For class this week one of the required readings was “Does Race Exist” by George W. Gill, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. As a physical and forensic anthropologist, he attempts to deconstruct the “reality of race” debate, and identifies himself as a proponent of the reality of biological race. However, I’ve found many of his arguments problematic, and I’m devoting this post to their analysis.
In the first section of his argument, Gill makes the argument that “the “reality of race” therefore depends more on the definition of reality than on the definition of race [emphasis added].” And truly his entire argument rests on this assumption. However, it’s inherently problematic—because as any philosopher or debater worth his salt will tell you—until all terms are defined and agreed upon, no argument is valid. To argue for the existence and utility of the race concept while dismissing his responsibility to define it invalidates his argument from the outset. Race is the crux of his argument.
Further, while the definition of reality may, in fact, be problematic, I’ve always approached reality with the definition of “phenomena which can be empirically proven to exist, and which, in general, would exist in the universe even without human cognition there to analyze it.” For example, in the history of humanity and obviously farther back, bacteria have “always” existed. That they were only detectable as discrete entities since the invention of the microscope and then shown to cause disease through later experimentation does not mean that they did not exist before then. Bacteria were always a reality, even while humans ascribed disease to magic. The reality of the attribution of disease to magic and the reality of the stress caused by fear of magical attack/social taboos against interacting with the cursed/etc. leading to illness does not equate to, prove, or even support the notion of reality of magic as a causative entity or force in disease/illness acquisition.
Compare this analysis of “reality of magic” to the sentence that immediately follows:
If we choose to accept the system of racial taxonomy that [American*] physical anthropologists have traditionally established—major races: black, white, etc.—then one can classify human skeletons within it just as well as one can living human beings.
In 1955, Malinowski argued that the Trobriand islanders’ understanding of magic was entirely rational and logical within its own set of premises; that we from the Western scientific perspective reject at least one of these premises (namely that supernatural forces affect our lives)—combined with our Western superiority complex—we therefore see their magical system as illogical and primitive. To the Trobriand islanders, magic works, or, rather, seems to work, and is therefore a valid enough system. Gill is basically invoking the same argument: because the American physical anthropologist’s racial taxonomy repertoire works, or, rather, seems to work, it’s therefore a valid enough system. But in the absence of a falsifiable definition of race as a biological reality, we are justified in withholding belief in it.
And following that, he says “…the skeleton reflects race, whether “real” or not, just as well if not better than superficial soft tissue does. The idea that race is “only skin deep” is simply not true…” The latter sentence is just a dishonest attempt to be cute, while the former sentence, if you look at it, is entirely meaningless. What he seems to mean is that the skeleton reflects some degree of observable, measurable, and generalizable diversity which he decides to call “race” whether or not it is an actually valid concept, which we can’t know because he never defines “race” (because there is no valid definition of “race”). Gill writes that tests for individual traits are over 80% accurate in assigning a skeleton to its race (Klepinger (2006) reported one test as being 88.1% accurate). My question is this: what if a skeleton falls outside of its race (into that 20%/11.9% that are misassigned)? Is it then essentially not of that race? He notes that “multiple criteria” are the key to success, but without it being 100% accurate, is it a good way to assess the essentialist category of race?
Gill then clarifies his position on race: he’s a believer in the biological concept of race based on the morphological “evidence,” while blood factor analysis suggest “clines” instead of “races.” He says that while racialists don’t deny the existence of clines, clinalists deny the racial evidence from skeletal biology, and decries it as politically motivated and unscientific. Granted, I’m reading this 15 years later with an abundance of new evidence that discredits race as a biological category (See Juliann Friel’s excellent analysis of the biological nonreality of race). Maybe the evidence was more sparse or at least less definitive in his time. It makes me wonder if he’s changed his mind in light of 15 years of new evidence.
Toward the end of his paper, Gill asks an important question: “Does discussing human variation in a framework of racial biology promote or reduce racism?” He brings up a valid concern that a colleague mentioned: that if we stop talking about race, it will promote racism. We see this presently in the context of #BlackLivesMatter and the “white” response of #AllLivesMatter, which really can be traced back to the erasure caused by people trying to be PC regarding race over the last couple decades. The noble ideal of everyone being equal and colorblindness has really just given people endowed with white privilege a way to deny that structural racism exists. I don’t think that people who say #AllLivesMatter are malintentioned; on a philosophical level they are not wrong. But coming from the flawed framework of a so-called post-racial society (or, as my parents like to put it, a society that people should just be happy isn’t as bad as it was during their parents’ childhoods), they don’t recognize the otherwise invisible inequalities alive and well in society today. “If we’re all equal, why do blacks deserve special treatment? I don’t get special treatment. In fact, as a white person, the fact that I’m not afforded special treatment is discrimination against me!” In a post-racial society, #BlackLivesMatter means #BlackLivesMatterAndOthersDon’t or #BlackLivesMatterMore. Those of use who are socially aware enough to recognize the nonexistence of a true post-racial society, as well as disenfranchised minorities who have to live in that society, see #BlackLivesMatter as meaning #BlackLivesMatterToo. And in this context saying #AllLivesMatter is akin to attending a breast cancer research fundraiser with a sign saying “THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO” – uncouth, unnecessary, and belying a lack of understanding of the purpose of the movement.
But the difference lies herein: talking about race from a social science perspective (social, political, cultural, economic, psychological) is helpful in combating racism, because these are the frameworks in which race exists in reality, in that people are arbitrarily categorized, and these categories accurately predict individuals’ experience within these frameworks, while recognizing the diversity in certain experiences and similarities in others. For example, a dark skinned person is more likely to be pulled over by a policeman, is less likely to be hired for a job when compared to a white person with the same credentials, is less likely to get good healthcare regardless of economic status, and is more likely to be assumed to be unintelligent and/or violent based solely on appearance, just to name a few. This is opposed to the promotion of biological race, which does nothing but further instill notions of inherent difference between people separated by an arbitrary and imprecise visual assessment of skin color and bone measurement. Atwood Gaines does an excellent and convincing job of dismantling the idea of scientific race in his chapter, “Race: Local Biology and Culture in Mind” and is definitely worth the read for people who may be on the fence.
Ultimately, Gill’s position is untenable. Without a definition of race, he doesn’t have a position to begin with. It’s an ideology with no basis. He just likes the word race, but it’s such a politically laden term that it’s no longer useful. Even if he could come up with a good definition, he should really just come up with a different word. Race needs to be retired from biology just as retarded, idiot, moron, and imbecile have been retired from psychological lexicon.
*See Gaines (2005).
Gaines, A. D. (2005). “Race: Local Biology and Culture in Mind.” In A Companion to Psychological Anthropology: Modernity and Psychocultural Change, C. Casey and R. B. Edgerton, Eds.
Gill, G. W. (2000). “Does Race Exist? A Proponent’s Perspective.” Nova Online.
Klepinger, L. L. (2006). “Deciphering Ancestral Background.” Fundamentals of Forensic Anthropology. John Wiley and Sons.
Malinowski, B. (1955). “Rational Mastery by Man of His Surroundings.” Magic, Science and Religion, New York: Doubleday. 25-35.