How I learned to think about race

Hi. My name is Jim Bindon and I’m an old white guy who wants to talk to you about race. I’d like to start by telling about my background on the subject. I grew up in San Francisco from the late 1940s to the late 1960s. While I was aware of segregated residential patterns it felt to me like there was an air of tolerance for difference in the city from Hunter’s Point to Playland to Chinatown to Finocchio’s drag club. In hindsight, I realize that was just my white privilege ignoring racism. When I was in grade school, the Hunter’s Point public housing project was built almost exclusively for blacks; earlier public housing projects had been almost exclusively reserved for whites. I didn’t know about this. I thought my high school class was diverse with Italian Catholics and Eastern European Jews and WASPs like me tracing back to England through both parents, 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” after World War II when they were no longer a threat to national security because of their race. This also was never discussed openly. 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 gone on. This came back to me in a conversation I overheard between two inductees into my high school Hall of Merit when I was inducted in 2010. Both of their families had been in the camps. It’s interesting what you don’t see when you don’t look.

I was blithely unaware of the history of racism in the San Francisco Bay Area. If I had studied it, I might have learned about the hot bed of eugenics early in the twentieth century. The first president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, played a key role in expanding eugenic sterilization in the U.S. In 1915, the year my dad migrated to San Francisco from Canada, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition was held. The Race Betterment Foundation had a display at the exposition that left no doubt about the superiority of some kinds of Europeans. Mexicans and Chinese had suffered extreme prejudice in California since they first arrived in the nineteenth century. Black migrants started coming in large numbers in the 1930s and were subjected to similar racism. But growing up I was unaware of this history. When I was in the fifth grade, I remember my father yelling at the television news when the Little Rock Nine were prevented from enrolling in high school by the Arkansas National Guard then escorted to school by the 101st Airborne Division “Screaming Eagles” as the surrounding crowd threatened lynching. As with most white American families steeped in what my friend Alan Goodman refers to as “racial smog,” we rarely spoke about race. When we did address it, it was mostly to confirm that we weren’t racists. And for the most part, I thought that was all that was needed.

I graduated from high school, and joined the Naval Reserves to avoid being drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War. I attended U.C. Davis as a freshman, following a pre-med curriculum. At the end of my freshman year I was called to active duty. I was thrown together with sailors from all over the country during my training as a Hospital Corpsman. That was the first time I confronted true racism in person. When I finished my two year tour, I went back to school, this time at Berkeley. I was late registering and I couldn’t get the introductory course in psychology that I wanted. I could, however, get into the introduction to physical anthropology. My instructors for that course were Vincent Sarich (a pioneer in the molecular anthropology field and a “racial realist”), Phyllis Dolhinow (who trained many of our current primatologists and was awarded the Darwin Award by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in 2015), F. Clark Howell (a member of the National Academy of Sciences famous for his work on fossil man), and Sherwood Washburn (a pioneer in trying to redirect the field of physical anthropology away from racial studies towards evolutionary studies in the 1950, the father of the “new physical anthropology”). In spite of difficulties including the firebombing of the auditorium where class was held, and having to dodge clouds of pepper gas from circling helicopters, I fell in love with this discipline which for me merged the best aspects of science with the behavioral studies for which I had acquired a taste.

The introductory anthropology courses reawakened 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, especially the adventures to foreign places they took with the nephews, drawn by the famous Disney artist, Carl Barks. I have come to learn that many of the exotic trips Barks sent the ducks 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 helped to keep me aware of the great variety of the human experience. Popular culture also played a role in my 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 and Raymond Dart’s views of early man portrayed what I was reading about in class. I threw myself into studying biological anthropology.

I got married and didn’t return to Berkeley for two years. One of the courses I took presaged my later interest in race—that was Human Variation taught by Vince Sarich. He taught a very different version of race than I would when I finally got around to it, one that viewed human races as valid biological units with significant separation. He even taught Carleton Coon’s five separate speciation events as the origin of races. Needless to say, he did not present Richard Lewontin’s then just-published analysis of genetic variation proving how little race actually counted for. From Berkeley I went to study human adaptation for my grad work at Penn State. My mentor there was Paul Baker, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. His mentor at Harvard had been Earnest Hooton, who had almost single-handedly established the biological validity of race in twentieth century American academia. I had no idea of the legacy that I was pursuing. I experienced racism directed against me in my first field season as a grad student when it was difficult for a haole to obtain housing in a Japanese residential area of Honolulu.  That was a good lesson—it stayed with me.

When I taught my first class at the University of Alabama in the late 1970s I was more worried about teaching human evolution in the bible belt than I was about teaching race in the south. My early classes included short modules on the lack of validity of claims about race and intelligence. I cut that topic out entirely later in the 1980s when it seemed to me that the students no longer needed the lesson. 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 a shelf of race and IQ books. I realized how ignorant this PhD was on the topic of race. As a result, I started taking more care to cover race in every class, taking a cue for many of my presentations from Steven Jay Gould’s book, The Mismeasure of Man.

That was where I stood when the Bell Curve was published in 1994. It was clear to me that this was a book that required refutation in the classroom—but, I was in the middle of my stint as chairman of the anthropology department and I didn’t have the time to create a new course focusing on the issues raised by the Bell Curve. I started doing more reading about race and after finishing my gig as chairman, my second semester back as a professor I offered a tutorial on race to build my own background along with the students’, then I proposed my course on race where I could formally try to undo 150 years of bad anthropology.

The second time I taught the course, I picked up a book by Joseph Graves, “The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium,” that played an important role in developing the course. I loved his description of the history of the race concept and the accessible way he related biological facts about human genetic variation. I already taught a lot about human variation in other courses, so what I needed here was to add in the historical information and make the biology of human variation understandable to folks without a biological background. Over the years I have become much more familiar with the literature on slavery, Jim Crow, institutional racism, white privilege, patterns of DNA variability and other race-related topics.

My second interest in establishing the course on race was to figure out what students were thinking about race. So I set the course up to be half lecture, half discussion. These discussions allowed me to get to know the students very quickly and in some depth. The course succeeded beyond my hopes and generated an even greater desire to know about the history of ideas about race and to keep up to date with the latest developments in human genetics. The students took to the material—many thinking seriously about the idea of race for the first time in their lives. Because of the student response (and my own love of the class) I continued to teach the course for 8 years after my retirement. I still do guest-lectures on race for my colleagues. Because of the race class I became acquainted with a history professor who is also deeply interested in race and science. I am delighted to be working with Professor Erik Peterson to try to provide an accessible version of this history and also on podcast project on race and science.


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