"Race" Is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept

"Race" Is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept

"Race" Is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept

"Race" Is a Four-Letter Word: The Genesis of the Concept


A tour de force work by a leading scholar,"Race" Is a Four-Letter Wordexplores the history of the concept of race in America, the reasons why the concept has no biological validity, and the ways in which it grew to become accepted as an idea that virtually everyone regards as self-evident. An ardent and eloquent opponent of typology, essentialism, and stereotyping, C. Loring Brace has based this engaging study on the "Problems of Race" course that he has taught at the University of Michigan for the past thirty-five years.
Opening with an explanation of why the concept of race is biologically indefensible,"Race" Is a Four-Letter Wordshows how the major elements of human biological variation have unrelated distributions and cannot be understood if the existence of "races" is assumed as a starting point. The book then examines the course of events that created the concept of race, journeying through time from Herodotus through Marco Polo; to the Renaissance and the role of the New World; on up to the American Civil War, the curious results of the alliance switch in World War I, Arthur Jensen,The BellCurve, J. Philippe Rushton, and the Pioneer Fund in the twenty-first century.
Ideal as a supplementary text in anthropology courses,"Race" Is a Four-Letter Wordcan also be used in history of science courses and sociology courses. It is captivating reading for professionals and anyone else who seeks enlightenment on the socially debatable issue of "race."


My first encounter with Ashley Montagu was in Santa Barbara, California, in the fall of 1961, where I had begun teaching anthropology at the local branch of the University of California. Montagu was famous, or in the minds of some "infamous," for his book Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1942), which I had read in spite of the fact that my mentors did not think much of it. Over half a century later, it was to be my great privilege to be asked to write a foreword to the 6th edition of that splendid work (1997). The point of that book was to show that "race" was not only a useless concept but also positively pernicious.

Rumor had it that he was considering moving to Santa Barbara, so I got in touch with him to welcome him to our small but aspiring group of anthropologists. We felt that the addition of a person of such renown to our community would have given our anthropological ethos a real boost. He visited our department, gave a talk for our Anthropology Club, and charmed virtually everyone. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and to our great pleasure he stayed with us on repeated visits.

In the end he did not move to Santa Barbara, but I was able to get the faculty to allot Regents Professorship funds to bring him in for a term as a visiting lecturer a year later. The position of lecturer is the lowest rung in the British academic hierarchy, and as a person who had gotten his initial university education in his native England it continued to amuse him that he was both a regents professor and a lecturer at the same time at the University of California Santa Barbara. His congenial presence led to collaboration with me on an introductory textbook (Brace and Montagu 1965), which evolved into Human Evolution: An Introduction to Biological Anthropology (Brace and Montagu 1977).

Early in 1967, however, the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, fired the president of the university with the following words: "The State of California has no business subsidizing intellectual curiosity" (Smith 1968, 112). Since all university faculty members assume that intellectual curiosity is an essential component of the learning environment they have been hired to promote, it became obvious to some of us that we had no future in California, and that was why I moved to Michigan.

For over a third of a century here, I have been teaching a course somewhat awkwardly entitled "Problems of Race." Actually, I inherited the topic and title from my long-time colleague Frank Livingstone. I was initially hired at the University of Michigan to provide coverage of the fossil evidence for human evolution, which was and has continued to be a main focus of my professional activities. I had also been interested in the picture of the biological variation of living human populations. That variation, of course, has its roots in the prehistoric ancestors of the various groups in question. As a student of the human past, I had a related interest in the legacy it had bequeathed to the . . .

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