Academic journal article The Historian

What's New in Science and Race since the 1930s?: Anthropologists and Racial Essentialism

Academic journal article The Historian

What's New in Science and Race since the 1930s?: Anthropologists and Racial Essentialism

Article excerpt

THE WORDS, rhetoric, and ideas about science, race, and public policy used in the United States clearly differ in, say, the early twenty-first century from what they were a half century ago. Scientists' proofs, arguments, and conclusions about race, and the actions, in law and in public policy, of government on the local, state, and national level have changed over the same period. In November 2008, voters elected the first ever African-American President of the United States, overturning American political tradition. Since the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s, governments on all levels have moved to outlaw, fitfully and inconsistently, but nevertheless with some momentum, racial segregation in many areas of American life. This has not, however, led to extensive racial integration outside of public institutions. But government has been a prime mover of this new feature of American life.

The assault on racial essentialism by scientists has been an important driver of this change. In a long twilight struggle since about 1930, this took almost half a century to complete. Racial essentialism, it seems, has been as American as apple pie. We might define this as insisting that a person's character and conduct rests entirely on his or her racial identity. Advocates of racial essentialism or racism did not need proofs from the nation's scientists that the white race was superior to all others. They "knew" (in their bones, so to speak) which races were innately superior or inferior. Such a racist consciousness was present among the European colonists who settled North America and who created the system of New-World slavery. (1)

Racial essentialism became a vital element in American public and private discourse thereafter. (2) It was during the Enlightenment and the democratic revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that racial essentialism and scientific notions of superiority and inferiority of the world's peoples first became clearly associated and correlated. These tides of opinion and interpretation took shape, and influenced American culture and society profoundly. By the 1830s the die was cast. The public discourses of religion, of politics, of economics, and of science all endorsed the notion that the races of mankind were arranged in a hierarchy of superior and inferior tribes or races, with the Americans of "white," or so-called Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic, ancestry clearly astride the apex of the racial pyramid. (3) From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, racial essentialism's handmaiden was science, especially anthropology, biology, and psychology. (4)

So what has happened to this long-term ideological marriage of convenience between scientific certainty and political necessity in recent decades? There has been a divorce, especially since the 1930s. (5) How did this occur? The divorce became manifest, although hardly complete, among the scientists long before it became a major phenomenon in mainstream politics and public affairs. Simply put, the separation began when anthropologists began to overthrow eighteenth-and nineteenth-century schemes of racial evolution that fancied white European peoples over people with darker skin pigmentation, especially those living outside Europe. That confrontation with racial essentialism began in the 1930s. But it took another several decades for the divorce to become complete. Since it would take a very hefty volume to tell the tale in its intricacy and complexity, we shall focus on the developments in anthropology, and cast a few sideways glances at important changes in psychology and biology to round out the story. These developments were to culminate in the seachange in governmental affairs and policies, which was only completed when during the last quarter century psychologists, population geneticists, and paleoarcheologists confirmed its findings. But what the anthropologists did was absolutely fundamental to the scientific basis for rejecting racial essentialism. …

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