Commentary: Anthropologists and 'race'


WASHINGTON, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- If comments made at a news conference are a fair indication, science will take a back seat to politics in the American Anthropological Association's public education initiative on race.

The opaque locutions common among academics can make it difficult to grasp what they are trying to say, and anthropologists' statements on the subject of race tend to be confusing because their thinking has often been politicized into incoherence.


The underlined text in the press release marking the initiative's launch reads: "The overall goal of AAA's project is to increase public understanding of race and human variability, enhance public appreciation of human commonalities and differences, bolster public support for social justice and affirmative action programs, and promote equality among all peoples."

Bill Davis, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, told reporters Wednesday that, a year and a half ago, the AAA's board of directors charged the organization with developing the project. A Web site, a traveling museum exhibit and a book are envisaged. Last month the Ford Foundation donated $1 million.

But what the anthropologists had to say that wasn't trivial or self-evident was confusing or misleading.


AAA President Louise Lamphere got things off to a bad start. "Right now in this country, race is still a very important issue in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks," she said. "Racism is alive and well in terms of what's happened to the Middle Eastern populations of the United States."

This, of course, has nothing to do with race, and it trivializes real racism to say it does. If IRA terrorists had crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the authorities would be detaining red-headed guys with brogues.

Yolanda T. Moses, past president of both the City College of New York and the AAA, chairs the project's Advisory Committee. "This is Yolanda's baby," Lamphere said.

Here is how Moses is quoted in the third paragraph of the press release: "A lot of people have been attributing behavior to skin color, and that has nothing do with behavior, it has everything to do with genetics and how the genes line up." Who attributes behavior to skin color? Does she mean that some people see skin color as a conspicuous biological marker that tends to cluster with less conspicuous traits that can include central nervous system variability?


Faye V. Harrison, of the University of Tennessee, made the useful observation that immigrants to the United States bring with them "their own cultural logics" about what constitutes "race" and whether race exists at all. "And from those cultural logics," she said, "they resist the classifications and meanings that most Americans take for granted."

But then Harrison made a series of remarkable pronouncements. She said it is particularly important to "situate U.S. racism in a global context" because "all over the world, intergroup tensions are escalating, and they are undergoing a process of racialization in which races and racial identities are being made anew, or in some cases they're being remade from old cloths that are being fashioned into new quilts."

What does this mean?

"Popularized notions of culture and cultural diversity are being refashioned into ideologies of essential and irreconcilable difference," she continued. "And these new ideologies don't necessarily rely on any explicit notion of biology.

"Consequently, in many parts of the world today -- notably in Western Europe in countries such as Austria, France and Germany -- race is now being conceptualized within euphemistic codes of cultural fundamentalism. However, alongside this important trend of neo-racism -- or racism without biologized races -- is a revival of biological determinism and pseudo-scientific racism, especially in North America, where a small but highly visible minority -- and sometimes well-funded scholars -- continue to explain intelligence, athletic ability, fertility patterns, and social mobility in terms of differential racial endowments."


Get it? In other words, if you disapprove of behavior that is normative within certain groups, even if you assume no biological basis for that behavior, you are a "neo-racist" who conceptualizes race euphemistically.

And if you attribute to nature the fact that in each of the last five Olympics, the eight finalists in the men's 100-meter dash have been blacks of West African descent, you are, presumably, a paleo-"racist."

D. Andrew Merriwether, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Michigan, stated what every human biologist knows, but drew a very curious conclusion from that knowledge.

"Most of the differences we find among humans occur within populations rather than between populations," he said. "So if you compare individuals within a particular population, you'll find about 90 percent of the differences occur within that population. ... So a lot of the variation that we find in the world is actually shared across the whole world, and actually there's very little genetic variation between populations.

"If you extend this up and call group populations a race, there is almost no genetic difference between what we call races. It works out to be about 10 to 15 percent of the differences between races show up as genetic and 85 to 90 percent are shared. So it seems pretty clear that there isn't really a genetic basis for race."


A few points.

As Henry Harpending, a dissident anthropologist and mathematical geneticist at the University of Utah points out, these calculations are drawn mostly from junk genes that don't do anything, or from blood types that vary following each epidemic that sweeps through a racial group. It's an odd paradox, but population geneticists who research the genealogies of racial groups try to look only at junk genes that vary simply according to random mutations. They avoid studying genes that are adaptive to local variations in altitude or latitude, for example.

Second, as Vince Sarich -- an emeritus professor at the University of California at Berleley who co-founded the field of genetic anthropology -- has noted, a 10 percent or 15 percent correlation with race would be highly useful for making predictions.

It's true that human "racial" variation is trivial on the macro level, but we study it precisely because of what it reveals on the micro level. Otherwise, Merriwether's life's work would be an exercise in futility.

Further, we call genetic trait clusters "race" because it is too convenient not to. If we abolished the word because of the abuse to which it has been put, we'd have to invent a synonym.


Robert Hahn, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, went even farther into left field.

He said that we use terms such as "black" and "Asian" to rationalize "the various forms of domination that have been a part of the social history." The health disparities that we find today result from that domination and consequent deprivation, he said.

Hahn was correct in saying that much of the disparity in health found among American "racial" groups has behavioral, not biological, causes. But it is wrong to imply that smoking, a bad diet, excess weight, substance abuse and venereal disease have their etiology in the use of descriptive categories by superordinate groups.

And any physician who did not take salt sensitivity into account in his treatment of a hypertensive African American, or the "thrifty gene" into account in his treatment of a diabetic American Indian, would be guilty of malpractice.

The FDA recently gave preliminary approval to a heart attack drug only for use on blacks. It would be horrible if ideological animus against the entire concept of race caused African-American heart attack victims to die needlessly.

Anthropologists do have a lot to offer on the subject of race, but little of it will be useful while it remains shackled to leftist politics.


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