Race, Propaganda, and Schoolkids

A new exhibit opened this week at the Boston Museum of Science (MOS) called "RACE -- Are we so different?"  [Caps in original.]  The exhibit offers a fascinating window into the fun-house mirror world of race theorists, racial "scholars," and a good part of the anthropology profession.  Even a sympathetic reviewer in the Boston Globe admits that "there's a wearying didacticism to the show," and it's no surprise that the didactic lessons about race are all slanted toward the left.

Mark Feeney of the Globe is surprisingly critical:

One can support affirmative action, for example, and still wonder about the presence of a display called "Affirmative action: undoing inequality.'' That's not science or even sociology; that's politics. Right or wrong, some people think affirmative action furthers inequality. Another display is called "White -- the color of money.'' It shows stacks of dollar bills whose height corresponds to the relative wealth of whites, Asians, blacks, Latinos, and "others'' in US society. A section on discrimination and real estate has two street signs, "Privilege Place'' and "Racism Road.'' It's like an MSNBC production of "Sesame Street.'' Tendentiousness is no less tendentious for being in a good cause.

Whether the cause is good is another question.  I'm not thrilled that liberal public school teachers bus in students to have the latter's notions about race "subverted" or "exploded."  A few examples from the Minneapolis appearance of the show offer insights that middle-school students might gain:

--Discover that race and racism is [sic] not inside our heads, but in fact is [sic] built into our laws, traditions, and institutions.

--Race: a recent idea created by western Europeans following exploration across the world to account for differences among people and justify colonization, conquest, enslavement, and social hierarchy among humans.

From the Globe:

--Pencils and paper are provided to let museumgoers [sic] answer questions like "How does racism affect you at school?''

A typical exhibit, in an online video, shows students from Cambridge attempting to guess the racial make-up of people in photographs.  In one case, students guess "Filipino," but in fact, the young man is "Hawaiian, Chinese[,] and German."  According to the show's creator, the American Anthropological Association, this undermines our racist belief that seven billion humans fall neatly into four or five categories.  (Duh!)

Feeney inserts his own absurd example, noting that "white" children use "flesh" or "peach" crayons to color in their skin, but "surely, no child -- Caucasian or otherwise -- has ever instinctively reached for peach when coloring in the Caucasus Mountains."  Say what?

The main lesson the show wishes to impart is that race is a "social construct" with no basis in biology.

In the online resources linked at the RACE website, anthropologist Eric Thompson writes, "Because race is taken to be a kind of biological fact by our students, teaching that race is 'a social construct' works as a discursive strategy to shake their thinking." 

In another link, John Hartigan writes, "The starting point for most anthropologists who critically engage general assumptions about race is that it is socially constructed."

Both Hartigan and Thompson discuss at length a 2005 New York Times op-ed by colleague Armand Marie Leroi, who asserts that "the consensus about social constructs [is] unraveling."  Leroi writes:

The dominance of the social construct theory can be traced to a 1972 article by Dr. Richard Lewontin, a Harvard geneticist, who wrote that most human genetic variation can be found within any given "race." If one looked at genes rather than faces, he claimed, the difference between an African and a European would be scarcely greater than the difference between any two Europeans....

This theory has quickly gained widespread acceptance.  When I began to describe Lewontin's theory to my sixteen-year-old daughter, she completed my sentence and was entirely familiar with this self-evident truth.  (On the previous night, however, she was unaware of a document called "the Federalist Papers.")

Leroi continues:

In essence, [Lewontin] looked at one gene at a time and failed to see races. But if many - a few hundred - variable genes are considered simultaneously, then it is very easy to do so. Indeed, a 2002 study by scientists at the University of Southern California and Stanford showed that if a sample of people from around the world are sorted by computer into five groups on the basis of genetic similarity, the groups that emerge are native to Europe, East Asia, Africa, America and Australasia - more or less the major races of traditional anthropology.

Leroi opens and closes his essay with a discussion of the concern that the 2004 tsunami had killed all the members of an isolated group known as Negritos on the Andaman Islands:

[T]he unique combination of genes that makes the Negritos so distinctive, and that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, will have disappeared. A human race will have gone extinct, and the human species will be the poorer for it.

Hartigan, however, sees evil intent in Leroi's concern:

Leroi's suggestion is a defense or perpetuation of isolation for its own sake and for the sake of "preserving racial stocks." In this the echoes of the 19th century, when "Negritos" and others were "collected" and put on display in world exhibitions, are far too disturbing to ignore.

It seems that anthropologists attempt to have it both ways.  We are urged to mourn the loss of indigenous cultures, but if we use the word "race" to describe culture or lineage, it becomes racist -- because of the history of racism and slavery -- to mourn the extinction of an ethnic group.

And what about that MOS show title: "RACE -- Are we so different?"  It is intended to be a rhetorical question, because differentiating is bad.  But aren't we constantly being lectured to celebrate diversity because difference is good?
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