Monday, July 18, 2011

Ann Morning's "The Nature of Race"

Ann Morning is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at New York University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Textbooks’ messages about the nature of race are not only obscured by the relative lack of discussion that characterizes the newer books relative to the older ones. In addition, the phenotype-to-genotype shift ‘buries’ racial difference both literally and figuratively. Literally, of course, the source of racial difference goes from being highly visible, an aspect of our surface appearance, to becoming a virtually invisible part of our internal makeup. Figuratively, by embedding race more deeply within the human body, it comes to seem more essential, closer to the core of who we are… Relocating racial essence from skin color to DNA also buries it—or shields it—by making it visible only to the expert, not the layman. The determinants of racial difference can be apprehended only by a trained few, armed with the most sophisticated equipment.
The Nature of Race is a study of how contemporary scientists think about the concept of race, and how they convey their ideas about it to the public, especially through formal education. In the chapter from which this excerpt is taken, I take a look at the lessons about racial difference that can be found in American high-school biology textbooks. What I find striking is that older textbooks, from the 1950s and 1960s, devoted a lot more space to identifying and describing “the races of man,” even though they did so with very rudimentary tools like skin and hair color classifications (this is the “phenotypic” approach to race I describe on p. 99). Today’s textbooks in contrast mention race very little, yet they claim to draw on more precise knowledge of human beings derived from the science of genetics. Students are left with a puzzle: if biologists now have a deeper understanding of race than previous generations did, why don’t contemporary textbooks provide the wealth of information that older textbooks did (for example about the number and key characteristics of the world’s races)? After all, today’s biology textbooks have not abandoned the claim that races are biologically distinct entities; they are far from promoting the idea that race is “socially constructed,” that is, a human invention.

The textbooks offer a nice example of the way that beliefs and claims about the nature of race are—and always have been—pretty loosely linked to empirical fact. In the book I explore how scientists’ thinking about race reflects their personal backgrounds, institutional affiliations, and moral appraisals of different definitions of the race concept. As a result, there is a lot of variety in the ways that academics think about race, not just between the social and natural sciences but within them as well. My aim is not to proselytize one viewpoint or another, but rather to understand how and why experts manage to hold such divergent perspectives on race—usually with a great deal of conviction—even though they overwhelmingly agree on the fundamentals of human biological variation.
Learn more about The Nature of Race at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue