The Myth of Race: The Troubling and Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Posted in Anthropology, Book/Video Reviews, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2016-06-14 20:00Z by Steven

The Myth of Race: The Troubling and Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Journal of Social History
Volume 49, Number 3, Spring 2016
pages 740-741

Robert J. Cottrol, Harold Paul Green Research Professor of Law and Professor of History and Sociology
George Washington University

The Myth of Race: The Troubling and Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. By Robert Wald Sussman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. 374 pp. $35.00).

With The Myth of Race, Robert Sussman gives us a comprehensive history of the idea of race and particularly the rise and not total fall of scientific racism Drawing on the intellectual history of his own discipline, physical anthropology, Sussman takes the reader on a journey from the role of race in the religious persecutions of the fifteenth century Spanish inquisition to an examination of the development of the eugenics movement, that movement’s link to Nazi ideology and practice, and the role of Franz Boaz and his disciples in combating scientific racism and establishing the dominance of culturally based explanations for racial and ethnic differences. The Myth of Race takes us to our uneasy present. The scientific racists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been vanquished in the minds of the scientific communities and educated public more generally, but there are still holdouts, in some places influential holdouts, asserting the validity of earlier views positing that racial differences are real, inherited and largely immutable.

The introduction provides something of a primer on race from the point of view of physical anthropology for the uninitiated. From the biological perspective, Sussman informs us, even using the term race to discuss the variations in the human species is suspect. But Sussman’s purpose is not to provide a thumbnail sketch of the biology of race, but to explore race as an intellectual construct along with a history of its uses and misuses. Race’s development as a concept was prompted by large scale European contact with new and different peoples in Africa and the Americas, a by-product of European expansion. The Church, however imperfectly, stressed the unity of humanity, the product of a single act of creation. But others, repelled by difference, or attracted by the possibility that those who were different and more vulnerable could be readily exploited, fashioned explanations to both account for differences and to insure the dominance of Europeans. Some theories accounted for difference by attributing human variation to separate creations with Africans and the indigenous populations of the Western Hemisphere being something other and something less than children of the Biblical Adam and Eve. Others were willing to stipulate to the unity of human origins, but nonetheless asserted that those strange people who were not white, not European and not Christian were the products of a degeneration that also highlighted their inferiority and the need for them to be brought under the control of their betters. Sussman is particularly strong in presenting this history and in reminding readers that moral and political philosophers like Locke and Kant more generally thought of as advocates of political liberty and just governance played a significant role in implanting notions of racial hierarchy in European thought.

But it is in his discussion of the origins and career of eugenics as a concept where Sussman makes his strongest contribution. Sussman links the origins of eugenics to concepts of scarcity and need first articulated by Malthus. These concepts when coupled with the extension of Darwinian thought beyond basic biology would provide a basis for a school of human science that reached its logical conclusions with Nazi racial science. The Myth of Race provides a chilling look at the popularity and power of the American eugenics movement. Sussman’s discussion of the influence that American eugenicist Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race had on Nazi racial policies is particularly instructive.

We all, to some extent, know how the story comes out, at least to date. In the inter-war years, anthropologist Franz Boaz through his meticulous research and the influence of his disciples helped defeat the scientific racists who dominated the debate before the First World War. Boaz’s research played a pivotal role in persuading educated people that culture and not biology accounted for group differences. The horrors of the Nazi holocaust played a significant role in discrediting scientific and not so scientific racism among the public at large after the Second World War

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Coming Into their Own? The Afro-Latin Struggle for Equality and Recognition

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Social Science on 2012-07-02 21:30Z by Steven

Coming Into their Own? The Afro-Latin Struggle for Equality and Recognition

Grassroots Development Journal
Inter-American Foundation
African Descendants and Development (2007)

Robert J. Cottrol, Harold Paul Green Research Professor of Law and Professor of History and Sociology
George Washington University

Most Americans have at least a passing familiarity with the history of Afro-Americans in the United States. The epic story of slavery, the Civil War and Emancipation, Jim Crow, the civil rights struggle, and the Black Power movement has become part of our common heritage. This wasn’t always the case. A few short decades ago, the history of Americans of African descent was largely unknown even by black Americans. It was the province of a small number of specialists, not part of our general education or popular culture. The civil rights movement and the demand for a more inclusive history helped change that, bringing about a greater awareness of the role of Afro-Americans in the history of the United States.
Still few Americans know that the Afro-American experience in the United States is but a small part of a much larger hemispheric history. Only about 6 percent of Africans brought to the Americas came to what is now the United States. Today probably less than a third of the hemisphere’s Afro-Americans are in the United States. Latin American slavery lasted longer and was more intense than its U.S. counterpart. The Portuguese and Spaniards began enslaving Africans early in the 15th century, before Columbus’s voyages to the Americas. Slavery would finally end in the hemisphere when Cuba and Brazil abolished it in the late 1880s.
Latin American historians have long studied slavery in the colonial era. But far less is known about Latin Americans of African descent after independence. There are significant Afro-American populations throughout the region, although some have been reluctant to acknowledge them. Throughout the 20th century, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile have insisted that they were white nations with few or no citizens of African descent. In the last decade, largely due to the insistence of local Afro-American activists, there has been an increased recognition that African descendants are not just a part of these countries’ history but very much a part of the present, even if in small numbers. Peru and Mexico have tended to emphasize their Spanish and indigenous lineage, ignoring the substantial African heritage. In the Dominican Republic, people visibly of African descent constitute a majority, but because African ancestry is stigmatized it is commonly denied even when it is obvious. In all of these countries, Afro-Latin activists are changing the national dialogue by insisting that the African and Afro-American contribution to the national culture be recognized…

…Afro-Latin activists face daunting challenges, perhaps most importantly a lack of basic information on Afro-American populations. Often it is difficult, if not impossible, to gain from census and other official records an accurate picture of the social and economic circumstances of different racial groups. Despite substantial populations of African descent throughout the Americas, their history is often not well-known, even by regional specialists. Racial classifications further complicate the task. Who should or should not be categorized as Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Colombian or Afro-Mexican can be unclear and, frequently, a matter of dispute. Students of race in the United States study a society whose culture and law have traditionally dictated that all persons with any traceable African ancestry belong to a single group—variously called colored, Negro, black, Afro-American, African American—but a unified group nonetheless. There has been occasional recognition that some individuals are of mixed ancestry and stand apart; terms like mulatto, quadroon and octoroon were used in the past and there are contemporary debates about proposed census categories like biracial or multiracial. But recognition of mixture has not disturbed the consensus placing people with traceable African ancestry into a single group.

No such consensus exists in Latin America. If race is a social construct, it is often an elusive one for Latin Americans as well as outsiders. Spanish and Portuguese have meticulous vocabularies detailing every conceivable combination, real and imagined. Latin American lexicons include terms like negro, preto, pardo, moreno, mulato, trigueño, zambo and others detailing presumed degrees of African, European and indigenous admixtures. Traditionally individuals of partial African descent have rejected identification as negro, or black, a rejection supported by the prevailing culture. Some individuals with known African ancestry are accepted as white. In Latin America racial identity often is a complex negotiation involving ancestry, phenotype, social status and family connections. Classification is contextual. A hierarchy exists to be sure and it prizes European descent and appearance more than African ones. Yet at times whites will allow Afro-Latins to proclaim a whiter status than phenotype and ancestry might dictate, partly as a courtesy, partly because it confirms the view of many whites that they live in essentially white societies. Despite this, the individual of visible African descent who claims to be white will often be the victim of race- or color-based exclusion. The picture becomes even cloudier when individuals who look white or nearly white identify with Afro-Americans for familial or cultural reasons.

This notion of racial fluidity has created difficulties both for scholars researching Afro-Latins and for Afro-Latin activists seeking to mobilize a constituency. In many important ways, legal discrimination in the United States helped to forge a unified group. In Latin America, the multiplicity of racial/color categories coupled with the ideologies of mestizaje and blanqueamiento that read Afro-Americans out of the history and culture also served to blunt the development of Afro-American group consciousness and identity. This was true even in areas where people of visible African ancestry faced considerable racial discrimination. And yet if group consciousness and concerted action have been difficult, Latin America does have a history of Afro-American political and social activism that has challenged class and color barriers. This theme has been explored by, among others, George Reid Andrews in his book Afro-Latin America, 1800–2000. The Afro-Latin struggle against racial subordination began in slavery. Colonial Latin America was dotted with cimarrón settlements of runaway slaves defying recapture. Their descendants are still to be found in Brazilian quilombos and similar enclaves throughout the hemisphere…

…Racism prevailed throughout the hemisphere. New ideologies at the start of the 20th century were helping to move the Afro-American and indigenous peoples of Latin America further to the margins of their nations’ societies and cultures. For students of U.S. history, the role of scientific racism and social Darwinism in providing the intellectual underpinnings for Jim Crow and disenfranchisement are well known. These forces influenced thinking in Latin America, but in different ways. Latin American elites saw the problem less as in terms of protecting their privilege and status than in attaining the white majority they believed required for progress and modernity. To this end large-scale European immigration was encouraged, often by generous land bounties. It would transform Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil. Other nations would receive far fewer Europeans, but their strong desire for blanqueamiento further marginalized Afro-Latins. Cultural dynamics from the slave era had long dictated that the individual should strive for racial mobility via lighter racial classification. If the national ethos dictated that the nation was white, it was all the more prudent, particularly for those of mixed ancestry, not to declare an African heritage. Thus mestizaje and blanqueamiento both contributed to the pronounced unwillingness of many Afro-Latins to identify as such, even when phenotype made such identification and the resulting discrimination inescapable…

Read the entire article here.

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