists did
(Shanklin, 1994:97).

I do not know what led to the difference, but it could be a
greater awareness on the part of cultural anthropologists of
people to think typologically and to act on the basis of
typologicaly lumping people.

Shanklin also points out (in dissagreeing with it) the approach
of Alice Brues who argued that "the real secret of teaching about
race is... [to] give students so much information that they
willnever think of racial differences as simple enough that you
can base any kind of practical information on it."

The problem with this approach is that typological thinking is
one of the results of having too much information. When the
human mind has to process too much information in the business of
making a decision about what to do it lumps the information for
easier and faster processing. it is much easier to process the
potential behavior of another person about whom you do not know
very much when you have a "type" in memory on which you can draw.
In fact, contrary to Brues, people already have lots of
information about other people, probably too much already, as a
result of direct contacts in daily life. People approaching the
behavior of other people and basing their assesments on what they
actually see could already easily discern that there are
individual white, blacks, asians, etc... however you want to lump
people up, and that there is variation in howthey behave. It is
the volume of such information in a mobile society like ours that
leads to the lumping, not needing more information.

Consequently, I would agree with Reichart that we should teach
the history of anthropology and how studies, both objective and
racist, of human variation were or were not mistaken. Further,
we should teach the context in which racism arose, the social
environment which made such ideas acceptable. Racism is an
ideology, and like all ideologies it appears and finds its appeal
in its ability to suspend contingency, to assert an order in
human events, and through inferences of causes and effects to
create a determinism that reaffirms the way people organize their
social life. Ideologies lend the veneer of knowing what to do in
a contingent world where you can not know what to do in every
situation. What do we do about social inequalities? Accept that
they are biologically determined (i.e. The Bell Curve) and thus
nothing can be done? Or accept that they are environmentally
determined and the result of differences in access to "social
capital?" These two ideologies lead to very different approaches
to the same set of problems. They both, however, do present
alternative paths to take, the lend a veneer of knowing what to
do about a problem. People argue vociferously on both sides. In
doing so they also resort to the current means to validate an
argument, the assertion of a scientific fact, or the introduction
of science on their side. For example, Browne's reach for the
HGDP in his letter to the NYT and Glasser's grip on "most
biologists." We have to recognize that any discussion of races
by biological anthropologists, either pro or con, will be used as
scientific support for ideological arguments just as it has in
the past.

As an interesting aside to this discussion there was a recent
debate in the journal Intelligence (vol 19, 1994) where some
serious behavioral geneticists (for example Sandra Scarr) argued
that IQ may not be as heritable as the behavioral geneticists
(including themselves) had thought in analyzing their data from
the Minnesota Twin Study. They are now saying that very early
adoption experience (such as how many intermediate households the
children lived in before finally being permanently adopted) had a
much greater effect on later IQ than did genetics. Two Pioneer
Fund types, Michael Levin and Richard Lynn responded that the
original researchers had misinterpreted their own data and that
it actually supported the heritability of IQ and not
surprisingly, differences in IQ between races. I found this
dissagreement between the scientists that overwhelmingly believe
(if you believe the Bell Curve) in the heritability of IQ to be

vance geiger