Race is undeniably felt on a social level, but biologically the concept doesn't hold up. This discrepancy is illustrated in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, "RACE: Are We So Different?" A traveling project of the American Anthropological Association in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, the exhibit explores race from personal, scientific and historical perspectives. Lead curator Yolanda Moses talked to The Root about just how laughably illusory and profoundly real race is.
Captions by Cynthia Gordy
The physical traits that we use to distinguish the races are not linked to one another. Rather, features like skin color, eye shape and nose width are inherited independently. "A lot of [outdated] race science put traits together, but … if you line people up based on skin color from light to dark, or based on hair texture from straight to curly, you'll see that they don't all go together with what we think of as race," Moses told The Root. "Race is not about how you look … it's about what society has said you are supposed to look like, and how we have decided to give meaning to those differences."
In 1735, Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus published his book Systema Naturae, which classified all living things and grouped humans into four basic races:
American (red): Stubborn, merry, easily angered
European (white): Gentle, inventive
Asian (sallow): Avaricious, easily distracted
African (black): Relaxed, crafty, negligent
This system continues to influence how race is conceptualized today.
By 1795, German scientist Johann Blumenbach had divided the world into five "principal varieties": Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Negro and American. "The majority of scientists do not espouse [racial categories] anymore," said Moses. "That went out in the mid-1950s because there was too much overwhelming evidence to show that these things don't make sense. But there are some who still use terminology that reinforces [the concept of race]. For example, the term 'Caucasian' is still common in some record-keeping systems at hospitals and universities."
The first census, in 1790, included three categories: slave, white and Indian. Quadroon and octoroon debuted in 1890 but disappeared by 1900. "The census is a social and political barometer of what's happening," said curator Moses, who explained that the terms appeared as states were deciding who could become U.S. citizens, and vanished after the one-drop rule was established. "Quadroon and octoroon made things more difficult because it meant you had to parse blood quantum. The one-drop rule made it simpler by just saying that any percentage of African ancestry means you are black."
Despite its perennial status, "white" was created just like other racial categories. The first legal use of the term appeared in a 1691 Virginia Colonial law that prohibited marriage between whites and blacks. Much of the work in early Colonial America was done by European indentured servants who later fraternized with and married enslaved Africans who were brought over. Some posit that as discontent grew among European indentured servants and enslaved Africans alike, an institutional method was needed to keep them from uniting against the small population of wealthy European landowners. Elevating one group above the other did the trick.
Back when skulls were often used to demonstrate racial differences, in 1795 scientist Johann Blumenbach used a skull from his collection to exemplify the "Caucasian race." The skull came from a woman who lived in the Caucasus Mountains, which Blumenbach believed was home to the world's most beautiful people. Thus "Caucasian" began to be used as an alternate word for "white." "All white people don't come from the Balkans, so it's kind of a joke that it stuck," said Yolanda Moses.
The global eugenics movement — a now-reviled, race-based science aimed at improving a population's genetic composition — gained steam in the United States at the end of the 1890s. Prominent eugenicist Madison Grant, who created a "racialist movement" in favor of eliminating certain races from the gene pool, played a key role in restrictive immigration policy and anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. The work of anthropologist Earnest Albert Hooton theorized a connection between physique, temperament and race — helping to establish a stronghold of "scientific" stereotypes about black athleticism and criminality.
Kits like the German "Haarfarbentafel" were used to measure hair color, which many early-20th-century anthropologists used in racial classifications. Curator Yolanda Moses said that in the United States, hair color and texture had legal significance. "There were laws that said if you were full Native American, you had certain rights. If you had one or two parents who were white, you had certain rights. It was important in the law to classify people — and hair was part of that — so you could determine whether or not they could be citizens, own property and do those kinds of things that made one a 'real American,' versus African American or Native American."
While the rate of high blood pressure in rural West Africa is among the lowest in the world, Americans of African descent have some of the highest rates. The disparity suggests that the stress of racism plays a role. "Anything about health is multifactional," said Moses, adding that diet can also play a role. "There's a lot of new research coming out that says not only is it food, but also the impact of living in a society where every day you're dealing with stressors having to do with being from a certain ethnic or racial background — driving while black … , for example. We're talking about institutionalized factors that are not even acknowledged."
Scientists say that geography and exposure to the sun over many generations — not race — explain skin-color variation. Anthropologists Nina Jablonski and George Chaplin created a map predicting skin color based on ultraviolet radiation and other environmental factors. Their calculations closely match actual distribution of skin colors across the globe.
Even though blood banks often recruit African Americans for blood donations with the premise that black people tend to have the same blood type, blood types are not actually linked to race. "There's as much variation within what we call African Americans as there is between African Americans and other people," said Moses. "What you have are pockets of people who have blood types based on various factors, including geography, marriage practices and isolation. But it has nothing to do with race."
In 1976 the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, which is responsible for conducting that country's census, asked people to identify themselves based on skin tone. They received 134 different descriptions, including "mulatta with reddish kinky hair," "cashewlike tint" and "dark brown." Some of the classifications listed are commonly used in that country.
Despite what you see on forensic crime TV shows, identifying the race of a skeleton is not a reliable, set procedure. Forensic anthropologists can study a person's bones to determine his or her age, sex and height, but they'll tell you that bones can't determine race. Still, they are often encouraged by law-enforcement officials to try. "Forensic anthropologists use as much information as they can — where a skull was found, who went missing in that vicinity — and start narrowing things down [to possible race]," said Yolanda Moses. "CSI makes it look easy, but it's not."
Time and time again, race has been used to maintain the status quo. The racial wealth gap between whites and nonwhites, for example, was intensified by discrimination during the economic and housing boom after World War II. As white GIs received education, job and housing benefits from the GI Bill, sparking wide economic prosperity in the mid-20th century, access to those same benefits was sharply restricted among black, Asian and Latino men who returned from war with limited opportunities. Housing policies from that time, including redlining in sales and homeowners insurance, are still reflected in today's unequal rates of homeownership.