Can the Concept of Race be Redeemed by Science?

The Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology is part of Phillips Academy, a distinguished New England boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts. A serious financial and identity crisis led the school and museum into a closer relationship in 2002. The museum runs summer trips and provides work duty opportunities for academy students. On nice spring and fall days it is not unusual to find students testing their skill with the atlatl on the academy vista. The museum also serves as an on-campus field trip destination, with classes coming for lessons on ancient music, statistics using pottery sherds, or a role playing exploration of the Trail of Tears.

Perhaps a microcosm of the rest of the country, issues of both race and gender are palpable and specific events can polarize the campus. In April 2013 theNew York Times covered the campus debate on feminism and girls as leaders—since becoming a co-ed institution in 1973 only four girls have been elected school president. More recently comments in the school newspaper—The Philippian—touched off conversations about race. Like similar conversations on college campuses, these comments and discussions can be hurtful and unproductive. Both race and gender have a lot in common, an amalgam of appearance, social status, and identity wrapped tightly so that it becomes difficult to tease them apart. Issues of white male privilege are particularly prevalent and conversations about race and gender often degrade into attempts to quantify and assign blame.

As an occasional guest speaker in academy classes I’ve had an opportunity to share anthropological perspectives on race and gender, which happen to be areas that I’ve been interested in for some time. Teaching race in undergraduate classes in the mid-1990s was relatively easy. The indomitable Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould had tackled scientific racism in The Mismeasure of Manand so despised the very idea of race that by sheer personal will had made it difficult to go much beyond the fallacy of race as a biological concept. DNA and the human genome promised to expunge race from our vocabularies. As a graduate student in archaeology I was fascinated by the emerging field of gender studies and spent some time exploring the archaeological implications of alternative genders known in some Native American cultures. Students are usually fascinated and confounded when they discover that gender can be a very fluid phenomenon in many cultures.

Creating a historical context for conversations about race is one place that anthropology can help. I found that Audrey Smedley’s essay on the origin of the race concept is particularly powerful. Smedley’s essay reveals that race is a fairly new idea– a folk taxonomy–that gained traction among the supporters of the African slave trade when confronted with a growing abolitionist movement and a public that increasingly uncomfortable with slavery. In a marketing move worthy of Mad Men’s Don Draper, slavery’s advocates inextricably linked ethnicity and social status, sprinkled with a liberal dose of xenophobia. The saddest part of the story is that nineteenth century scientists buoyed the concept, giving us Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana–measurements of cranial capacity by race and the attendant correlation with intelligence. In conversations with students this is where I can revisit Gould’s quashing of race, but add new details, like the modern-day defenders of Morton’s methodology. Students are particularly puzzled by the growing interest in race among today’s scientists and the intense interest in using DNA to help define these racial categories.  Armand Marie Leroi’s 2005 New York Times op-ed piece A Family Tree in Every Gene presents a disconcerting argument about why using DNA to identify race is so important, crafted in response to those, like Gould, who would deny the biological realty of race.

Why is an anthropological perspective on race so significant? An excellent resource for those interested in teaching about race and racism is the book How Real is Race? A Sourcebook on Race, Culture, and Biology by Carol C. Mukhopadhyay, Rosemary Henze, and Yolanda T. Moses, who note that anthropology is the one discipline “that takes a biocultural approach to human variation.”  They further note that anthropology’s cross-cultural perspective is important in understanding that one culture’s racial constructs are not universally shared, and that some cultures do not have systems of inequality based on race.

So, can the concept of race be redeemed by science? It seems unlikely, especially considering the origin of this idea. Race isn’t a biological construct, but a social one, that goes beyond physical appearance, ethnicity, or national origin. Anthropology does, however, have something to offer to conversations about race. The American Anthropological Association developed a book, traveling exhibit and website called RACE: Are We So Different?that explores scientific investigation of human variation and the experiences of race and racism. PBS offers an outstanding series called RACE-The Power of an Illusion, complete with online resources. The PBS series includes Audrey Smedley’s essay, mentioned above, and really focuses on the origins of the concept. Both of these resources are great starting points, replete with resources for educators and students.

Or, ask an anthropologist to help develop materials that might be right for your class. Students often discuss race and gender in English classes, but there are opportunities for conversationacross the curriculum. Students need access to information that will allow them to engage in civil discourse. They need a context for understanding the origins of race and its attendant baggage.  Without that context race appears as a monolithic reality, and discourse is replaced by gut reactions.

Ryan J. Wheeler
Director, Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology
Andover, Massachusetts


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