|The Niña, the Pinta, and the Kalamazoo.|
Christopher Columbus claims the island of
Race matters, today, because we all live with its twin—racism (itself the bastard offspring of a more broad-ranging bigotry). Anthropology (and through it, archaeology) has much to contribute to the race debate in the present, even if it has a somewhat uneven record, historically, on the matter of race. As much as anthropologists have made substantial additions to knowledge of the human species, they have also---implicitly and explicitly---added much fuel to the social conflagration that is racism.
It's long since time to make amends.
Unfortunately, people calling themselves anthropologists have made major contributions to the construction of a racial worldview, which is the foundation of racism. As Carol Mukhopadhyay and Yolanda Moses pointed out a number of years ago in American Anthropologist, nineteenth century anthropology was geared toward classification and comparison of human groups, in keeping with the natural-history tradition out of which anthropology developed. This was welded to the already deeply entrenched racism of western cultures. With Darwin’s evocation of the principle of natural selection, which underpins evolutionary change, anthropologists began thinking of human groups as behaving according to Darwinian evolution. Social Darwinism and the Eugenics Movement weren't too far behind.
Because Morgan and Tyler and their contemporaries thought of their culture as the pinnacle of evolutionary progress, their thinking automatically relegated less materially complex, less scientifically oriented cultures to an evolutionary backwater. Such thinking only added impetus and the aura of scientific validity to Colonial oppression of indigenous people. To the likes of Morgan and Tylor, mental capacity and its presumed correlative, moral capacity, were linked to a notion of evolutionary progress. Once Gregor Mendel supplied the notion of heredity through "genes," racial difference---and thus the notion of racial superiority---had a much stronger 'scientific' basis.
BUT! Look at the way Nott and Gliddon "stack the deck" in favour of their visual "thesis." A line drawn along each individual's occlusal plane reveals that these racist F**ks have severely tilted backward our man in the middle and ever-so-slightly tipped forward Apollo's visage. This has the effect of reducing the degree of the Greek's facial prognathism and grossly exaggerating that of the disparaged middle man. You and I have to remember that it's not Science, but the scientist that perverts the empirical world in favour of one or another worldview.
|Fig. 4.—a, Swaheli; b, Persian.|
Okay. So, in those times no one seemed to notice that the so-called white race contained a large degree of variation, or that in fact, east Asian people have the least prognathic faces, something which, had it occurred to them, would have sent the measurers scrambling for a different parameter to put in their racial equation.
Craniometry is the systematic collection of head measurements, once used
as a means of characterizing human ‘races’ (Gould, S. J. The Mismeasure of Man)
Fig. 2.—Top View of Skulls.
a, Negro, index 70, dolichocephalic:
b, European, index 80, mesocephalic;
c, Samoyed, index 85, brachycephalic.
From "The Races of Mankind"
Popular Science Monthly
Volume 19 July 1881 (1881)
By Edward Burnett Tylor
I’ll come back to that in a future post.
Alas, physical anthropologists have been indispensable in promulgating and perpetuating a racial worldview. Physical anthropology (or biological anthropology as it more commonly called today) is that branch of anthropology that seeks to understand the nature and sources of human genetic variation. In the past, they have sought to understand the relationship between race and human variation (and some still do, to the detriment of the discipline).
By the 1930s and 40s, medical science and genetics, too, were providing empirical evidence that the notion of a biological basis for racial classifications was on increasingly shaky ground. They were finding that the distribution of genetic traits appeared to straddle previously defined racial groups, leading to suspicion that racial categories were problematic. This didn’t stop those interested in mandating and maintaining genetic purity, the eugenicists, from co-opting the methodologies of population genetics, and searching for ways of identifying and manipulating so-called defective genes, for example, for masturbation (remember that there was a time when you couldn’t say that in public, much less do it in private, without people suspecting you of insanity?).
[I wanted to link to a fair, well-documented treatment of eugenics, but even Wikipedia's article comes across (almost) as an apologia for a great idea that ended up in the hands of the wrong people. So, no links. Instead my web wanderings took me to many places that unsettled me, especially the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's "DNA Learning Center." In the more shadowy eugenics presences, it might well be written, "Here be monsters."]
In addition, Social theorists were entertaining new ways of understanding human interaction. Some were inspired by Marx’s critique of Capitalism and his insights into the ideologies that permit some groups to have disproportionate access to wealth. At the same time, anthropologists came to agree that race was not so much a biological reality as it was an arbitrary social category, politically motivated, and having political, economic, and social consequences.
Since the tide of thinking about race began to change a half-century ago, perceived racial differences between human groups have continued to have catastrophic consequences for people in places as disparate, for example, as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Los Angeles (the Rodney King riots), and the Indonesian anti-Sueharto riots, where ethnic Koreans and Chinese were targets of violence.
Happy in the knowledge that they had settled the question of race, anthropologists went about other work, while the rest of the population went about theirs, mostly ignorant of anthropological insights. Where once upon a time anthropologists had fed the thirst for evidence of racially based differences the discipline was feckless and largely unable to work against the status quo. At best they taught their insights to undergraduates. There appears to be no way to educate the broader public—no visible, public face for anthropology, to counter the much more widespread racial worldview.
Anthropologists have known for some decades about the racism inherent in racial categories. In spite of that, and in spite of clear evidence that the racial worldview was continuing to contribute to racism, it was only in 1998 that the American Anthropological Association (AAA), representing upwards of 10,000 sociocultural anthropologists, archaeologists, biological anthropologists and linguists, saw fit to make a submission to the United States government to rethink its standards, and to develop a more realistic way of categorizing Americans in its census and other official statistics.
The AAA was concerned to have the government adopt an informed position on race when collecting information for its census and for its programs to foster equality. Race, the AAA told Uncle Sam, is a ‘biological sounding term’ that adds nothing to the precision, rigor or actual basis of information being collected to characterize the identities of the American population. And more recently, the AAA has published its “Statement on Race”, which reflects the majority opinion of the discipline.
I think it’s well past time for some straight talk about race. I’ve now lived on two continents, in three nations run by descendants of European colonisers, where the descendants of the country’s original inhabitants daily endure the physical and mental by-products of racial thinking, and where their ancestors suffered unimaginably brutal treatment at the hands of the Europeans. Whether those indigenous populations were merely vilified, or were in fact the victims of cold-blooded murder, or stolen from their parents to live lives cut off from all that was meaningful to them, or worse, institutionalized for the crime of being angry at the treatment they received, in Canada, the US and Australia, people whose only crime was being different endured the depredations of racial classifications and of racism, and do so to this day. And every day, you can hear prominent (usually Corporatist) politicians employ racial categories and catch-phrases to communicate through inuendo to their constituents as they play their hateful power games.
To be continued...
Next up: How do our genes contribute to the racial worldview?
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