In the USA we are confused about, and fascinated with, race. Let me give you two examples:
#1- Much discussion about the recent terror attack in Boston circled around the race of the perpetrators, and once they were caught it got even more interesting. Are the Tsarnaevs white? They are from the Caucus region so they are Caucasoid and/or Caucasian, right? Isn’t that white? It must be because Wikipedia tells us it is. But, wait, they are Muslim and sort of swarthy…that can’t be white, can it? What is going on here? Why is whether a person is “white” or not such an important element in American (USA) discourse?
#2- When my recent book “Race, monogamy and other lies they told you: busting myths about human nature” came out I got a slew of calls, emails and reviews accusing me of a) pushing a politically-correct liberal agenda, b) not understanding science, being a bad scientist or just plain stupid, c) having absurdly narrow concept of race, and d) being totally out of touch with reality. Many of those who contacted me were really, really angry about what I said about race: that race is not biology, that race is dynamic and culturally constructed, and that racism has devastating effects on individuals and society. However, there is no contesting this position: the data are in, and it is the position held by a majority of anthropologists, biologists, geneticists, and others who study human biological variation. Why do some folks get so angry when confronted with an overwhelmingly robust dataset demonstrating that race, as we use it, is neither biological or nor a core part of our nature?
The explanation in both of these cases is that race matters, but it is a concept that is consistently misrepresented, misunderstood, and misused. Race is important in the USA, but the way we use race does not reflect biological reality, even though the majority of folks think it does. There is currently one biological race in our species: Homo sapiens sapiens. However, that does not mean that what we call “races” don’t exist. Societies construct racial classifications, not as units of biology, but as ways to lump together groups of people with varying historical, linguistic, ethnic, religious, or other backgrounds. These categories are not static, they change over time as societies grow and diversify and alter their social, political and historical make-ups. If you look across the USA you can see that there are patterns of racial difference, such as income inequalities, health disparities, differences in academic achievement and representation in professional sports. If one thinks that these patterns of racial differences have a biological basis, if we see them as “natural,” racial inequality is then a natural part of the human experience (remember a book called The Bell Curve?). This fallacy influences people to see racism and inequality not as the products of economic, social, and political histories but as a natural state of affairs; and that is dangerous
The USA needs serious assistance dealing with race, and anthropology can a major part of the intervention. However, we have a problem: few people read anthropology, fewer know what anthropology is, and there is serious misrepresentation of “anthropology” in the public eye.
Wikipedia informs us that “Anthropologists generally consider the Cro-Magnons to be the earliest or "proto" representatives of the Caucasoid race” and much of the public think that Jared Diamond is a star anthropologist. Actually, we don’t and he is not. But more people visit Wikipedia to find out about race than visit the AAA understanding race website and many more read Diamond’s books about being human than those of actual anthropologists. Unfortunately, most commonly on the topic of race, most people don’t refer to any source at all, they “know” reality because the experience it every day. Their common sense (which as Geertz reminded us is as constructed as most cultural beliefs) lays clear that white, black, asian, latino, etc.. are different things and maybe even natural kinds. Anthropology is all about making the familiar strange; we need to use this skill to make nonsensical the popular perceptions of race and clearly demonstrate what it is not.
This is not an easy task. Most anthropologists not particularly active in the mainstream media or public view, and when we are our contributions are frequently discounted as being overly “PC” or liberal, or detached from the reality of everyday people. It does not help that much of what we have to convey is really quite complicated. Real and sustainable solutions to racial inequalities and the problems of race relations in the USA will be slow to emerge as long as a large percentage of the public holds on to the myth of biological races.
So what do we do about it? The American Anthropological Association is already tackling this issue, and individual anthropologists are taking the public perception of race to task (and have been doing so for almost a century!). We need to keep it up and become more present on the web, in the media, and in people’s lives. On the topic of Race anthropology MUST be public, loud, and adamant:
1) Race is not an accurate or productive way to describe human biological variation, but human variation research has important social, biomedical, and forensic implications.
2) Patterns of variation in human groups have been substantially shaped by culture, history, language, ecology, and geography.
3) While race is not biology, racism can certainly affect our biology (especially health and development).
4) There is no inherently biological reason for inequalities across the groups we label white, black, asian, latino, etc... Nor is there a “natural” explanation for why race relations are often difficult, but there are lots of interesting social, political, economic, psychological, and historical ones.
5) If race is not “nature,” then racial inequalities, categories, and realties can change.
Getting this kind of information into public is critical and anthropological intervention in the race issues in the USA is more important than ever…we cannot stand aside in the face of racism or ignorance. Anthropological voices, and our data, need to be heard and seen loud and clear.
Agustin Fuentes, U of Notre Dame