Anthropologists Can Bridge the Gap in Racial Debate

Article excerpt

President Bill Clinton should consider expanding the new advisory board on race relations to include an anthropologist.

Given the history of poor race relations in the United States, anthropologists, who are trained to bridge the gap between cultures and understand social processes, are best suited to play a major role in Clinton's plan to address racial divisiveness.

Although some may view anthropologists as an esoteric group of social scientists digging up old bones or recording the behavior of chimpanzees, anthropologists with their international perspective on human behavior and society, from prehistory to the present, can provide rich information about human diversity and help combat problems related to misunderstandings over this diversity. Issues of interest to anthropologists are issues of the modern world from AIDS to homelessness to international economic interdependence. As cross-cultural experts in human behavior and evolution, anthropologists can be nonjudgmental when examining the issues at the root of the problem and provide a broader, cultural, human context for such questions as "what exactly is race?," "what are the causes of racism?" and "what are its consequences?" Through ethnographic studies, anthropologists have found that many American notions of race are derived from misunderstood and misused physical criteria (such as skin color, hair type, facial structure and body build), leading to conclusions that race is based on biological rather than social categories that carry with them presumed characteristics as well as social status. For example, anthropologists have noted that Americans may accept that people brought up in Samoa have a different history, culture and world view from people in Australia, but they generally are much less aware of the equally dramatic cultural differences and history of isolation among racial groups in the United States. As a case in point, black people brought up in the South may have a different subculture than white people of the same region. Although many Americans tend to assume that the differences between these groups are based on biological racial differences, in reality, the genetic differences between blacks and whites are small. …

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