Friday, May 24, 2013

Five questions with Jonathan Marks

Ryan Anderson: You focus on race and racism in a lot of your work. Why?

Jonathan Marks: Because it is the question that defined the field of physical anthropology for most of its existence, and we have learned a lot about it. But when I was in graduate school, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, physical anthropology was busily defining itself out of relevance. People were publishing fine books on, say, “Human Variation and Microevolution,” without mentioning the word race. They said, “There is no race, there is just population genetics, we have solved this problem, good night.” And everybody else said, “Actually race is important, and if you won’t talk to us about it, we’ll turn to sociologists and fruitfly geneticists, and worse yet, even to psychologists.”

So I’ve been interested in bringing the knowledge of the actual patterns of human variation, which biological anthropology ought to be the authoritative scientific voice of, to the broader scholarly community. This also involves the question of how biological and cultural anthropology connect. Race is a perfect example, because to make sense of race, you have to understand it as based to some extent on natural differences, and to some extent on the arbitrary cultural processes of classification, and the imposition of meaningful distinctions upon the universe of our experiences. So it isn’t really genetic, and it isn’t really imaginary--race is a fundamentally biocultural category, or a unit of nature/culture.

That’s why history shows so nicely how geneticists have been consistently able to identify human races when they have expected to find them, and to fail to identify human races when they don’t expect to find them. That’s because geneticists study difference, but race is meaningful difference. It’s the imposition of qualitative categories upon the quantitative facts of ancestry. The question of race isn’t whether two samples are different (because two human populations will always be different), but rather about whether the difference between them is large enough, or of the right kind, that makes the samples categorically different, rather than just being variants of a single category. That’s anthropological.

RA: How do you define "racism"?

JM: The political act of judging an individual by the properties attributed to their group, in which the group represents some salient aspect of the individual’s ancestry. We would like to imagine, rather, that we are judged by our own particular qualities and achievements. That is a different fallacy from the assertion that the US Census categories represent fundamental natural divisions of the human species, which is sometimes called “racialism” or “taxonomism”.

RA: Sometimes I hear the argument that we are living in "post-racial" times, and that racism is no longer an issue these days. What's your response to this sort of argument?

JM: The average life expectancy of black person in America is about 4 years shorter than that of a white person. Talk to me when they’re even.

RA: If you could clear up one misconception about race here in the US, what would it be?

JM: That race is a unit of biology or genetics, equivalent to a subspecies of chimpanzees or goats; rather than appreciating that is a unit of anthropology – a biocultural unit, the intersection of the biology of difference and the cultural facts of classification and sense-making, without a clear homolog in other species.

RA: Are anthropologists doing enough to confront racism these days?

That’s a trick question because both “yes” and “no” are problematic answers. I think the topic is being taught in more bio-anthro curricula than it was a generation ago, and that’s a good thing. There’s also a lot good books just out, that really highlight the biocultural nature of the enterprise: Jonathan Kahn’s Race in A Bottle, which goes into the story of BiDil , which the FDA approved for use specifically in African-American patients’ Rina Bliss’s Race Decoded, which looks at how human population geneticists conceptualize and talk about race; Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, which looks at the intellectual and political history; Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts; Racecraft, by Karen and Barbara Fields – there’s a lot of good, accessible interdisciplinary scholarship now, which creatively engages anthropology.

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