Academic journal article The Journal of Race & Policy

The Myth of Race

Academic journal article The Journal of Race & Policy

The Myth of Race

Article excerpt

The Myth of Race Review: Robert Wald Sussman (2014). The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN: 978-0-674-41731-1 (Paperback) $17.68 Pages 384.

Scientifically speaking, there are no such things as biological races. Yet from public policy down to personal life, racism-which posits real differences among humans that correspond to racial categories-persists in our social life. Sussman's book is an elegant genealogy of the myth of race from the Spanish Inquisition through the twentieth-century eugenics movement and its demystifiers among those who study human differentiation. His analysis is limited in no small part by his method, which confines him to a history of racist ideas and ideologues rather than one of how racist ideas function in society, leaving the reader with a very well-written debate within the field of anthropology rather than achieving one of his stated goals, namely "to further.. .understanding of why racism is still so prevalent in our society" (10). Another limitation is his commitment to the distinction between polygenism (races as different species) and monogenism (races as differentiations within the species) as central to debates over biological fixity and environmental influence, a commitment undermined by his own narrative. That said, Sussman meets his other goal of weaving numerous literatures "into one story, a fairly consistent story outlining the underpinnings of a six-century-old racist ideology" (9) quite well.

Chapter 1 is the strongest in terms of explaining the function of the race myth in society as an ideological justification for inequality and exclusion. Sussman begins with the limpieza de sangre (blood purity) in Spain aimed primarily at Jewish converts to Christianity though also affecting Muslim and Roma converts. Unlike previous regimes of social hierarchy and exclusion involving nation or creed, these new laws made assimilation impossible and conversion irrelevant. Thus ancestry (or "blood") becomes a legally fixed social identity and criterion for judgments of social worth. Sussman is clear throughout this chapter that "these discriminating practices began as a result of economic and political conditions" (12), yet he does not hold this consistently true of the expansion of racism into the New World as a justification for conquest and slavery or the many uses of racism to justify economic and social inequality throughout the book. From this chapter's materially grounded origin story, the remainder of the book narrates a clash of ideas that transforms racism from what Fields and Fields call "an action and a rationale for action, or both at once" into "an emotion or state of mind, such as intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or malevolence" (Fields and Fields, 2012, 17). Thus the race myth becomes for Sussman the cause of the racism of colonists, slavers, bigots, and eugenicists, rather than the result of and rationale for these practices of domination and exclusion.

Also in Chapter 1, Sussman outlines and begins to undercut his claim of the importance of the distinction among race mythologizers between polygenists and monogenists. The former view "inferior" races as having separate (pre-Adamite or pre-biblical) origins, while for the latter "inferior" races represent a degeneration from a common human origin. This clash of rac- isms does reflect a tension characteristic of transition from religious to scientific justifications for oppression from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries and the persistence of old ideas in the new even today. However, the important distinction for explaining the persistence and resilience of the myth of race is not between these two race myths but between the myth of race itself and other explanations for human differentiation and social inequality. By Chapter 2, Sussman mostly leaves the polygenism/monogenism distinction behind, and in Chapter 3 he demonstrates that the distinction was for all practical purposes irrelevant to the trajectory of the race myth except perhaps as an explanation for particular flavors of bigotry persisting in public discourse. …

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