Race and Anthropology

Faye V Harrison. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Editor: William A Darity Jr. Volume 7. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 

The history of anthropology has been closely identified with the study of race. In the early twenty-first century the concept of race is highly contested among anthropologists, some of whom claim that it does not exist in either biology or society except as an objectionable, stigmatizing fiction. Its problematic biological status has led some to assume a “no-race” stance that resonates with the colorblind ideology that has gained popularity in some segments of U.S. society. Color blindness denies the extant social significance and the experiential and institutional materiality of race, races, and racial inequalities.

Race is an ideologically charged and invidious social distinction (Berreman 1972). As a social and often legally codified classification, it is applied to populations presumed to share common physical, biological, or natural attributes believed to be heritable. The “naturalizing” effect of many racial discourses translates into claims that the social disparities linked to racial divisions exist naturally rather than having emerged as a result of human practices and inventions. Due to the imprecision of what physical variation, biology, and nature actually mean and the slippage between culture and biology within any cultural context, race is difficult to define in a manner that clearly differentiates it from ethnicity, nationality, or even gender. The permanence and fixity conventionally associated with nature and biology are questionable due to “the human organism’s [and nature’s] constant state of change”—often in response to human interventions (Wade 2002, p. 6). A cross-cultural approach reveals that in certain parts of the world (e.g., Latin America) racial identification can shift, and the extent to which it is based on appearance, ancestry, or sociocultural status varies. Anthropological inquiry is rethinking and attempting to provide clearer operational definitions for the basic categories around which the social analysis of race has been built. Terms such as phenotype, nature, biology, blood, and heredity must be scrutinized in view of the unspoken assumptions underpinning them. Rethinking the parameters of race is being done, from different angles, in all of the discipline’s subfields: social and cultural anthropology, anthropological linguistics, archaeology (particularly historical archaeology), and biological anthropology (especially the specialty in which a critical biocultural approach is employed).

Although race has long been a gloss for human biological variation, they are not the same. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries along with the first half of the twentieth, the race concept was used to make sense of the diversity of human phenotypes, which were assumed to index fundamental biological and sociocultural differences. Biological variation is more complex than the physiognomic diacritics that came to signify race in the broad geographically based taxonomies formulated in 1735 by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) and in 1795 by the German professor of medicine Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840). Beneath the skin’s surface are differences of blood type and strings of DNA. However, genetic variation among human beings is small. Humans are 99.9 percent alike genetically, with most of the difference “involv[ing] modest degrees of variation in the frequency of shared genes” (IUAES). Most of this is within groups rather than between them. Socially targeted differences ignited the imagination of folk theorists and scientists, who drew on the popular consciousness to construct the formal typologies conferred the legitimacy of science.

Skin color, hair texture, and morphological traits were visible markers used to develop universal taxonomies for classifying human populations during the age of European exploration and colonial expansion. These differences were linked to social and moral characteristics that stereotyped and rank-ordered the world’s populations in a global hierarchy (Fluehr-Lobban 2005). These hierarchical classifications naturalized perceived cultural variation and culturalized what was defined as nature. They also justified the colonial expansion that gave rise to a modern world system of culture, power, and political economy in which privileged western Europeans exercised supremacy over the heterogeneous peoples, habitats, and resources of the world. These structures of domination were predicated on the land alienation, coerced labor, and repressive state policies that racialized colonial landscapes, with the transatlantic region playing a central role in the transfers of value that were a catalyst for the Industrial Revolution (Williams 1944; Wolf 1982). This momentous transition in social evolution occurred in the context of the transatlantic slave trade and related forms of enslavement established throughout the Americas.

Although color/phenotype prejudice preexisted the modern world system, race as a worldview (Smedley 2007) and material relation did not emerge until the “post-1400s western European racist order” (Sanjek 1994, p. 8). According to St. Clair Drake (1911-1990), skin-color prejudice and slavery converged for the first time in the New World’s colonies of exploitation where the conditions for racial slavery arose (Drake 1987). This transformation laid the foundation for a global racial hierarchy in which sub-Saharan Africans represented the most extreme variant of cultural and racial difference. The primitive savagery attributed to Africa and other peripheralized zones of the world system represented the binary opposite of western Europe’s purportedly advanced civilizations.

A chapter in the multinational history of racial typologies is that in which Count Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) elaborated the notion of the natural inequality of human races and Aryan supremacy in his Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of Human Races, 1851-1855). The part of this history that is usually omitted is that Joseph-Anténor Firmin (1850-1911), a Haitian who belonged to the Anthropology Society of Paris, wrote De l’égalité des races humaines: Anthropologie positive (The Equality of the Human Races: Positivist Anthropology, 1885), a robust rebuttal and alternative approach to the study of humankind (Fluehr-Lobban 2005, pp. 110-116). Similar debates occurred in other national and regional contexts, including Latin America, where interpretations of Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) evolutionary theory were informed by cultural orientations significantly different from those of Anglo North America. The Anglo-dominant United States emphasized the permanence and mutual exclusivity of race and that whiteness was constructed along lines of purity. In Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, whiteness was tied to the idea, goal, and social process of race mixing and its implicit ideal, whitening—becoming white by marrying up the social scale or by acquiring wealth and assimilating socially valued cultural and linguistic characteristics.

Throughout the nineteenth and at least half of the twentieth centuries, scientific racism or racialism (Lieberman 2003) was espoused within theological and secular varieties of monogenesis and polygenesis. At the height of the antislavery movement, polygenists, claiming that a single genesis could not account for the diversity of the world’s peoples, honed the technical capacity of phrenology and craniometry to measure differences. They also promulgated their research results through scientific outlets, popular culture, and political debate. Samuel T. Morton (1799-1851), Josiah Clark Nott (1804-1873), and George Gliddon (1809-1857), who constituted the core of the early American school of anthropology, attempted to substantiate the hierarchical ranking of the races, with the Caucasoid at the top, the Mongoloid in the middle, and the Negroid at the bottom. Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), a Harvard professor, supported their poly-genetic findings and advised President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) that freed blacks were incapable of becoming the equals of whites. Later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, biodeterminism developed along the lines of social Darwinism, couched in Darwinian categories but filtered through Spencerianism. These views underpinned the unilinear evolutionism of Edward B. Tylor (1832-1917) and the physical anthropology of Aleš Hrdliĉka (1869-1943), leaders in anthropology’s professionalization. Anthropology’s scientific racism also provided ideological fuel for the eugenics movement. Through sterilization and immigration restrictions, it aimed to limit the growth of poverty, criminality, and intellectual inferiority believed to be concentrated among African Americans, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and the poor. Eugenics laws developed in the United States were later used as models for population control policies in Nazi Germany. Also philanthropic support from the United States contributed to the rise of Nazi anthropology (Schafft 2004).

A paradigm shift occurred under the leadership of the Columbia University professor Franz Boas (1858-1942), whose research challenged the dominant perspectives on immigrants and other racialized segments of society. Conceptualizing race, language, and culture as distinct domains (Boas 1911, 1940), he influenced many colleagues and students, including Ruth Benedict (1887-1948), Margaret Mead (1901-1978), Melville Herskovits (1895-1963), Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), Ella Deloria (1888-1971, Dakota Sioux), and Ashley Montagu (1905-1999). Montagu (1942) insisted that race was a fallacy and advocated the alternative notions of genogroup and ethnic group. By World War II (1939-1945) Boasianism had become more widely accepted. It cleared the ground for major shifts in the 1960s, when race’s biological status was refuted (Livingstone 1962). Many sociocultural anthropologists assumed that race was not useful for understanding social distinctions. This led to a silence concerning structural racism.

The Boasian agenda was not the only antiracist trajectory to influence anthropology. W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) produced critical social analysis that in many respects paralleled Boasian thought (Baker 1998; Harrison 1992). He was part of a tradition of black racial vindication that contested biodeterminist ideas. Early African American anthropologists, trained in leading graduate departments but also influenced by Du Bois’s noncanonical public intellectualism, often undertook antiracist scholarship, which entailed negotiating the tensions between mainstream disciplinary approaches and more critical interdisciplinary frameworks. The physical anthropologists Caroline Bond Day (1889-1948) and W. Montague Cobb (1904-1990) along with the social anthropologists W. Allison Davis (1902-1983) and St. Clair Drake exemplify this trend (Harrison and Harrison 1999). Davis and Drake, under W. Lloyd Warner’s (1898-1970) supervision, provided important inputs into the collaboratively produced Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (Davis et al. 1941). Drake and Horace Cayton’s (1903-1970) Black Metropolis (1945), which became a race relations classic, combined the methods and analytical perspectives of anthropology and sociology. These books’ receptions in anthropology were negligible.

After anthropology’s “biological revolution,” when the discipline was largely silent about social race and racism, Marvin Harris (1927-2001), St. Clair Drake, Eleanor Leacock (1922-1987), Gerald Berreman, and John Ogbu (1939-2003) kept these issues alive, often bringing cross-cultural perspectives and data to bear on them. In the 1980s Virginia Dominguez (1986) and James W. Loewen (1988) explicated the social construction and dynamics of race, including how they related to the social identities of Euro-Americans and Asian Americans. Eric Wolf’s (1923-1999) anthropological history of world capitalism (1982) elucidated the differences between ethnicity and race, with race being associated with forced exclusion, stigmatized labor, and other types of dehumanization. Brackette F. Williams (1989) illuminated the ways race and ethnicity operate as distinct yet closely interrelated dimensions of identity formation in projects of imagining, building, and contesting nations.

Since the early 1990s there has been an expanded interest in race (Harrison 1995, 2002). In good part this has arisen because of race’s heightened volatility in many parts of the world, especially under the conditions and outcomes of globalization: technologically mediated timespace compression, widening disparities in subsistence security and wealth, new migrations, transnational cultural citizenries, and diasporic identities. Sociocultural anthropologists have investigated the multiple histories and cultural dynamics of race, the persistence of its social significance, the shifts in its meanings, and its overt and covert modalities (Smedley 2007; Baker 1998). Neoracisms without races, the social censorship of talk about race and racism, and race’s intersections with gender and class have also captured anthropologists’ scrutiny and ethnographic gaze. Research is being undertaken in many parts of the world, from eastern Europe, where postcommunist restructuring has exacerbated discrimination against the region’s Roma (“Gypsies”), to the more paradigmatic settings of the United States, South Africa, and Brazil, which have long been a focus of debates over the varieties of racial formation (Scheffel 2005; Sheriff 2001; Wilson 2001).

A great deal of attention has been given to the social life of discourses that biologize or culturalize difference— that is, use notions of culture to produce racializing effects. Linguistic anthropologists have examined language practices that contribute to or resist the dynamics of racialization. Their approach to the racial politics of language may lead them from explicit hate language to covert language whose efficacy is affected by indirect indexes or widely understood but never directly articulated nonreferential meanings (Hill 1998). Critical biocultural anthropologists explore the embodied experiences that affect human exposure to stress and susceptibility to diseases. In their view, race affects the internal and external workings of the body, which is always situated in a nexus of power. These dynamics have health-related outcomes. Racism has concrete consequences for human biology, which is socialized in historically specific contexts of culture, power, and political ecology (Goodman and Leatherman 1998). Historical archaeology is also unburying new layers of understanding about past landscapes of race and racism. Studies of the material cultural remnants of plantation slavery, maroons (runaways), free and freed communities, and the cultural life of other racialized or subracialized groups (e.g., Irish immigrants) fill in some of the gaps that historiographical research cannot (Orser 1998; Singleton 2006).

Other trends are studies of whiteness, which shift from the traditional focus on racial subordinates (Brodkin 1998; Buck 2001). Critical studies of race and racism are also examining indigeneity, especially in contexts in which the concept of ethnicity has provided the conventional analytical lens (Cowlishaw 1999; Wade 1997). Analyses of nontraditional Indians and African descendants with a history of contact with or even citizenship in Indian nations are disrupting conventional boundaries of classification and identity (Sturm 2002; Warren 2001). There are also studies of racism as a site of human rights violation and of antiracism’s place within the international context of human rights struggle (Banton 1996; Harrison 2005).

Finally, anthropologists have been vigilant in challenging the latest revival of biological determinism (e.g., Herrnstein and Murray 1994; Current Anthropology 1996) and in detecting the potential dangers of reifying race in the Human Genome Project. The intellectual and ideological heterogeneity of anthropology precludes a consensus. In light of this, it should be of no surprise that the bell curve thesis made sense to Vincent Sarich (1995) or that Glenn Custred coauthored Proposition 209, the 1996 California civil rights initiative that aimed to dismantle affirmative action. Race has figured prominently in anthropology’s history of ideas and public engagement. That relationship is likely to persist.