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The Nature of Race
How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference
By Ann Morning
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
WHAT IS RACE?
Even before my first child was born, her race—and mine—seemed to matter. Most of the pamphlets my doctor gave me about potential birth defects made reference to groups such as "African Americans" and "Caucasians," or they mentioned "ethnicity." A brochure from a company called Genzyme Genetics, for example, calculated a mother's risk of being a carrier of cystic fibrosis according to whether she was Northern European, Southern European, Ashkenazi Jewish, Hispanic, African American, or Asian American. When I was twelve weeks pregnant, my doctor ordered a blood test that would indicate how likely the baby was to have certain chromosomal disorders such as Down syndrome. Before drawing my blood, a nurse asked me to state my race. Usually I describe myself as African American, but on that day, piqued by curiosity about what race had to do with my unborn child's health, I gave the full version of my ancestry: African, European, American Indian, and Asian. "Oh," the nurse replied as she noted my answer on a form, "So you go in the 'Other' box."
Since her birth, my four-year-old daughter has been racially classified on several occasions. Within twenty-four hours of delivery, Sofia received her first official racial designation: her birth certificate required her mother's and her father's race. Dutifully, I filled in "black," but my Italian-born husband went into a huff, and, muttering that his daughter would be "aracial," left the item blank. A week or two later, when we took Sofia to a doctor's visit, the hospital admissions clerk insisted that they needed to know her race before she could be seen. For someone who studies race for a living, I was surprisingly unprepared for the question. "Hmmm," I pondered. "Multiracial?" "That's not an option," the clerk told us. "We'll just put 'Race Unknown.'" Since those early days, my daughter's race has even been required on nursery-school applications. It is probably just the beginning of what will be a lifetime of forms, checkboxes, and computer codes that all designate race. In short, a typical American experience.
My own experience offers a sampling of the varied occasions on which Americans are called upon to identify their race. In addition to medical visits, I have had to report my race when submitting school applications, renting an apartment, getting a marriage license, applying for work as a college professor, being fingerprinted for government job clearance, obtaining research funding, and filling out the household census form. Although some of these examples clearly relate to my profession as an academic, several are routine experiences that many if not most Americans share. Categorization by race comes up in our institutional transactions as well as our interpersonal relations.
As common as bureaucratic requests for racial information are, however, they rarely come with any explanation of what race is. In the absence of explicit, straightforward, or accessible definitions of race, individuals are largely left to their own devices to make sense of what they are being asked for. What is it that we think we are revealing about ourselves when we report our race? Are we saying something about our cultural practices, appearance, biological makeup, ancestry, or social class? About our economic status, political leaning, health, or consumer habits? And why do requests for our "ethnicity" so often require that we choose a racial label such as "black" or "white"? Sociologists tend to define racial categories as being based on beliefs about physical difference, while ethnicity is thought to involve categories reflecting cultural differences (for example, in language, religious practice, customs, etc.). Yet the term ethnicity is frequently treated as a substitute for race, and not just in informal conversation.
When I was pregnant, I tried to find out what race meant from a medical perspective: what did it have to do with blood tests or my unborn daughter's health? A couple of the corporate brochures I received explained that the results of my blood tests would be affected by my "weight, ethnic background and age," making my ethnicity seem like a bodily measure akin to how old I was or how heavy. The nurse who drew my blood could not explain how race was relevant to predictions about my baby's health other than to say it somehow affected how my blood work was analyzed. So although I gathered that medical professionals believe race is meaningful for health, it was hard to figure out exactly how or why. What kind of a phenomenon was race that it could be linked to blood, genes, and illness?
SCIENCE, EDUCATION, AND RACIAL CONCEPTUALIZATION
How Americans define what race is—and how science, education, government, and business influence those views—is at the heart of this book. Our understandings of racial difference are undoubtedly shaped by our families, friends, neighbors, and peers. But in a society where racial classification pervades bureaucratic life, our everyday experiences in settings such as schools, companies, state agencies, and medical offices also leave their mark on our notions of race. Being repeatedly asked to report our race conveys the message that it is important—one of the handful of basic facts that people or organizations need to know about us. It also casts race as a permanent and individual characteristic: something that is embedded within us and does not change over time. Finally, the ubiquitous race question presumes a straightforward, self-evident answer: everybody knows his or her race. It does not require any complicated investigation or calculation.
The fundamental objective of this book is to explore how scientists' concepts of race are transmitted to the public through formal education as well as other institutions. The scientific enterprise is central to American thinking about race because its claims are often the bedrock upon which academic, business, and government interpretations of the nature of race purport to rest. The medical tests marketed by companies such as Genzyme Genetics are informed by scientists' research; so are census questionnaires and high-school textbooks. To be sure, the authority of the scientific establishment does not always go uncontested; consider for example the occasional successes of religiously inspired creationism in shaping biology education. Still, in the United States today, science is largely equated with "knowledge of nature," especially as it is acquired through a specialized process (Conner 2005, 2). Indeed, as Yearley (2005, 1) put it, "Science is the exemplar and the measure of knowledge in the contemporary industrialized world." So in our society, the natural and social sciences are ultimately the place where we expect to find answers about what race is.
Despite the special authority that scientists enjoy, their beliefs are by no means independent of the broader society in which they train and practice. If lay people are influenced by what "experts" say about race, the reverse is true too: scientific notions of race are informed by the broader political and social currents of their times. This was the case in the nineteenth century when scientists sought to corroborate popular wisdom concerning the intelligence of whites or the physical frailty of mulattoes, and it still holds true today. This book, then, can be understood as focusing on one section of what is in fact a loop: the flow of scientific thinking to the public, which in turn unquestionably shapes scientists' views in the first place.
As students of "science popularization" know, scientific arguments are not usually conveyed directly to the lay public, but rather are transmitted through intermediate institutions. Organizations that have an obviously communicative function (such as schools, newspaper publishers, or television companies) clearly play a role in the dissemination of scientific thinking to the public, and they receive the lion's share of attention from scholars who study the diffusion of such thinking. Yet other institutions also send messages about the nature of race, either through explicit statements (for example, the Census Bureau providing a working definition of race on its website) or implicitly through their practices, such as using information about a patient's race to help analyze her blood samples. A central premise of this book then is that it is not enough to ponder the role of academic science alone when it comes to studying the impact of scientific expertise on Americans' understandings of human difference; we must also investigate the range of institutional intermediaries—from government agencies to biotech companies—that amplify and interpret scientists' views, putting them into material practice and thus delivering them for public consumption.
Among the institutions that channel scientists' notions of race, formal education provides the focus for this book. Elementary schools, secondary schools, and colleges and universities are in the business of teaching young people about the world, so it is in their classrooms that we might expect to find the most straightforward attempts to explain the concept of race. They are among the organizations most explicitly devoted to disseminating scientists' views to the lay public, and they may well have the greatest impact of any institutions with that mission. Formal schooling is nearly universal in the United States: in 2008, 88 percent of the population aged twenty-five and over had completed high school; only about 1 percent had not finished grade school (National Center for Education Statistics 2009). Moreover, messages delivered through education generally reach their audience at an important stage: in youth, when teaching has the potential to leave profound, lifelong impressions. Finally, the classroom setting, particularly at the college level, actually brings students into direct, face-to-face contact with the scientists whose research forms the core literature that will be disseminated through varied channels. In short, school seems like a natural place to start exploring how contemporary institutions transmit scientists' understandings of race as it enjoys a public reach that is unparalleled in its breadth, depth, and immediacy.
This inquiry about education and the spread of scientific race thinking is organized around three main questions:
1. What concepts of race do scientists hold?
2. What concepts of race do scientists transmit to the public through formal education?
3. How do students (the lay recipients) receive or react to these messages about race?
To answer these questions, I pursued three lines of research. In-depth interviews with over forty professors of anthropology and biology at four universities in the northeastern United States supplied data on how these scientists define race. A sample of over ninety textbooks in the social and biological sciences that were published between 1952 and 2002 illustrated the messages that are broadcast from the ivory tower to the public. Finally, interviews with over fifty undergraduates at the same four campuses where I spoke with professors helped me understand what these young people made of the race-related messages they encountered in the classroom.
LOSS AND REDEMPTION: AMERICAN RACE CONCEPTS AT THE START OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
The Nature of Race advances a dual argument: that biological interpretations of race remain powerful in scientific thinking and communications to the public, and that in contrast, the idea that race is socially constructed is not conveyed nearly as widely. Indeed, the message that race is a human invention has been largely "lost in transmission."
These findings will surprise in some quarters. For one thing, they squarely contradict those social scientists who presume that the constructivist perspective on race dominates the academy. When I began my research on scientists' concepts of race, more than one senior scholar was skeptical that I would find any variety to study. "Everyone knows race is a social construct!" was the refrain I got used to hearing.
This book's central argument is at even greater odds with the more widespread belief that the United States has become a "postracial" nation. In the wake of Barack Obama's presidential campaign and election, the claim that "we are now entering a new era in America in which race has substantially lost its special significance" (Pettigrew 2009, 279)—in other words, a postracial era–has gained serious traction. But if race is fading as a dividing line in society, why is it enduring and perhaps even hardening as a biological boundary in the public imagination? And how does the biological model of race survive and indeed flourish in a nation that is increasingly multiracial? Given the diversification of our immigration stream as well as growing rates of interracial marriage over the last few decades, some scholars predict that racial mixture will bring about the demise of race (Daniel 2002) or at least a meaningful softening of color lines (J. Lee and Bean 2004). More generally, sociological research in recent years has come to emphasize the fluid and contextual nature of racial identity, whether in terms of individuals' self-description or group classifications. As a result, sociologists have perhaps inadvertently contributed to the "postracial" idea that race is less powerful or real than it once was. Yet despite these public conversations about the disappearance of race as a barrier to advancement, and academic treatises on the situational and constructed nature of race, the long-standing belief that race is etched on the human body and has far-reaching physical, social, economic, and political consequences has given up little ground. As I will discuss in the concluding chapter, the cohabitation of these perspectives on race—that is, the faith in physical race in the midst of an ostensibly postracial era in a multiracial society—offers insight into the contemporary forms that American racial conceptualization has taken.
Another major contention of this book is that there is no consensus among experts from any scientific background about what race is; disagreement flourishes not just between specialists in different fields, but within disciplines as well. Without greater agreement on—and a more concerted effort to promote—the constructionist understanding of race, it decidedly ranks as a minority viewpoint among the public that is most directly exposed to scientists' views: namely, undergraduate students. Those I interviewed were much more likely to define race in what I call "culturalist" terms—that is, to equate race with the ancestry-based cultural communities that sociologists call ethnic groups.
Why does the biological model of race hold such sway? It is not due merely to historical inertia, for the biological race concept met with considerable criticism in the twentieth century. Nor do biological accounts prevail simply because they are "true"; not only are they hotly contested by academics across the disciplinary spectrum, but history makes amply clear that in the past, various biological frameworks for race endured despite having had the empirical legs kicked out from under them. Instead, social changes—particularly demographic and political developments—have made biological views of race more appealing than they were a generation ago. Or, to put it more precisely, societal shifts have "redeemed" the biological race concept, stripping away its morally dubious connotations (for example, with eugenics) and associating it instead with benevolence and progress.
OVERVIEW OF THE BOOK
The Nature of Race is organized symmetrically. At its center are three chapters that present the findings from each of the data sets I described above: the textbooks, faculty interviews, and student interviews. The first of these is Chapter 3, which opens our inquiry into scientific communication about race by examining its presentation from the 1950s to the present in high-school biology textbooks, with comparisons to social science texts. Focusing on high-school texts targets scientific education that is more widespread than college training (as considerably more Americans graduate from high school than go on to college), and that underpins the toolkit of scientific knowledge undergraduates bring with them when they arrive at college. Chapter 4 picks up the story on university campuses, describing the definitions of race that emerged from interviews with anthropology and biology professors. Chapter 5 turns to their students, reporting on how those majoring in anthropology, biology, and other disciplines expressed their understandings of racial difference.
Excerpted from The Nature of Race by Ann Morning. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
1. Introduction: What Is Race?
2. What Do We Know about Scientific and Popular Concepts of Race?
3. Textbook Race: Lessons on Human Difference
4. Teaching Race: Scientists on Human Difference
5. Learning Race: Students on Human Difference
6. Race Concepts beyond the Classroom
7. Conclusion: The Redemption of Essentialism
Appendix A. Textbook Sample Selection and List
Appendix B. Interview Research Design and Methodology
Appendix C. Faculty Questionnaire
Appendix D. Student Questionnaire
What People are Saying About This
"Well-written, well-researched, and well-argued, [it] does an excellent job of tracing out the power of knowing how race is defined."American Journal of Sociology