Gillian Tett in the FT wrote a short-and-sweet piece on Franz Boas and his groundbreaking work on race one century ago. It serves as a refreshing reminder of a now ancient finding of science: “race”, for all intents and purposes, is little more than a social creation.
In the early 20th century, Boas was commissioned by the US government to study the physical traits of recent immigrants to New York. At the time, the country was in the midst of a wave of immigration, and with it, a rising feeling of xenophobia. The prevailing view of scientists at the time was that there were not only distinct “races” within the human species, but a natural hierarchy in their state of evolution and refinement, one that could actually be measured physically by things like head size.
As it turned out, Boas found no such natural differences between the races; immigrants’ physical characteristics were more closely linked to their place of upbringing than their place of ancestry. Among his conclusions was that “every classification of mankind must be more or less artificial”, a radical thought at the time. The obsession with finding difference in the “other”, according to Boas, was based in prejudice, not in science.
In his career, Boas went on to become a key voice against racist thinking. He wrote:
I hope the discussions outlined in these pages have shown that the data of anthropology teach us a greater tolerance of forms of civilization different from our own, that we should learn to look on foreign races with greater sympathy and with a conviction that, as all races have contributed in the past to cultural progress in one way or another, so they will be capable of advancing the interests of mankind if we are only willing to give them a fair opportunity.
Of course, decades later the discovery of DNA opened up the opportunity for new research in support of Boas. A groundbreaking 2002 study, to take one example, found that 92% of gene variants could be found in multiple continents, rejecting the notion of distinct and separate human “races”, eg black, white, Asian, etc.
Modern scientific research on race does not, of course, conclude that human beings are without genetic variation, or that each genetic variation is equally common in all corners of the globe. It does, however, render the concept of “race” within the species of homo sapiens so ephemeral and imprecise that most scientists have long ago stopped considering it useful. In the words of one prominent anthropologist:
Today the vast majority of those involved in research on human variation would agree that biological races do not exist among humans. Among those who study the subject, who use and accept modern scientific techniques and logic, this scientific fact is as valid and true as the fact that the earth is round and revolves around the sun.
Why is this important to mention now, if science has long ago settled the matter? Because in our common conversations on race, this simple truth — it’s made up — can be easily forgotten, or at least glossed over.
First, the obvious: there are many who still harbor antiquated views on race. They not only believe in its scientific integrity, but they desperately wish to hold on to ancient racial hierarchies. The scientific evidence presented by Boas and countless others, and the social progress of the past century, have passed them by.
What is less obvious is that many well-intentioned, forward-thinking people also may need a reminder about the flimsy science of race. These days it is easy to agree that we should acknowledge, discuss, and learn from humanity’s various chapters of racial ugliness, both past and present. Lately, however, it seems unfashionable to acknowledge that all of that ugliness stems from a farcical, unscientific social construct, one whose inception centuries ago served no other purpose than to satisfy the cynical, preexistent prejudices of its inventors.
It should not be incongruous to hold both of the following ideas in our heads at the same time: 1) that race is mostly nonsense, and 2) that racial prejudice is real and needs to be actively confronted. I worry that we are advancing when it comes to idea #2 while potentially regressing on idea #1.
Baha’is are somewhat fortunate here, because we have both themes in our sacred scriptures repeated over and over. Both are nearly impossible to ignore. Take, for example, this passage from a public talk by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, delivered around the same time as Boas’s famous study, asserting the obviousness of the scientific oneness of the human species:
See how the doves… view each other as the same species and kind. They know they are one in kind. Often a white dove soars aloft with a black one. Throughout the animal kingdom we do not find the creatures separated because of color. They recognize unity of species and oneness of kind. If we do not find color distinction drawn in a kingdom of lower intelligence and reason, how can it be justified among human beings, especially when we know that all have come from the same source and belong to the same household? In origin and intention of creation mankind is one.
Meanwhile, here is Shoghi Effendi, writing to the American Baha’i community in 1938 on the urgency of working to eradicate the reality of racism:
As to racial prejudice, the corrosion of which, for well-nigh a century, has bitten into the fiber, and attacked the whole social structure of American society, it should be regarded as constituting the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bahá’í community at the present stage of its evolution. The ceaseless exertions which this issue of paramount importance calls for, the sacrifices it must impose, the care and vigilance it demands, the moral courage and fortitude it requires, the tact and sympathy it necessitates, invest this problem, which the American believers are still far from having satisfactorily resolved, with an urgency and importance that cannot be overestimated.
Even as it has been marred by horrifying burst of racism in recent years, America is experiencing an awakening as it pertains to the subject. It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore its existence, and this alone should give us some measure of relief.
Yet my concern is that we are not able to sustain the two aforementioned ideas in our collective consciousness at the same time. The truth of the fundamental oneness of the human family seems rare in today’s conversations on race. The word “unity” itself seems passé. I suspect a reason these themes may have fallen out of fashion is because once-powerful statements such as “we’re all the same on the inside” have too often been appropriated, turned into platitudes, and used as convenient escape hatches by those seeking to avoid the responsibility to actually do something. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising; principle without purposeful action has no potency.
I hope we can take back ownership of these ideas and give them that potency once again. One of my favorite utterances of ‘Abdu’l-Baha is: “love and unity come hard when ye fix your gaze on otherness”. Try all we want, but it’s going to be hard to solve these problems without a unified identity as human beings, one that governs the motion of our lives, and is more than something we just say to be polite. To orient one’s whole being towards oneness and unity, after all, is not some meaningless, naive gesture; it is a powerful political act, and a potential wrecking ball against racism’s stubbornly durable structures.
Americans are talking, finally. I just hope we can do it with a common understanding of both history and science. More than anything, I hope we can do it together. After all, we were never meant to be apart.