Race and Racism

Paul F Brown. 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: H James Birx. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2010.

In 1977, 43-year-old Susie Phipps, a white woman living in Louisiana, decided to apply for a passport in order to take a cruise. Since she didn’t have a previous passport, she went to the Division of Vital Records in New Orleans to obtain a copy of her birth certificate. In addition to her parents’ names, her date of birth, and so forth, her birth certificate also listed her race, a common feature on birth certificates at the time of her birth. Much to her shock and dismay, her race was listed as “colored.” Apparently, she took this news so badly that she was forced to retreat to her bed for three days. She claimed there had been a terrible mistake. She was white, she said, had white children, two white husbands, and lived in a white neighborhood.

In 1982, Susie Phipps sued the state of Louisiana to get her racial designation changed to “white.” During the ensuing trial, a number of scientific experts, including physical anthropologists, were called to testify. Without exception, they all stated that there was no scientific way to determine a person’s race, and that the concept lacked scientific validity. The judge, as it turns out, was in complete agreement with the scientists and yet he ruled in favor of the state and threw out the suit. Why?

It turned out that Susie Phipps was the great-, great-, great-, great-granddaughter of a black slave who eventually married a Frenchman by the name of Joseph Greggerie Guillory, Phipps’s great-, great-, great-, great-grandfather. According to a Louisiana law passed in 1970, any person with at least 1/32 “Negro blood” was black. Therefore, the judge ruled that Susie Phipps, a woman who had lived her entire life as white, whose race on her children’s birth certificates was listed as white, whose friends and family members saw her as white, was legally black. Culture, it seems, trumped science.

This story underscores the ongoing confusion and tension in our society over the very meaning of race, it’s validity as a concept, and it’s application. Anthropology is not immune from this tension. Since Sherwood Washburn’s (1963) “new physical anthropology” of the 1950s, most anthropologists have rejected the concept of race as a scientifically valid means of describing human biological differences. Nevertheless, the notion of race still persists within both anthropology and the public. In order to sort out this confusion, we need to understand exactly what is meant by the term race, and how it is understood and used by different segments of society. This seemingly contradictory view of race is made explicable through an analysis of the history of the concept, beginning with its use by the ancient Greeks and continuing through the development of science in Western thought. Our ongoing ambivalence toward the concept of race is evident in the ways in which we, as anthropologists, teach our students about race in particular, and biological variability in general. Race epitomizes the tension within modern anthropology between those who focus on our diversity and those who emphasize our sameness.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), race is defined as

each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics; … a group of people sharing the same culture, language, etc.; an ethnic group; a group of people or things with a common feature; a distinct population within a species; a subspecies. (Vol. 13, p. 69)

This definition includes references to both cultural and biological characteristics. This mixing of the biological with the cultural is a basic component of racism and has a long history in Western thought. In addition, the definition implies that different races are identified with essential, inherent tendencies or behaviors.

History of the Concept of Race

Greek Essentialism

The notion that different races not only look different, but also behave differently as a result of their physical differences, can be traced back in Western thought at least as far as the writings of the ancient Greeks, particularly to the humoral model of existence proposed by Hippocrates (460-377 BCE) in his Discourse on Airs, Waters, and Places.

In Hippocrates’s humoral model, all living things are imbued with an essence that determines their physical characteristics and nature. The essence of an organism not only determines its physical traits, but also, in the case of animals, determines temperament (aggression, passivity, etc.), intelligence, and behavior. The essences are the product of the exact combination of qualities, elements, humors, and associated temperaments. All living things have the four humors of yellow bile, blood, black bile, and phlegm; it is the exact ratio of these humors in an organism that ultimately determines its physical traits and temperament. Once the first member of a particular group arises, a template is created from which all descendants are derived. For example, a dog is a dog because it contains dog essence. The first dog arose in a particular part of the world and the qualities and elements of this dog resulted in a preponderance of one of the four humors with its corresponding temperament. Once the first dog came into being, all subsequent dogs inherited the same essence, thus determining their dog features and behaviors. These essences are immutable; thus all dogs will remain basically the same indefinitely in physical composition and temperament. All living things were also listed along a scale, the “great chain of being,” which ranked organisms from the most godlike (humans) to the least godlike (insects, etc.).

The humoral model was also used to explain humans. Unlike dogs, however, the Greeks saw humans as made up of a number of distinct groups, each with its own physical features, temperaments, and corresponding behaviors. Thus, some humans, because they originated in an environment characterized by the qualities of “hot” and “moist,” resulting in the element “air” and the humor “blood,” have the temperament of bravery, aggression, and militancy; others, who originated in a region where “moist” and “cold” qualities resulted in a predominance of the element “water” and the humor “phlegm,” are passive and lethargic. All descendants of these original human types would inherit these same immutable features and temperaments from their parents.

Different human types were also ranked differently along the great chain of being. Thus, some people were inherently superior or inferior to others. During the medieval period in Europe, the Greek humoral model was kept mostly intact; the only significant change was in terms of origins. Instead of influential environmental factors such as air, water, heat, cold, and so forth, the church substituted the God of Genesis as the creator of all living things. However, the basic-essentialist assumption that different types of animals, including different human groups, were unchangeable remained the same. The medieval Europeans also adopted the notion of the great chain of being, ranking different types of people into higher and lower groups. This ranking was held to be unchangeable; one’s position on the hierarchy was assumed to be part of God’s divine plan.

“Scientific” Racism

One of the first Europeans to explicitly apply the humoral model to different racial types was Jean Bodin (1530-1596). In his Methods for Easy Comprehension of History, Bodin associated people of different skin colors with different humors. Thus, whites (Europeans) had a predominance of the humor phlegm; yellow-skinned people (Asians) had a predominance of yellow bile; blacks (Africans) were assumed to have more black bile; and red-skinned peoples (Indians) were associated with the humor blood. Following the Greek model, Bodin also associated a particular temperament with each of these peoples based on their predominant humor. Indians (red skin, blood) were savage and warlike, while Africans (black skin, black bile) were lethargic and slow-witted. Asians (yellow skin, yellow bile) were cunning and devious, and Europeans (white skin, phlegm) were reflective and rational. Thus, the relationship between racial features and behavior, which was commonly assumed in the minds of most Europeans, became officially established in Western thought thanks to the work of Jean Bodin.

Following Bodin, the work of Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linne, 1707-1778) lent further scientific credibility to the racist association between race and behavior, including things like personality, intelligence, and morality. In his famous work, Systema Naturae, Linnaeus created the first formal system of taxonomy, the classification of plants and animals. Expanding on the work of John Ray, Linnaeus extended scientific nomenclature to all known life-forms, including humans. Organisms were grouped into categories (taxa) based on similarities in the form and function of traits. However, this was not an evolutionary scheme. All species were viewed as permanent and immutable. Each was made by the creator in its present form and would remain so indefinitely. This applied as much to the different types of humans as it did to any other organisms. While Linnaeus put all varieties of humans into the same genus and species, Homo sapiens, he did assign different races to different subspecies categories. Thus, Africans were given the name Homo sapiens afer, while Europeans were called Homo sapiens europaeus. In keeping with Bodin’s use of the Greek humoral model, Linnaeus assigned different temperaments or behavioral characteristics to each racial subspecies. For instance, Homo sapiens afer was “ruled by caprice.” He described African women as “women without shame, [whose] breasts lactate profusely.” Homo sapiens europaeus, on the other hand, was described as “rational” and “ruled by customs.” Because of his reputation among the naturalists of his day, Linnaeus gave scientific credibility to the idea that people could, indeed, be divided up into races, and that these different races possessed different inherent and unchangeable abilities and potentials. Furthermore, these races could be ranked in terms of behavior and ability: Europeans (whites) were the highest, followed by Asians (yellows), then Indians (reds), and finally Africans (blacks).

Blumenbach’s Skulls

Linnaeus’s work sparked a great deal of interest in classifying all manner of plants and animals, including humans. Among those who were caught up in the taxonomy frenzy was a naturalist by the name of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840). He, too, assumed that people could be easily and accurately divided into essentialist racial categories. However, unlike his contemporaries, Blumenbach wasn’t content to merely create racial typologies without reasonable data to support them. He looked at skin color and rejected it as the basis for racial types, noting that greater color variability existed within types than among them—an observation that turned out to be quite prophetic. Instead of looking at externals, such as skin color or hair texture, Blumenbach focused his work on the many characteristics and landmarks of the skull, taking dozens of measurements and observations. These data led him to create five racial types. While still essentialist in character, his work was less subjective than his contemporaries. In fact, some of the measurements Blumenbach developed are still used by forensic anthropologists today in order to establish the biological affinity of human remains. Because of his pioneering work in osteometrics, some people refer to Blumenbach as the father of physical anthropology.

Polygenesis: Beyond Racial Typologies

An underlying current that ran throughout much of the research on race was that different races represented, at the very least, different subspecies or perhaps even separate species of humanity. The latter view is known as polygenesis, the belief that different races have entirely separate biological lineages. Perhaps the most explicit use of polygenesis in explaining different racial types is found in Types of Mankind (1854), by Josiah Nott and George Gliddon. Nott and Gliddon argued that each racial type had its own independent evolutionary line proceeding through a series of animals to its modern racial form. Among other things, this work gave scientific legitimacy to the common belief that races should not crossbreed; the result was dangerous to both parties involved. It also made it easier to justify the ranking in the chain of being for the races since they were actually separate species.

The Darwinian Revolution

In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. The impact of this work on the thinking of people about life was monumental. The belief in the fixity of categories in nature, having existed at least since the Greeks, was shown to be incorrect. Instead, Darwin described a world in constant flux. The effects of natural selection reshaped every generation. Our taxonomic categories were fleeting and arbitrary; there was nothing essentialist or permanent about them.

These ideas transformed the way we look at the world; however, there were some notable exceptions. Darwin himself couldn’t imagine how racial features could in any way be considered as promoting fitness. After all, what possible difference could the color of one’s skin or the shape of one’s nose make to survival and reproductive success? Darwin’s failure to consider racial features as part of the adaptive process in humans led him to assume that these characteristics were not merely irrelevant but also permanent. It is hard to miss the irony that the very person who overthrew the notion of fixity in animals added to the prevailing ideas that racial types were permanent. It wasn’t until his volume The Descent of Man (1871) that Darwin himself finally recognized the possibility of adaptive value in different racial traits. By then, of course, the damage had already been done and, consequently, the publication of Darwin’s Descent had little impact on racist views.

Francis Galton and Eugenics

The failure of Darwin’s work to overthrow the essentialist views of race gave rise to a number of so-called evolutionary schemes to address the race “problem” in England. One of the most insidious of these was eugenics.

Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin’s, began the eugenics movement in the 1880s as a way of addressing what he called “the race-destroying problem of heiress blood.” Like most racial essentialists, Galton firmly believed that superior behavior was determined by superior biology, and that those individuals who behaved “poorly” did so because of inferior biology. He believed that if the “superior races” (i.e., upper-class British) could produce more offspring than the “inferior races” (the lower classes), England could do away with all manner of ills (e.g., crime, prostitution, insanity, and drunkenness). However, he observed that in spite of their superior biology, the upper classes reproduced at a slower rate than the lower classes. The reason for this circumstance, he reasoned, was the tendency of upper-class men to seek out heiresses as marriage partners. It was the “bad blood” in such families that caused the lower rates of reproduction among wealthy families.

Galton assumed that upper-class families with “good breeding” would surely have produced male heirs to titles and lands; heiresses would only be found in families of lesser breeding who were incapable of producing male offspring. Not only did these inferior families fail to produce male heirs, but also they had less reproductive success overall compared with families of “good blood.” Thus, heiress blood was “race destroying.”

Galton’s solution to the problem was “positive” eugenics, the deliberate matching of children for marriage from families of good blood. Galton reasoned that if a registry could be created listing superior families, then prospective brides and grooms for one’s children could be selected from this list, assuring healthy and plentiful offspring for the upper classes, and reducing the likelihood that the superior races would be degraded by marriage to people from the inferior races. And since behavior follows biology, the greater the number of children produced from these matches, the greater the number of properly behaved people in society.

These registries proved difficult to construct; genealogies were often vague, lacking in completeness and hard to verify. Galton’s response to this setback was the promotion of “negative” eugenics: the active reduction in fertility among the lower classes. Social programs were established that prohibited certain people from marrying, and in extreme cases (i.e., prostitution, criminal behavior, insanity, “feeblemindedness”) people were involuntarily sterilized. This was all done in the name of improving society. Since crime and other similar behaviors were caused by inferior biology, the only way to solve the problem was to reduce the number of people of inferior biology in society. Eventually, the majority of the population would be comprised of people of good breeding, thus creating a utopian society in which bad behavior was eliminated.

By the early 1900s, eugenics spread from England to other European countries and to the United States. In the United States, class distinctions were less marked than in England, so ethnicity replaced class as the main marker of social/biological rank. Each new wave of immigrants to the United States was assigned the bottom rung of the latter. Thus Italians, Irish, Jews, and Germans each took their turn as the most despised group.

Eugenics received much support from the new science of genetics that had sprung from the 1900 rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work. Heredity was being seen more and more as something relatively fixed and immutable. This idea of “hard” heredity gained favor as the notions of “soft” heredity, based on the work of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, were discredited. Environmental influences on behavior were minimized as the pendulum swung strongly to the “nature” side of the nature-nurture debate. People are the way they are in their ethnicity and behavior because of their genes. Change was only possible through the long, slow process of mutation.

Franz Boas

The first real challenge to the claims of the eugenicists came from the work of Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology. Boas was the subject of scorn and even censure from his scientific colleagues for questioning the connection between race and behavior. The “hard” heredity of the eugenicists implied that one’s behavior (ethnicity or culture) was essentially determined by one’s biology. In the absence of any real adaptive explanations of so-called racial features, it was assumed that racial features and their associated behaviors were fixed. This represented a clear example of preevolutionary, essentialist thinking.

In a landmark article on eugenics published in The Scientific Monthly in 1916, Boas systematically lays out the problems with the eugenicist argument. He begins by saying how wonderful it would be if we could, indeed, rid humanity of all ills through the control of reproduction in the same way that desired characteristics are bred in domesticated animals. He follows this with a series of brilliant syllogisms pointing out that no firm connection between biological features and any sort of temperament, intelligence, or behavior had been established, only assumed. He also argues that even if such a connection did exist, then we would be hard-pressed to decide which features would be considered desirable under all conditions, and which may be subject to fad and fancy. Imagine, he said, selecting for a type of personality or talent that may be considered important today, only to have such a trait become less desirable in the future. Furthermore, the future may bring problems that call for certain behavioral traits that aren’t necessarily seen as useful today. By reducing biological variability, we reduce our adaptability.

The most prescient part of Boas’ argument is his discussion about the role of the environment, both physical and cultural, in shaping behavior. This is where he lays the foundation for anthropology’s separation of biology and cultural behavior. Culture, he argues, is not biology dependent. Indeed, it is wholly the product of one’s social and physical environment, along with the specific history of the society to which it belongs. This is such a part of the anthropology worldview today that we take it for granted. However, in 1916, this was seen as revolutionary, even heretical. It was a “rejection of modern science.” “Modern science,” of course, meant eugenics in particular, and genetics in general.

Boas was not content with merely suggesting hypothetical views to counter eugenics. He was first and foremost a scientist, and he recognized the importance of empirical evidence to support his ideas. He soon began a study of recent immigrants to the United States. He began by looking at Sicilian immigrants in terms of two factors: (1) cranial features, such as cephalic index, and (2) cultural behavior. He had two major goals in mind. First, he wanted to test the assumption held by the eugenicists that racial features, such as the cephalic index (a simple index derived by comparing the length of the skull with the width of the skull), were permanently linked with behavior. Second, he wanted to examine the connection between environment and behavior. He tested his idea that biology and culture were independent by comparing the cultural behavior of immigrants and their children upon arrival in the United States with their behavior after 10 years in residence. His findings were surprising, even to Boas. As he expected, the behavior of the Sicilians after 10 years in the United States was markedly different than their behavior upon arrival. This cultural change was most profound among the children, many of whom behaved in ways identical to children whose families had been in America for generations. Clearly, cultural behavior was the product of the environment, and was independent of biology.

The part of the study that was most unexpected, even to Boas, was that even the biology was subject to change. Cephalic index, once thought to be a static identifier of race, also changed among the Sicilian immigrants. Again, the most profound changes occurred among the children. Even biology, it seemed, was subject to modification from the environment.

Sherwood Washburn and the New Physical Anthropology

Boas and his students separated the racist connection between biology and culture for all of anthropology. However, physical anthropologists continued in their efforts to categorize human biological diversity. This search for “types” was not unique to physical anthropology. Cultural anthropologists described “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” cultural types, while archaeologists constructed any number of typologies based on pottery design or lithics. All of these involved the creation of an archetype through the arbitrary selection of characteristics deemed essential to a particular type, and the subsequent search for cases that fit the archetype. As in all essentialist approaches, the defining characteristics of a particular type were fixed and stable.

In the 1950s, physical anthropologist Sherwood L. Washburn changed the way we look at biological diversity. He argued that the search for racial types is not scientific, and actually ignores the dominant paradigm in all of the life sciences—evolutionary theory. One of the most important implications of evolutionary theory is that life is in a constant state of flux. There are no static, unchanging elements. Even the taxonomic category of species is a temporary designation of a breeding population. In applying this to physical anthropology, Washburn (1951) said, “[Anthropology] must change its ways of doing things to conform with the implications of modern evolutionary theory…. There is no way to justify the division of a breeding population into a series of racial types” (p. 298).

Racial Typologies: Essentialist View

Racial types, like all essentialist concepts, are based on the assumption that certain core features exist almost exclusively in one type and not in another; each type is discrete and relatively stable. This is precisely why Washburn recognized that racial typologies are nonevolutionary in their form. All humans belong to a single species, Homo sapiens. Any biological differences we can observe among individuals or breeding populations (demes) must have arisen after the dawn of our species. This is evidence that humans, like all species, are in a constant state of change, in terms of both our biology and our culture. So-called racial traits, therefore, may have come about as adaptive responses to the different environments humans encountered as we expanded out of Africa some 100,000 years ago. This shifts our focus in physical anthropology from searching for static, essential features of racial types, to evolutionary explanations of biological diversity.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) (2007) permanent Web site on race, Race: Are We So Different? (http://www.understandingrace.org), shows why essentialist views on race are arbitrary and nonscientific. Take, for example, stature. If we observe three people of different heights, as illustrated in Figure 7.1, we can easily divide them up into three types: short, medium, and tall.

However, as we add more and more people to our sample, we quickly realize that our essential types are arbitrary and lacking in scientific validity. As our sample size grows, as shown in Figure 7.2, we see that what we thought were fixed types actually are part of a graded continuum from short to tall, with no obvious or justifiable points to divide one type from another.

A similar situation exists with attempts to divide people up by skin color. If we start with three, as shown in Figure 7.3, we can easily create a typology comprised of light skin, medium-color skin, and dark skin.

Here, we see three actual groups: the Chopi, the Jirel, and the Dutch. Each is supposed to represent a skin-color type. However, as Figure 7.4 shows, we encounter the same problems that we did with stature when we expand our sample size to include many more people from around the world.


Figure 7.1 Human Stature: Sample of Three


Figure 7.2 Stature: Large Sample Size


Figure 7.3 Skin Color: Sample of Three


Figure 7.4 Skin Color: Large Sample Size

Once again, we can find no scientifically valid point to draw our lines to separate this continuum into skin-color types.

What these examples illustrate is that the biological differences we observe in people today represent clines, not types. Clines are gradual, usually continuous changes in the representation of traits from one area of the world to another. Skin color is an excellent example of a cline. As we move from the tropical areas of the world, where we find the darkest skin shades, to more northerly latitudes, skin shades get progressively lighter and lighter. There are no breaks or jumps in skin shade where one might reasonably draw a line.

Washburn pointed out in his presidential address at the American Anthropological Association meeting in 1962 that because “races” are open-ended systems that blend seamlessly into one another, the number of races one proposes depends on the purpose of the classification (Washburn, 1963). In other words, unless one specifies why a particular group does or does not have a particular trait, the classification has no meaning and leaves open the possibility of creating an almost limitless number of races.

Recent genetic research demonstrates that there are very few genetic characteristics that are unique to any particular breeding population. Rather, the majority of genetic varieties (alleles) are found in all human populations. The difference is in the frequency in which they are distributed from one population to another. Again, skin color provides a good example of how this works.

Pigmentation in the skin is determined by the amount of melanin. Melanin is produced by melanocytes, cells located in the bottom layer of the skin’s epidermis. The more melanin produced, the darker the pigmentation. All people, no matter what their skin shade, have about the same number of melanocytes. The differences come from how active the melanocytes are. The activity of the melanocytes is determined by the action of two genes that turn on the chemical activity that produces melanin. The differences in skin shades aren’t due to discrete differences in biology from one group to another. Rather, the biological mechanism for pigmentation is found in all groups. As we move from the tropics to Scandinavia, the melanocytes produce less and less melanin. Surprisingly, all of this is related to the amount of ultraviolet radiation striking the earth (more at the equator and less at the poles), the synthesis of vitamin D, and the absorption of calcium.

Finally, racialist views of humanity have been discredited through worldwide comparisons of DNA. The old essentialist view separated people into distinct groups genetically with only the slightest amount of overlap between groups, as seen in the Venn diagram in Figure 7.5. However, the actual genetic picture looks quite different. As shown in Figure 7.6, humanity is all about overlap in DNA. The most salient feature about our species in terms of biological variability is our sameness. The differences are only minor adjustments to different environments made by our ancestors as they moved around the globe.


Figure 7.5 Human Variability: Essentialist View


Figure 7.6 Human Variability: DNA Evidence

A couple of other quick points about racial typology: In addition to the fact that most biodiversity exists in the form of clines, we should also note that the traits used to categorize people into races are often arbitrary. Everything from skin color to the shape of the nose has been offered as “essential” elements of a race. Furthermore, the traits that are used to define races often don’t go together. A particular skin shade will vary independently of nose or ear shape. This is something that Blumenbach realized over two hundred years ago.

While physical anthropologists have abandoned the search for racial types, they certainly haven’t lost interest in human biodiversity. On the contrary, Washburn’s advice to use evolutionary theory to explain the frequency and geographical distribution of different phenotypes has led to the creation of a vigorous and productive research agenda in physical anthropology. Such topics as lactose tolerance among certain adults, the persistence of sickle-cell anemia and related conditions, differences in immune responses, and differences in lung and vascular capacities in certain parts of the world are just a few of the many issues being investigated today in biodiversity studies.

Race and Intelligence

Despite decades of research on intelligence by modern psychologists and other scientists, some segments of our society still cling to the persistent belief that some “races” are inherently more intelligent than others. If this were merely the view of white supremacists or other hate groups, then it could be easily ignored. Unfortunately, publications from some academics purporting to show racial differences in intelligence continue to show up on a regular basis. These publications tend to rely on two things to “prove” their case: IQ scores and standardized-test scores.

Modern psychologists are quick to point out that what one measures in an IQ test is as much about social environment as it is about innate intelligence. If intelligence were only genetically determined, then a person’s IQ should remain stable throughout life. However, we know that IQ can change depending on the social or intellectual environment in which one lives. Furthermore, psychologists recognize that all instruments such as IQ or aptitude tests contain a certain amount of cultural bias that will tend to favor test takers from the same cultural background. In order to compare two groups in terms of intelligence, we would first need to show that the individuals who comprise those groups are essentially identical in terms of background, cultural affiliation, and social experiences. It’s fairly easy to demonstrate that certain groups in our society, because of discrimination, have not shared equally in terms of wealth, education, and other benefits.

In the same presidential address mentioned above, Washburn (1963) described a study that compared the standardized-test scores (mean scores) of blacks and whites in the North and the South. It found that black children in the North scored better than white children in the South. Rather than accept the obvious conclusion that Northern schools were expending more educational effort than Southern schools, those who saw things in racialist terms argued that all the “bright” black children had migrated to the north, so these represented an innately more intelligent group than the white children in the South. However, Washburn (1963) pointed out that the mean score of Northern whites was also higher than that of Southern whites. Washburn quipped, “Are we to believe that the intelligent Whites also moved to the North?” (p. 529).

Should We Abandon the Concept of Race?

Human traits exhibit continuous grading rather than discrete boundaries, making it scientifically impossible (or at least invalid) to group people into meaningful units called races. Furthermore, a person’s biological ancestry is the result of fluid adjustments over time to changing environments. The traits we might use today to classify people into races may be quite different or even absent in the future. Given these facts, should we simply discard the concept of race from anthropology? The resounding answer in the anthropological literature is “yes and no.” In order to untangle this paradox, we need to look at who is using the term race and exactly how they are using it.

Forensic Anthropology

Most anthropologists have no quarrel with the notion that race has no biological validity in terms of defining distinct groups based on physical attributes. However, there is one area in physical anthropology where the idea of classifying people into types is still very much alive and well: forensic anthropology.

Forensic anthropologists are charged with identifying individuals in a medicolegal context. They are called upon by law enforcement to help identify human remains that are too skeletonized to be analyzed using conventional soft-tissue methods of identification. Their skills are used in homicide cases, disasters such as plane crashes or fires, and any situation where osteological analysis may shed light on the deceased. Forensic anthropologists examine skeletal remains to determine age at death, sex, and any signs of trauma or disease that might affect the skeleton. In police cases, they look for any unique characteristics that may help in identifying the deceased, and they attempt to determine time, manner, and cause of death.

While anthropologists may balk at the idea of putting people into racial boxes, this sort of information is of great value to law enforcement. An obvious question one would ask, when trying to determine the identity of a person whose skeletal remains have been found, is about race: Was the individual black? White? Asian? It falls on forensic anthropologists to try to provide this information. The way they do this is through the careful measurement of dozens of features of the skeleton, in particular the skull. Decades of analysis of skeletons of people of known ancestry have enabled forensic anthropologists to identify a constellation of osteological features that vary by ancestry. No single feature is sufficient to make a designation about ancestry, but taken together these features are highly predictive of a person’s biological affiliation. Dr. George Gill (2000), a forensic anthropologist, reports an accuracy level of over 80% using new and traditional methods. The anthropology department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has taken the osteometric information from many thousands of individuals of known ancestry and put together a useful program called FORDISC, a computer program that can help individual researchers assign biological affiliation to a specimen of unknown ancestry. While FORDISC has been criticized for providing false identifications, most of these cases have been shown to be the result of user error and not due to the program itself.


Outside of the rather narrow confines of forensic anthropology, shouldn’t we abandon the outmoded and dangerous term race? If we simply stop talking about race and instead talk about individuals, then couldn’t we achieve a race-blind society and put an end to racism? After all, race is not a valid way to describe human biological variability, and, at best, it is simply a cultural construction.

Dr. Alan Goodman, former president of the American Anthropological Association and a noted authority on the concept of race, firmly supports the idea that race is not a valid way of conceptualizing human biodiversity, but he also rejects the notion that “race” is a mere cultural construct that has no real impact on people’s lives. He calls race “a lived experience” that can have devastating effects (Goodman, 2006). People discriminate based on appearance. This includes such things as skin color. But overwhelmingly, discrimination is based on cultural or ethnic indicators such as language, dress, social habits, and so forth.

We tend to separate people into ethnic categories, but we often use racial terms to identify these categories. Thus, one talks about “black” culture or “white” culture as if the color of one’s skin is somehow connected to one’s behavior. While the connection is clearly not genetic, it is real nonetheless. An example can be found in the 2008 presidential election when then-candidate Obama was criticized by some leaders in the African American community for not being “black enough.” Clearly, they were not talking about his skin color, but rather his lived experiences as a person of color. Obama didn’t go through the “typical” black experience of discrimination and the social injustice that goes along with it, because he was raised by a white family in biologically and ethnically diverse Hawaii.

Using racial labels like “black” or “white” as shorthand for ethnic experiences may be useful and even necessary for Americans when talking about race. However, it also keeps alive the centuries-old essentialist notions about race and behavior. As long as we keep using biological terms to describe cultural characteristics, it may be inevitable that we will continue to see the connection between the two as inexorable. Can we find a way to talk about the social injustice caused by racism without using racialist terminology? That remains one of the biggest challenges facing our society today.