How I learned to think about race

I grew up in San Francisco from the late 1940s to the late 60s (if you think I’m no longer growing up) where there were still segregated residential patterns but an air of tolerance for difference from Hunter’s Point to Chinatown to the female impersonator bars in North Beach.  My junior high and high school were both very diverse with many different flavors of white kids from Italian Catholics to Eastern European Jews and folks like me tracing back to England on both my mother’s and father’s sides as well as African Americans, Mexican Americans, and 2nd or 3rd generation Asian-Americans with mostly Chinese or Japanese roots.  Many of the Japanese students, of course, had parents who had only been freed from the “relocation centers” in 1945 when they were no longer deemed a threat to national security because of their race.  This was never discussed—I learned about it through a family friend in Los Angeles who had a Japanese friend who had lost his property when he was sent to one of the centers.  I was about 10 when I met him and I had no real idea of what had happened.  It just didn’t make any sense according to my understanding of American culture.  Of course 35-45 years earlier, the San Francisco Bay Area had been a hot bed of eugenic enthusiasm, fostered in part by the then president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan and others.  In 1915, the year my dad came to San Francisco, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held there and the Race Betterment Foundation had a very prominent display that left no doubt about the superiority of certain types of Europeans.  The superiority of Europeans was celebrated just as it had been since the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  Mexican Americans and Chinese had suffered extreme prejudice in California since they first arrived there.  But growing up I was unaware of this regional history.  My first conscious memories of racism are of my father yelling at the television news when the Little Rock nine were prevented from enrolling in school by the Arkansas National Guard as the crowd surrounding them threatened them with lynching.  As with most American families steeped in what my friend Alan Goodman refers to as “racial smog” (in Race: The Power of an Illusion, Part One: The Difference between Us), we rarely spoke about race.  When we did, both my parents made it very clear that I was not to judge people by the color of their skin.  And for the most part, I thought that was all I needed to know.

          I graduated from high school in, and joined the Naval Reserves just after graduation in an attempt to avoid being drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War. I attended U.C. Davis as a freshman, taking the standard pre-med courses. At the end of my freshman year I was called to active duty for a two year tour in the Navy. I specialized as a Hospital Corpsman, figuring that would be good for my medical training. I spent my first eight months training and then working on a hospital ward. After that I got assigned to a metabolic research unit where I conducted radio-immunoassays for insulin and growth hormone (that was state-of-the-art stuff back then).

          During my two year naval tour I grew increasingly cynical about and disenchanted with physicians from my close association with them. In addition to voraciously consuming science fiction, I began doing readings in basic behavioral science on my own, and I decided to try to study psychology when I got out of the Navy, planning to embark on a career as a clinical psychologist. I started back to school at U.C. Berkeley right after getting discharged from active duty, but I was late registering and I could not get the introductory course in psychology that I wanted. I could, however, get into Anthro 1, which was the introduction to physical anthropology. My instructors for that course were Vincent Sarich, a pioneer in the molecular anthropology field, Phyllis Dolhinow, who trained many of our current primatologists, F. Clark Howell, famous for his work on fossil man, and Sherwood Washburn famous as a leader in redirecting the field of physical anthropology starting in the 1950s. The teaching assistant who led my discussion section was Leann Nash, a primatology graduate student and subsequently a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University.  In spite of difficulties–campus life in the late 1960s was strange, especially at Berkeley–including the firebombing of the auditorium where my anthropology class was held necessitating moving the class to the music building, and having to dodge clouds of pepper gas from circling helicopters trying to disperse crowds during the Third World Liberation Front Strike and the People’s Park Riots, I fell in love with this discipline which merged the best aspects of science with the behavioral studies for which I had acquired a taste.

          The introductory anthropology courses I was taking began to reawaken an interest in exotic locales and peoples that I had unknowingly cultivated by reading comic books in my pre-teen years. My favorite comic books were the Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, drawn by the famous Disney artist, Carl Barks. I have come to learn in later years that many of the exotic trips Barks sent Donald and Scrooge on had their genesis in National Geographic articles detailing the peoples and places from far away. I began my own subscription to National Geographic in 1962 and it served to keep me aware of the great variety of the human experience. Popular culture also played a role in my late 1960s interest in physical anthropology. The hottest film showing while I was taking my first anthropology class was 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening sequence depicting Robert Ardrey‘s and Raymond Dart’s views of man the aggressor was just what I was reading about and studying in class. I quickly forgot about my desire to pursue psychology and threw myself into studying biological anthropology.

          This pursuit was sidetracked by my marriage in and the necessity of working for a living, so I didn’t get back to Berkeley until two years later to finish up my degree work, but I had continued with night classes and junior college classes in the interim, taking everything I could to bolster my knowledge in preparation for becoming an anthropologist. I spent two final years milking everything I could out of the program at Berkeley, including courses outside the department of anthropology in human biology, genetics, anatomy, math, and statistics.  I applied to graduate school and was fortunate enough to have a mentor at Berkeley who suggested I pursue graduate work at Penn State.

            When I went to study human adaptation in the anthropology department at Penn State with Paul Baker, I didn’t realize that I was pursuing the historical origins of the discipline which started as the study of race.  When I taught my first class at the University of Alabama in the late 1970s I was more worried about teaching evolution in the bible belt than I was about teaching about race in a former slave-holding state.  My early classes included brief modules on the absence of a biological association between race and intelligence and I cut even that at one point when it didn’t seem that the students needed the lesson.  But one of my running partners in those days was an administrator at the university.  I went to his office one day in the late 1980s and saw one of the race and IQ books on his shelf.  In querying him about this it became apparent how ignorant this PhD was on the topic of race and intelligence.  As a result, I started taking more care to cover race and IQ in every class I could logically work it into, taking a cue for many of my presentations from Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.  That was the situation when the Bell Curve was published in 1994.  It was clear that this was a book that required a refutation—however, I was in the middle of my stint as chairman of the anthropology department at that time and working on a major research project with my friend and colleague Bill Dressler and I really didn’t have the time to initiate a new course focusing on some of the issues about race raised by the Bell Curve.  But I started doing more reading on the topic of race and after finishing my five years as chairman, the second semester back in the classroom I offered a readings course on race to build my own background, then I proposed my course on race (ANT 275: Race, Ethnicity, and Human Variation).  I built this course largely along the lines of my human adaptation course, borrowing some structure from the course on human variation that I had taken from Vince Sarich at Berkeley.

            The second time I taught the course, I picked up a book, Joseph Graves’s 2001 book “The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium,” and that played a significant role in helping me develop subsequent iterations of the course.  I greatly enjoyed reading his description of the history of the concepts of human variation through time and then the very accessible way he related biological facts about how racial thinking simply doesn’t capture actual patterns of human genetic variation.  I already taught a lot about how human biological variation was patterned by forces of mutation, migration, natural selection and random processes, so what I felt I needed to do was add in the historical information and couple that with an abbreviated but lay-accessible version of the biology of human variation. Since then I have become much more familiar with the literature on slavery, Jim Crow, institutional racism, and white privilege and I continue to add that material into the class.

          My second interest in establishing the course on race was to figure out what students on campus here at UA were thinking about race.  So I set the course up to be half lecture, half discussion with me talking for Tuesday classes, and the students doing the talking in our Thursday classes.  These discussions have permitted me to get to know the students very quickly and in some depth, while they also get to hear me share my ideas and beliefs and get to know me very quickly.

          This course has succeeded beyond my hopes and it generated even more interest in me to know about the history of ideas about race—especially from the perspective of the discipline of anthropology—and to keep up to date with the latest developments in genetics to understand patterns of biological variation in modern human populations.  The students have taken to the material—many thinking about the idea of race for the first time in their lives.  The most common comment I get from students as they are exiting the course is that it should be required for everyone at UA.  As I said—beyond my wildest hopes for success.  Because of the student response I have continued to teach the course since my retirement in the summer of 2008—enjoying it as much or more than ever.

            While developing presentations for the race course a number of issues have side-tracked me and I have developed some of those ideas further to post in this blog.

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