Review of “The Nature of Race”, Ann Morning (2011)

I just finished reading Ann Morning’s The Nature of Race. It’s excellent. Morning shows, through analysis of high school textbooks, interviews with scientists (biologists and anthropologists), and interviews with undergraduates, that racial essentialism is still the dominant mode of understanding race. Again, this is true among practicing biologists, and it’s even true among many undergraduates studying cultural anthropology (though this belief is not as prominent). Morning is one of a number of scholars (including Steve Epstein, Alondra Nelson, and others) who have pointed to the return of biological conceptions of race connected to modern understandings of genetics. More generally, Morning shows that peoples’ conceptions of race are mixed and messy, but with an essentialist biological argument playing a starring role in many settings.

A bit more on what Morning means by essentialism. Morning lays out three broad positions on race (“racial conceptualizations”) that are themselves not entirely coherent (as in, there are multiple versions of each): essentialism, constructivism, and anti-essentialism.

Essentialism holds that humans are divisible into discrete biological groups which we can call races, and that members of these racial groups are different in important and unchangeable ways. Contemporary essentialist arguments invoke genetics; older arguments relied on phenotypes to assign people to races and on different understandings of biology to motivate their arguments about the fixedness of various traits (intelligence, athletic ability, what have you).

A second position, anti-essentialism, says that essentialism is wrong – human biological variation does not neatly fall into discrete groups, humans have always interbred across what we think of as racial lines, and racial classifications reflect cultural biases not biological realities.

The last position, constructivism, is in many ways an ally to anti-essentialism – the two can go hand in hand, but they are often invoked separately. Constructivism says that race is a social and cultural construct, but that it is real and meaningful and connected to various forms of domination and inequality (empire, slavery, etc.). The two positions both make sense, but they sometimes seem to imply contradictory actions: constructivism implies that it’s important to measure race and racial difference because it’s so baked into how we setup society that we can’t ignore it but have to effectively fight it, while anti-essentialism seems to imply that we should just get rid of the damned thing entirely. That’s a bit of my extrapolation from her argument, but I think it holds up. I think anti-essentialism and constructivism also become more useful in different contexts: when thinking about say, school segregation vs. research on new medications.

An important caveat: these are conceptualizations not people; an individual can express multiple such positions when prompted in different ways, even though they seem to contradict. People are funny like that.

The book is excellent, and readable, and inspiring… but it’s also depressing as hell, in a subtle way. As Morning shows, strong arguments against essentialist biological understandings of race go back at least to the 1930s (and almost surely further, but in very recognizable forms to that period). The scientific evidence against racial essentialism has only gotten stronger. And yet, somehow, we are losing the fight. Morning’s last chapter offers some tentative ideas about why racial essentialism is so enduring, and why it might be especially resurgent now in an era that has seen tremendous legal victories in the fight for civil rights, but persistent and massive racial inequality and segregation. But at least one reason has to be that social scientists haven’t yet figured out how to convince everyone – especially, but not limited to, biological scientists and undergraduates – that race is not an essential biological fact, but rather an enduring cultural and social creation that plays out meaningfully in everyday life and is baked into social structures of domination. I’m not sure how we do that, but somehow we have to do better.

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2 Comments

  1. This seems like a very interesting book. However, I try to stray away from anything that is depressing — even if it’s in a subtle way. I agree with all of the points you make. We definitely need to do it much better than we’re doing it now. Enduring is an understatement.

  2. I think this is a subset of the larger question of how to teach complexity so it sticks. So part of the answer is to come at it through metaphor, some is to go meta by talking about what’s accomplished, when and for whom by the various constructs. But some of it is just the very hard work of teaching people how to think in relations and dynamics.