The Myth of Race: The Troubling and Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Posted in Anthropology, Book/Video Reviews, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2016-06-14 20:00Z by Steven

The Myth of Race: The Troubling and Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Journal of Social History
Volume 49, Number 3, Spring 2016
pages 740-741

Robert J. Cottrol, Harold Paul Green Research Professor of Law and Professor of History and Sociology
George Washington University

The Myth of Race: The Troubling and Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. By Robert Wald Sussman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. 374 pp. $35.00).

With The Myth of Race, Robert Sussman gives us a comprehensive history of the idea of race and particularly the rise and not total fall of scientific racism Drawing on the intellectual history of his own discipline, physical anthropology, Sussman takes the reader on a journey from the role of race in the religious persecutions of the fifteenth century Spanish inquisition to an examination of the development of the eugenics movement, that movement’s link to Nazi ideology and practice, and the role of Franz Boaz and his disciples in combating scientific racism and establishing the dominance of culturally based explanations for racial and ethnic differences. The Myth of Race takes us to our uneasy present. The scientific racists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been vanquished in the minds of the scientific communities and educated public more generally, but there are still holdouts, in some places influential holdouts, asserting the validity of earlier views positing that racial differences are real, inherited and largely immutable.

The introduction provides something of a primer on race from the point of view of physical anthropology for the uninitiated. From the biological perspective, Sussman informs us, even using the term race to discuss the variations in the human species is suspect. But Sussman’s purpose is not to provide a thumbnail sketch of the biology of race, but to explore race as an intellectual construct along with a history of its uses and misuses. Race’s development as a concept was prompted by large scale European contact with new and different peoples in Africa and the Americas, a by-product of European expansion. The Church, however imperfectly, stressed the unity of humanity, the product of a single act of creation. But others, repelled by difference, or attracted by the possibility that those who were different and more vulnerable could be readily exploited, fashioned explanations to both account for differences and to insure the dominance of Europeans. Some theories accounted for difference by attributing human variation to separate creations with Africans and the indigenous populations of the Western Hemisphere being something other and something less than children of the Biblical Adam and Eve. Others were willing to stipulate to the unity of human origins, but nonetheless asserted that those strange people who were not white, not European and not Christian were the products of a degeneration that also highlighted their inferiority and the need for them to be brought under the control of their betters. Sussman is particularly strong in presenting this history and in reminding readers that moral and political philosophers like Locke and Kant more generally thought of as advocates of political liberty and just governance played a significant role in implanting notions of racial hierarchy in European thought.

But it is in his discussion of the origins and career of eugenics as a concept where Sussman makes his strongest contribution. Sussman links the origins of eugenics to concepts of scarcity and need first articulated by Malthus. These concepts when coupled with the extension of Darwinian thought beyond basic biology would provide a basis for a school of human science that reached its logical conclusions with Nazi racial science. The Myth of Race provides a chilling look at the popularity and power of the American eugenics movement. Sussman’s discussion of the influence that American eugenicist Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race had on Nazi racial policies is particularly instructive.

We all, to some extent, know how the story comes out, at least to date. In the inter-war years, anthropologist Franz Boaz through his meticulous research and the influence of his disciples helped defeat the scientific racists who dominated the debate before the First World War. Boaz’s research played a pivotal role in persuading educated people that culture and not biology accounted for group differences. The horrors of the Nazi holocaust played a significant role in discrediting scientific and not so scientific racism among the public at large after the Second World War

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The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, Monographs on 2014-10-01 16:04Z by Steven

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

Harvard University Press
October 2014
384 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
4 halftones, 2 line illustrations
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674417311

Robert Wald Sussman, Professor of Physical Anthropology
Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

Biological races do not exist—and never have. This view is shared by all scientists who study variation in human populations. Yet racial prejudice and intolerance based on the myth of race remain deeply ingrained in Western society. In his powerful examination of a persistent, false, and poisonous idea, Robert Sussman explores how race emerged as a social construct from early biblical justifications to the pseudoscientific studies of today.

The Myth of Race traces the origins of modern racist ideology to the Spanish Inquisition, revealing how sixteenth-century theories of racial degeneration became a crucial justification for Western imperialism and slavery. In the nineteenth century, these theories fused with Darwinism to produce the highly influential and pernicious eugenics movement. Believing that traits from cranial shape to raw intelligence were immutable, eugenicists developed hierarchies that classified certain races, especially fair-skinned “Aryans,” as superior to others. These ideologues proposed programs of intelligence testing, selective breeding, and human sterilization—policies that fed straight into Nazi genocide. Sussman examines how opponents of eugenics, guided by the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas’s new, scientifically supported concept of culture, exposed fallacies in racist thinking.

Although eugenics is now widely discredited, some groups and individuals today claim a new scientific basis for old racist assumptions. Pondering the continuing influence of racist research and thought, despite all evidence to the contrary, Sussman explains why—when it comes to race—too many people still mistake bigotry for science.

Table of Contents

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • 1. Early Racism in Western Europe
  • 2. The Birth of Eugenics
  • 3. The Merging of Polygenics and Eugenics
  • 4. Eugenics and the Nazis
  • 5. The Antidote: Boas and the Anthropological Concept of Culture
  • 6. Physical Anthropology in the Early Twentieth Century
  • 7. The Downfall of Eugenics
  • 8. The Beginnings of Modern Scientific Racism
  • 9. The Pioneer Fund, 1970s–1990s
  • 10. The Pioneer Fund in the Twenty-First Century
  • 11. Modern Racism and Anti-Immigration Policies
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A: The Eugenics Movement, 1890s–1940s
  • Appendix B: The Pioneer Fund
  • References
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
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PAGE ONE — No Biological Basis For Race, Scientists Say / Distinctions prove to be skin deep

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2010-02-14 05:10Z by Steven

PAGE ONE — No Biological Basis For Race, Scientists Say / Distinctions prove to be skin deep

San Fransisco Gate Chronicle

Charles Petit, Chronicle Science Writer

This is one of a series of articles in “About Race,” a year-long public journalism project in which The Chronicle, KRON-TV, BayTV and KQED-FM are examining various aspects of race relations in the Bay Area.

The President’s Initiative on Race, designed to attack prejudice by bringing people of different races together to talk, may have overlooked something.

Namely, that the very concept of race is bogus and has no basis in biology, according to most scientists.

“This dialogue on race is driving me up the wall,” said Jefferson Fish, a psychologist at St. John’s University in New York who has written extensively about race in America. “Nobody is asking the question, ‘What is race?’ It is a biologically meaningless category. It is a cultural term that Americans use to describe what a person’s ancestry is…

…Despite this, many Americans still believe in three great racial groups, a system developed in Europe and North America in the 18th century…

…If anything, the president’s initiative should have been on racism, say the scientists. For, even without race, racism can exist as a belief that ancestry is a significant factor in cultural and behavioral differences among peoples…

…In years past, children of mixed marriages “were assigned the racial (and legal) status of the more subordinate parent,” said Faye Harrison, an anthropologist at the University of South Carolina [now University of Florida].

“That rule, called . . . the ‘one drop rule’ (for one drop of blood), has worked to classify me as African American, period,” said Harrison. “Despite the fact that I, like most other African Americans I know, have a mixed heritage and mixed ‘race’ genealogy. But that multicultural or multiracial reality is part of my extended family’s private transcript, not our public identity as blacks, as African Americans.”

Studies show that the ancestry of American blacks is about 70 percent African, with the rest European and American Indian….

Read the entire article here.

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