Social Share:
Twitter Facebook Email Comment More








From the News column of the December 2004 Perspectives

Historians Participate in Conference on Race and Human Variations

Noralee Frankel, December 2004

Race and Human Variations: Setting an Agenda for Future Research and Education," an interdisciplinary conference held September 13–14, 2004, provided an interesting, if sometimes conflicted, experience for the approximately 100 social scientists (including historians) and geneticists who attended. The American Anthropological Association sponsored the conference with funding from the Ford Foundation. Many organizations, including the AHA, were involved in the planning of the conference program, with the AHA’s Committee on Minority Historians suggesting names of scholars to participate in the conference. The conference is expected to pave the way for and inform a larger project that will–with funding from the Ford Foundation and the National Science Foundation–eventually produce a traveling museum exhibition, a web site, and educational materials on the same topic as the conference.

After a cordial dinner on Sunday, September 12, in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, the conference started in earnest on Monday morning. Each plenary session had a main speaker and three or four commentators. Thomas C. Holt, professor of history at the University of Chicago and a former president of the AHA, gave the major paper at the plenary session on the history of concepts and processes of race. He entitled his paper "Understanding the Problematic of Race through the Problem of Race-mixture." According to Holt, the paper approaches "the long history of the race concept via the phenomenon of race-mixing." This approach is justified, he believes, "by the fact that the very possibility of the mixture of races frames–indeed has always framed–the larger problematic of race as such." The possibility of race mixing forms an essential component of race itself, "at once enabling and destabilizing racial thought and racial regimes." Race mixing raises fundamental questions–not only about the seeming "physical-biological reality of race" but also about the motivations for racism. Holt argued that "the idea that racial purity and racial mixture stand at diametrically opposite ends of a continuum needs revision. Historically, they too are more likely to be interactive and mutually constitutive." Groups who have seen themselves as "superior" would on occasion "appropriate aspects of, even assimilate, members of ostensibly racialized groups. For their part, the subordinated groups generally find it difficult to respond to their racial proscriptions without recourse to the fundamental paradigms encoded in their own racial differentiation."

Holt emphasized the role of state power in the formation of race, and went on to suggest that race as a social and historical conception is linked to modernity and the emergence of the nation-state with its need for labor. After a brief discussion of Iberian and French concepts of race, Holt used a court case involving a woman kidnapped in Arkansas to illustrate his argument that in conceptualizing race, biology and learned behavior often can be–and are– conflated. Although the woman was a slave, she argued in court that she was "white," citing qualities of "gentility" as evidence of her whiteness, an argument that was contested on the grounds that she attended dances unchaperoned!

In his comments, Neal Foley (Univ. of Texas at Austin) noted the porous nature of racial categories. While articles in popular magazines have commented on the "browning" of America, close to a majority of Hispanics (48 percent) in the United States identify as white. "White," according to Foley, is the fastest growing racial category in the United States. Humorously but pointedly, Foley noted that the exhibition on race and human variation planned to debut at the Science Museum of Minnesota might very well fix race in people’s mind as biology even as the exhibit tried to negate that very point. A modern art museum, Foley contended, would be a better venue for such an exhibition. Both the anthropologist and lawyer who also commented stressed race as a social construction even as it was also a "lived experience."

An anthropologist in the audience declared that the chair and table at which he sat was socially constructed but race was not a construction. His comments started a debate that ran through the rest of the conference, often generating more heat than light. While a few of the participants argued that race should be removed from the census because it has little real biological meaning, most disagreed, noting that race as a constructed category continues to be a very salient factor in American society.

Lynn Jorde, professor of human genetics at the University of Utah, argued at his plenary session that new genetic data has allowed a "reexamination of the relationship between human genetic variation and 'race’." He discussed the patterns or clustering of "geographic origin or ancestry." Scientists have found that "these clusters are also correlated with some traditional concepts of race, but the correlations are imperfect because genetic variation tends to be distributed in a continuous, overlapping fashion among populations." Such imperfect correlations make the scientific discussion of race a very slippery slope. Evelynn Hammonds, professor of the history of science and African and African American studies at Harvard University, commenting on Jorde’s paper, argued that geneticists need to place their work in a social and historical context. Geneticists have not defined race well in their use of the term and the term has had a variety of meanings. Geneticists need to understand the popular and folk view of race to fully comprehend the significance of public reception of their own work.

At the next plenary session, Frank Johnston, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, presented a paper entitled "Race and Biology: Changing Currents in Muddy Waters." Johnston examined the development of natural sciences’ view of race that often lacked scientific validity as natural scientists produced their various classifications of races. Johnston discussed various factors that can influence the gene pool. In his nuanced response, Gary Okihiro, professor of international and public affairs and director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race as well as the director of the Asian-American Studies program at Columbia University, emphasized power relationships. He raised the issue of who has the power to name, classify, and give symbolic meaning and what are the consequences of these nominal exercises. Using James Cook’s voyage to Hawaii as an example of an exercise of imperial power, Okihiro showed how Cook’s exploration transformed social relations. Okihiro also noted that the pineapple, now a symbol of hospitality, was a symbol of empire for the native Hawaiians. Such conflicts between the invaders and the invaded over the meanings of symbols continues, he said.

Micaela di Leonardo, professor of anthropology and performing studies at Northwestern University, argued in her paper, "Human Cultural Diversity," that such topics as "culture, race vs. ethnicity, the parameters of 'whiteness’," and indeed, culture itself, were "all highly politicized and entirely historically contingent." She gave examples of the importance of placing race in a historical context such as the romanticizing of the exotic or the supposed passivity of American Asians during the civil rights movement when African Americans were viewed by white society as militant. As a discussant, Evelyn Hu-Dehart, professor of history and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America at Brown University, used images of celebrities such as Tiger Woods to further complicate the conception of race. She also reminded the audience that in a global context, race becomes even more problematic. Her analysis stressed race as a social construction with various meanings.

As Leonardo had done, Ian Haney Lopez, professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, used a sophisticated conception of historical analysis in his paper, "Race and Colorblindness after Hernandez and Brown." The case of Hernandez v. Texas, involving jury exclusion, "made clear, in a way that Brown does not, that it is race as subordination, rather than race per se, that demands constitutional concern." Lopez used the case, decided just two weeks before Brown, to attack the concept of using "colorblindness" as a way to address racial discrimination. In fact, he argued, colorblindness upholds "egregious racial discrimination." He concluded that, "as Hernandez suggests, race must be understood for legal purposes as a product of status conflict and social subordination."

The luncheon speaker on the second day of the conference, Troy Duster, professor of sociology at New York University, examined the "remarkable fracture of the scientific consensus about race." He noted that the scholarly literature in several fields "is replete with language about 'the end of race’ as a legitimate concept in scientific discourse, practice, and application," while some other scholars are "vociferously arguing for the continued meaningful use of the biology of race even if only as a proxy for understanding the probability for the appearance of a genetic disease in particular 'population groups.’" In the second part of his talk, Duster examined the use of race in highly disturbing ways by drug companies and the criminal justice system.

The conference ended with small groups of the participants discussing the broad themes of the conference and how they could be best explained in an exhibition. How an exhibition will present both the idea of the construction of race as well as the results from the Human Genome Project struck the participants as quite a challenge.

–Noralee Frankel is the AHA’s assistant director for women, minorities, and teaching. She is the author of–among other books–Freedom’s Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press).