Race and African-American Skeletons

W.W. Norton has a series of interviews with sociologists about important topics that are also highly relevant to anthropologists and other social scientists in their You May Ask Yourself series. (Full disclosure, I've done some writing for this publisher, so I'm not the most unbiased user of their resources.) The clip below, an interview with Columbia sociologist Alondra Nelson about the idea that race is a social construct, is particularly interesting as I think about my spring Anth 101 course.

Nelson takes the hard-line stance that race is purely a social construct. Whereas Nelson argues that biology becomes part of the process of constructing the race concept, I teach race as a social construct that is partly rooted in biology. There is a vast range of clinal variation in the world, and if you walked from the North Pole to Antarctica, for example, there wouldn't be the stark differences in skin color we think of as a racial marker. But if you take individuals from these populations (and individuals are the subject of, for instance, forensic anthropology), there can be large differences in one's external appearance (phenotype) based on ancestry.

Interestingly, Nelson mentions Rick Kittles, who worked on the African Burial Ground Project in New York City, excavating and analyzing the largest cemetery of Africans (slave and otherwise) in the U.S. I was surprised that she pointed out the possible issues in using genetic analysis on skeletal remains: namely, that we can't be sure of the accuracy of this analysis on ancient/historical material, and that these people cannot be informed of their results and (importantly) cannot contest them. That is, DNA can tell us about an individual's genotype, but race is largely constructed based on one's phenotype (which is affected by the environment as well as genes). Although we seem to disagree on how much biology contributes to the race concept, it's great to hear a sociologist present an historical perspective on race. I guess I had assumed that conversations about the "race" of ancient skeletons were going on only between bioarchaeologists and forensic anthropologists.

Addendum (12/9/10) - Didn't want to give it a whole post, but this OUP blog post from the author of a new Cleopatra biography gets it all wrong. (He uses loaded words like "pure" and doesn't separate phenotype from genotype - not that he knows what Cleopatra's genotype was.) Would chucking the race concept fix something like this, though? How many generations would it take until people gave up on questions like "what was Cleopatra's race"?


Krystal D'Costa said…
Race was a big part of the discussion last night at Wenner Gren, where Chris Matthews gave a talk titled, "Emancipation Landscapes and Public Space in Early New York." It looked at the ways in which racial identities were heightened and defined via personal and work spaces. In response to a question from the audience, Matthews reminded us that race is far more than a biological construct and for a complete discussion, we have to think about how race is culturally constructed (e.g., how can the Irish be "black"?)

It was a really informative discussion--once I find some time, I'll write it up for AiP.
Ooh, I look forward to your AiP report on this. I don't doubt that race is culturally constructed, as are many of our categorizations, in order to keep a certain population at arm's length. Biology has been used for centuries to justify discrimination, but it has also shown us that there are differences between populations. What's unclear is what those biological differences mean and how they can be used to understand important topics like disease susceptibility.

A more effective conversation needs to take place in light of the new biological/genetic information. I don't think it's productive to say that race is only related to culture. Or rather, we can drop the word/concept of race entirely and talk about ancestral differences (and similarities) in world populations. I worry that saying "race is purely a social construct" may eventually blind people to the biological variation that exists in the world and to the interaction between biology and culture.

Popular Posts