Some years ago, at an elementary school where I was involved in writing and testing a new science curriculum, I was on the playground when a small white boy ran up to the teacher with whom I was talking and said that another boy just hit him. “Which one?” the teacher asked. Pointing to a black boy on the other side of the yard, he said “The one with the red hat.” Brief as it was, that incident had a profound effect on me, leading to the realization that racism—the recognition of race, especially skin color, as a significant, defining difference between people—has to be taught—it is not inborn. Michael Yudell’s new book, Race Unmasked is the story of how race differences have been fashioned and taught, especially with the aid of science, in 20th century America. The book provides an interesting and relevant historical perspective on an issue that recent events in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore and elsewhere have demonstrated is still very much a part of American cultural baggage.
As the author tells us in the Introduction, “in the 21st century, understanding the way race was constructed within the biological sciences, particularly within genetics and evolutionary biology, is essential to understanding its broader meanings.” Yudell shows how scientists, even with the best intentions of modernizing or modifying the concept to keep up with current evidence, often wound up reinforcing the standard, popular view, helping to insure its survival. Thus, this book is about the paradoxical way in which changing biological conceptions of race, changed between 1700 and 1950 from a fixed and significant taxonomic to an arbitrary and socially-constructed category, nonetheless left a confusing legacy that did not substantially change the common perception of the existence of sharply-defined racial groups. The author’s attempt to trace the history of this paradox and its evolution in the 20th century forms the central thread of the narrative.
Yudell argues that around 1900 the division of the human species into three or more biologically-distinct races was based on what biologist and historian Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) called typological, or essentialist thinking: that is, viewing organisms, especially human races, as separate and distinct groupings each with its own set of fixed traits. Typological thinking emphasized the biological homogeneity of each group, with every member conforming to the type to which it belonged. In humans, for example, the various races had been viewed typologically as equivalent to the taxonomic category of sub-species, within which there was little variation, but between which the differences were significant. For religious interpreters these fixed differences were created by God, even claimed by some to have been intended as a means of keeping the races apart.
With the rise of colonialism in the 18th-century Europeans, abetted by both Linnaean taxonomy and Biblical authority, developed a hierarchical ranking of races (whites at the top and Africans at the bottom) that justified slavery and other forms of exploitation. Even though the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 produced a fundamental change in the way naturalists came to view the nature and origin of biological diversity, especially human diversity, it did little to change the popular conception that the races were distinct and meaningful biological groups that could still be ranked in a hierarchy. Indeed, the existing hierarchy fit well into the evolutionary framework by providing a transitional series between the higher primates (great apes, chimpanzees) and Caucasians.
By the 1960s, Yudell argues, most biological scientists had clearly rejected typological thinking as applied to racial categories and concluded that, from a biological and evolutionary point of view, traditional racial groups had no significant reality. Yet, what Yudell notes is that even as these new approaches called old views about race into question, simultaneous movements developed that supported the traditional categories.
However, by around 1900 and the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s experiments on heredity, biological science, along with new developments in sociology and cultural anthropology, began to question whether the boundaries separating individual races were so fixed and distinct as the traditional view had it. The growth of genetics after 1900, and particularly population genetics and its application in the 1930s and 1940s to Darwinian theory (what has been called the evolutionary synthesis), began to undermine the typological view of both species and sub-species (races). The evolutionary synthesis introduced a populational approach to evolutionary thinking that emphasized the wide range of genetic variation (as opposed to a genetic homogeneity) within a species or sub-species. Populations began to be defined not by a few observable (phenotypic) characters that set them apart from other populations, but by particular combinations of gene frequencies. Combined with the growing recognition that gene flow (through interbreeding) between sub-species and even some species was a common feature of evolution, the traditional boundaries between human groupings became increasingly blurred. It was clear that human populations had been interbreeding across continents for millennia, and thus were far more genetically similar than different. At the same time the work of a new school of anthropology under Franz Boas at Columbia University argued that so-called racial groups were best defined and understood by their cultural rather than their biological heritage. In addition, the wide range in estimated numbers of races by anthropologists—from three to 17 or more—led to the conclusion that racial categories were arbitrary, socially constructed groupings, and had little or nothing to do with significant biological differences. Thus, by the 1960s, Yudell argues, most biological scientists had clearly rejected typological thinking as applied to racial categories and concluded that, from a biological and evolutionary point of view, traditional racial groups had no significant reality.
Yet, what Yudell notes is that even as these new approaches called old views about race into question, simultaneous movements developed that supported the traditional categories. The author points to the rise of eugenics on the heels of Mendelian genetics, which reintroduced typological thinking by attempting to categorize racial and ethnic populations as genetically homogenous, or pure, at least at some point in the past, but now becoming heterogeneous and impure through interbreeding. Eugenic thinking was thus a reversion to typology in that it sought to restore genetic homogeneity, as in the stereotypic Nordics (Aryans), while at the same time eliminating deleterious genes such as those leading to feeblemindedness, alcoholism, manic depression, pauperism and other socially degenerate conditions (of course, thought to be introduced into the Aryan gene pool by Africans or various ethnic groups). In the early decades of the 20th century genetics, like evolutionary theory itself, did little to alter the view that racial groupings were real and sharply bounded, or that all human populations were equivalent in terms of their overall genetic worth. The social policy flowing from eugenics aimed to control human reproduction so that breeding rates of the genetically “most fit” were increased while what of the genetically “unfit” were decreased or eliminated completely.
Eventually, the original formulation of eugenics lost some of its appeal both within the scientific community and the general public. Scientifically, it became clear that eugenic claims of single genes being responsible for complex conditions like “alcoholism” or “feeblemindedness,” were overly simplistic and based on poor to non-existent genetic evidence. Among the larger public, with the revelation of Nazi genocide carried out in the name of eugenics, the whole movement appeared, at least to some, to be nothing more than traditional prejudices dressed up in scientific garb. In contrast to historian Eleazar Barkan, whose 1992 book, The Retreat of Scientific Racism (Oxford University Press) agued that racial categorization began to “retreat” in the 1930s and 1940s, Yudell argues that typological thinking continued to resurface in a variety of new guises after World War II. Among the post-war examples he points to are debates about the two UNESCO Statements on Race published in the early 1950s, Arthur Jensen’s claims in the 1960s and 1970s that there was a racial (biological) basis of IQ differences between blacks and whites, Carlton Coon’s revisionist anthropology in the early 1960s that claimed different evolutionary rates for Africans and Europeans, Edward O. Wilson’s sociobiology in the 1970s and 1980s that claimed, among other things, that male-female role differences and complex traits like xenophobia (fear of foreigners) were genetically determined and had been selected for during evolutionary history; and finally, from the 1990s to the present, the rise of genomics and race-based medicine in the wake of the Human Genome Diversity Project.
According to Yudell, part of the reason for this seeming lack of progress in the larger public understanding of race lies with simple inertia or “racecraft,” a term he borrows from Karen and Barbara Fields’ concept of the persistence of old ideas based on the familiarity of “mental terrain and pervasive belief.” That is, despite new information or perspectives, people tend to revert to older ideas and ways of thinking because they are familiar and “comfortable.” But the author also places part of the blame on scientists themselves, who over the years have often held, both individually and collectively, contradictory views about the biological basis of race, leaving the public confused as to what the science itself actually means. The upshot has been, according to Yudell, that despite advances in biology and scientific disclaimers about the reality of race as any kind of meaningful biological category, the concept continues to persist well into the 21st century and the era of high-tech genomic science (what could be more typological than the idea of a racially-based medicine, where an individual is treated on the basis of their genetic membership in a group, rather than on the basis of an analysis of their own genetic make-up?). With respect to the role of science in resolving the race issue, Yudell ends the book on a cautionary, if not an actually discouraging, note: “ … we should not be waiting for or expecting science and scientists to change our thinking about race. Science may have helped to bring us to this point, but it is unlikely to extract us from it.”
Race Unmasked consists of 11 chapters, arranged more or less chronologically and bookended by an “Introduction” and an “Epilogue.” The “Introduction” lays out the thesis of the book with a brief survey of the historiography of race and science in America, concentrating on eugenics. The author argues that most of the existing literature on this topic has only dealt peripherally with race, focusing most of its attention on ethnic groupings and immigration. “[H]istorians,” Yudell claims, “have painted eugenics as largely incidental to the formulation of ideas of race in science, focusing instead on the history of eugenic institutions, on the relationship between eugenics and the emerging conceptions of ethnicity among immigrant white groups, and on the impact of eugenic policies (in particular sterilization programs and immigration restriction). These approaches overlook the links between eugenic thought and the ideologies of race and racism and their impact on African American history.” Yudell sees his book as filling in this gap in the literature. While this claim might be debatable, what Yudell’s book does accomplish particularly well is to show how eugenic thinking was integral to formulating ideas about race in both the biological and social sciences, a topic that has, indeed, often been overlooked in the existing literature.
With respect to the role of science in resolving the race issue, Yudell ends the book on a cautionary, if not an actually discouraging, note: “ … we should not be waiting for or expecting science and scientists to change our thinking about race. Science may have helped to bring us to this point, but it is unlikely to extract us from it.”
Toward the end of the “Introduction” the author also lays out what the book will not attempt to do. After pointing out the vast disparities that still persist in health care, housing, employment and social opportunities between whites and African Americans today, Yudell writes that his book “does not claim to expose the nature of these disparities or how to mitigate them; this work focuses instead on the ideas behind the race concept.” He expresses the hope that “by examining the historical and intellectual bases for the race concept, we can … begin to understand its origin and develop new ways of thinking about the meanings of human diversity.” There is no call to action or specific proposal about how readers might put to use the knowledge that the history provides. Readers may debate whether historical works should be linked to activist proposals, but Yudell makes it clear that this is not part of his agenda.
A particularly interesting feature of Yudell’s book is his description of how the public was introduced to eugenic ideas through exhibits and popular media coverage at the Second International Congress of Eugnics hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1921 (Chapter 3, “Eugenics in the Public Eye”). Although relatively brief, the discussion offers a fascinating insight into what the public was being exposed to about the aims and methods of eugenics. Particularly influential were the exhibits, which Yudell points out contained a number of examples of eugenical methods and conclusions. There were more scientifically-oriented booths on “Eugenical Organizations,” “Human Heredity,” “Anthropometry” and “Mental Testing” and more racially-and ethnically-oriented booths on “Races of Man,” demonstrating with diagrams and plaster models the “elementary qualities” of races. Since the ways that eugenics was popularized during the early decades of the century is a very important part of understanding its initial appeal, this is a useful contribution of Yudell’s book.
Yudell also uses the 1921 meeting to introduce the opposition to eugenics in the first two decades of the century mounted particularly forcefully by anthropologist Franz Boas (at Columbia, and an ardent foe of the claims about racial inferiority and superiority by the Nordic supremacists such as Madison Grant (1865-1937), author of the infamous racist tract, The Passing of the Great Race (Scribners, 1916). Boas fought consistently against the typological thinking inherent in claims about distinct racial categorization and the racism exemplified by hierarchical rankings. Boas was enormously influential among American anthropologists with his emphasis on the importance of culture over biology in determining the differences between various human populations.
Chapters 4-7 provide some of the most original research in the book by focusing on eugenical thinking in the social sciences and discussions of race in the “evolutionary synthesis” of the 1930s-1950s. Chapters 4 and 5 chronicle the attempts to coordinate research on race in the 1920s and early 1930s by the National Research Council (NRC) through its “Division of Anthropology and Psychology” (DAP). Yudell notes that many of the members of the Division, especially its Committee on Race Characters,” were eugenicists, and brought to the deliberations their concern about biological and cultural degeneration through race mixing. Out of this Committee’s deliberations two important research programs emerged: Davenport’s study of the effects of “Race Crossing in Jamaica,” (1928) and that of Raymond Pearl (1879-1940) on anatomical differences in vital organs (from autopsies) between races in Baltimore (1928 and 1929). What emerges from this discussion is the central role that the NRC, as a government entity, played in promoting and coordinating research related to racial problems (both biological and social) in the United States in this period, and the pervasive influence of eugenic thinking in the Council’s meetings and proposals. The use of the NRC archives here is particularly informative.
Also particularly welcome is a much-needed discussion of the work of W.E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), the Harvard educated (Ph.D., 1896) African American sociologist and political activist whose 1906 book, The Health and Physique of the Negro American (Atlanta, Atlanta University Press), a landmark publication that was among the first to seriously question the concept of race as a meaningful category. He challenged the ideas of racial inferiority, tried to incorporate the work of Boas and other anthropologists into his critique of race, and worked to get these ideas out to a more general public through a series of publications from Atlanta University, where he was a faculty member. His aim was to counter racist claims by establishing a more scientific approach to racial issues through sociological investigation and statistical comparisons. Beginning as an academic, Du Bois was galvanized into political activism by a series of race riots that broke out in Atlanta late in 1906, in which 20 black people were killed and scores more injured. His activism took several forms: hosting an annual Atlanta Conference on Negro Problems, writing popular works for magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, eventually becoming a founding member of the NAACP, and editor of its official magazine, The Crisis. In 1927 and again in 1929 he held a series of radio debates with the Boston racist and proponent of immigration restriction, Lothrop Stoddard (1883-1950), attacking Stoddard’s typological notions of Nordic purity. Yet as Yudell notes, even someone as progressive as Du Bois retained some throwback to eugenics, especially in his concept of the “talented tenth”—the top elites of the country, both black and white, whose contributions were essential to future economic and cultural progress.
From the biological point of view, one of the most interesting parts of Yudell’s book is his discussion of how race figured into the evolutionary synthesis, particularly in the work of Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) and his colleague and sometime co-author the geneticist Leslie C. Dunn (1893-1974) and the anthropologist Ashley Montague (1905-1999). The author clearly finds Dobzhansky particularly fascinating. Coming to the United States in 1927 on a Rockefeller Fellowship to the laboratory of Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866-1945) at Columbia, Dobzhansky integrated both field and laboratory biology as well as genetic and evolutionary theory (his book, Genetics and the Origin of Species in 1937 has been viewed as one of the founding documents of the evolutionary synthesis). Dobzhansky also had a strong social conscience and directed considerable attention to the race issue in the United States and what light evolutionary theory and genetics could throw on it.
Yudell uses a controversy between Dobzhansky and Montague in formulating the two UNESCO statements on race in the early 1950s to illustrate the continuing ambiguity that many biologists and anthropologists faced in dealing with the race issue. The first statement (1950), written largely by Montague, reflected the views of anthropologists and social scientists who made up the majority of the original committee. Montague pushed abandoning the race concept altogether, a move that brought considerable objection from many quarters, including many biologists like Dobzhansky, who felt that the concept should not be abandoned as a taxonomic category just because it had been abused with respect to humans. A second Committee was convened in June, 1951, with the addition of a several internationally-known geneticists, including Dunn and J.B.S. Haldane, from University College, London. The outcome reflected a more biological perspective, including the claim that there was no current evidence for genetic differences in IQ scores between racial groups, but it did not rule out the possibility that such differences might be discovered later. Yudell argues that this version tried to please everyone and was thus vague and self-contradictory.
While the central core of chapters include new material, the later parts of the book dealing with more recent controversies, are based more on secondary sources, and in a few cases (sociobiology and the race-IQ controversy, for example) are relatively brief and superficial. By including them however, Yudell supports his overall thesis that typological thinking has persisted (or periodically re-emerged) despite mounting scientific evidence to the contrary. If scientists have had difficulty defining race or using the concept consistently, it is no wonder that the general public remains confused and thus adheres to the traditional concepts.
Given that there are more books on the history of the biological race concept than one can shake a stick at, where does this current version stand? As I have already suggested, the strongest and most innovative aspects of Yudell’s book focus on how biologists and anthropologists struggled to reformulate the concept of race and harmonize it with respect to new developments in genetics and evolutionary theory. The book’s wide-ranging selection of topics over a century-long timeline allows the reader to see the on-going struggle between typological and populational thinking.
The wide coverage of topics is also the source of some of the book’s major problems. I have already alluded to the lack of in-depth coverage of some topics. It also leads to some historiographical problems. One is that the author has often ignored, or at least not used for in-depth analysis, the existing historical literature. The coverage of eugenics, for example, cites only a fraction of the now-extensive literature on this movement, creating what I consider to be a straw-man argument by claiming that most historians of eugenics have ignored or downplayed the issue of race in favor of ethnicity and European immigration (to the United States, particularly). On the contrary, race has always figured as a central issue in the historiography of eugenics, even if at certain times, ethnicity and immigration seemed to take center stage. It is also not true that historians of eugenics “have focused heavily” on two episodes, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and studies about IQ ; in fact the history of the Tuskegee experiment has received more treatment from historians of medicine and bioethicists than from historians of eugenics (it was not primarily about eugenics at all).
A second problem associated with the author’s often brief treatment of topics is that it is not always clear to the reader what the problems are with certain claims about the biological basis for race. For example, it would have been helpful to have explained the criteria on which Coon and Jensen distinguished races (we are only told that Coon claimed that blood group analysis divided the human racial groups into the same divisions “that we have long recognized on the basis of other criteria.” Likewise, it would have aided the reader to have explained in more detail some of the scientific flaws in the more recent theories. For example, we are not told about Jensen’s elementary misuse of the statistical concept of “heritability” in claims about a genetic basis for IQ differences, or of how Wilson’s sociobiology is “typological” even though it does not deal with human racial differences in the conventional sense.
From a larger historical perspective, one of the most problematic features of Yudell’s book is his failure to address the question of why “racism” has persisted and continues to persist despite the advances in biological theory throughout the past century. While he does try to situate particular theories in their immediate sociological/historical context (for example, Jensen’s theory was put forward just as the civil rights and school bussing movements were getting into full swing), he does not tackle the fundamental issue, namely, why theories of race continually recur in new guises. The most common explanations tend to be particularist, namely that the claims are sensational and sell publications, or that the public “wants” simplistic explanations for complex social problems. However, the question might be framed differently: Who is served by the recurrence of biological theories of race and how are these ideas so readily disseminated throughout the general population. My own work in the history of eugenics has led me to see the situation as just the reverse: Biological theories justifying a typological and hierarchical view of race are periodically publicized by those in economic and political power as a means to “divide and conquer,” the age-old strategy for maintaining social control. Claiming that differences in achievement (of any sort) among various races provides a handy rationalization for economic exploitation and thus separates the interests of the supposed “more capable” from those of the “less capable.” This strategy worked well in the 1920s and 1930s when eugenics was applied to ranking of various ethnic immigrant groups, many of whom were involved in radical union organizing in the United States (the International Workers of the World, or IWW, or the CIO, among others). Ranking of immigrant groups in a hierarchy of biologically-based behavioral and and mental traits served to diminish the prospects of unity among immigrant and non-immigrant groups. The financing of eugenics by the most powerful economic interests in the United States at the time—the Carnegies, Rockefellers, Kelloggs (the cereal empire) among others—suggests that these groups saw political value in claiming a genetic/biological basis for racial and ethnic divisions as a means of dividing the working class. Failure to ask these more far-ranging questions obscures the forces that are promoting older scientific and typological views of race even in the face of new developments in the science itself. It leads to the author’s pessimistic conclusions quoted earlier—that science alone will never win the battle against racism. Du Bois seems to have understood that point earlier, and more consistently than others: he saw that direct political activism, in the social and political arenas, was ultimately the most important means of changing public attitudes about race. Science can be an ally, but it is secondary given the political forces for whom racism continues to be a useful political tool.
Yudell’s book also presents some organizational problems that sometimes makes it difficult to follow the thread of the author’s story. Chapter 1 deals mostly with the origins of eugenic thinking in the work of Francis Galton (1822-1911), but then reverts at the end to a quick summary of views on race by earlier naturalists such as Karl von Linné (Linnaeus), Comte de Buffon and Friedrich Blumenbach in the 18th century to Samuel George Morton in the 19th—too brief to be really meaningful and a bit jarring for readers expecting a chronological sequence of topics. There are also numerous repetitions: Chapter 2 repeats a lot of information on Charles B. Davenport that was already presented in Chapter 1; then Davenports work on race-crossing in Jamaica gets put off until Chapter 5 when in the context of the NRC projects. And in Chapter 10 we are told numerous times that the evolutionary synthesis involved the union of Mendelian and Darwinian theory, when that point had already been firmly established in Chapter 7, which was all about the synthesis.
There are some technical errors that do not necessarily affect major aspects of Yudell’s thesis, they do undermine confidence in his attention to historical detail. For example, Madison Grant was not “a successful corporate lawyer,” and in fact only practiced law for a short time after graduating from Columbia Law School in 1890, devoting most of his time to his eugenical and conservationist interests. This is not a totally irrelevant point since Grant did not have to work. He came from a wealthy, old monied background that strongly influenced his elitist and racist views. Another technical error lies in the author’s claim that the 1924 Reed-Johnson Act (the infamous “Immigration Restriction Act”) “closed the door to new immigration.” It did not close the door but restricted immigration to 2 percent of foreign born (by country) based on the 1890 census. This is also not trivial in that it would have been politically impossible to stop all immigration, but by choosing the 1890 census (when fewer eastern and southern Europeans were living in the United States) the law slyly reduced immigration from exactly those areas eugenicists claimed harbored the most genetically defective germ plasm.
All in all, then, I can only recommend this book in a limited way as a useful introduction to the history of scientific racism in the United States. A far better sense of the historical development of race and its relation to science can be found in Robert Sussman’s recent The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, which runs the gamut from the 16th through the whole of the 20th century. It provides a wide sweep, is clearly written with a critical political perspective that leaves no doubt about why racism has continued to be with us despite its long-recognized lack of scientific validity.