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By Leith Mullings, Monica Heller, Ed Liebow and Alan Goodman
Do you remember the arcade game ‘Whack-a-Mole’? Plastic animals pop up at random from their holes in a table’s surface. The player bashes them back into their holes with a rubber mallet. As the pace picks up, initial delight is replaced by a growing sense of futility. Every time a mole is whacked back into its hole, another pops up somewhere else. The debate about whether science and advocacy are inimical is starting to feel like this.
It has popped up again in this week’s New York Times Magazine in reference to our discipline, anthropology. Contrary to some loudly voiced claims, both advocacy and science are (and long have been) at the core of our discipline. At the same time, of course, both continually raise important ethical questions requiring continued conversation, examination and debate; indeed, the American Anthropological Association recently approved a new statement on professional responsibilities. They both also require a commitment to good scholarship, and to lively but civil scholarly debate, in which arguments are considered persuasive because of a consistent body of evidence whose reliability and validity inspire confidence, not because of exceptional circumstances presented in a made-for-the-movies sensational fashion. (see also Professor Elizabeth Povinelli’s review of Noble Savages).
Let us use the problem of ‘race’ to illustrate the complex relationship between what counts as good or bad science, and significance of advocacy in anthropology. Our modern discipline’s origins are derived directly from an uncritical acceptance of, as well as a critical response to overt 19th and early 20th century ‘scientific racism.’ ‘Science’ legitimated prejudice and bigotry, holding that races were genetically separate and hierarchically ranked, and thus rationalizing slavery, Jim Crow laws and even genocide. And lest we think that ‘scientific racism’ is some archaic relic that was driven out of the public conversation, one need only consult the more recent arguments of authors such as Herrnstein, Murray, Rushton, Jensen, and Lynn.
In an attempt to bring sounder evidence to the debate, our Association’s current Race Project draws from all fields of anthropology and provides a modern, and eminently scholarly, understanding of race, casting a critical eye on race and racism through the lenses of history, science, and lived experience. The project, and the book that accompanies it, RACE: Are We So Different?, is also a form of advocacy, raising public awareness about how human variation differs from the popular, and sometimes even academic, notions of race. It argues, specifically, that 1) race is a recent human invention, 2) popular ideas about race emerge from history and culture, not biology, and 3) race and racism are embedded in institutions and everyday life.
The more general point is that at the very core of our discipline are commitments to the best of science and the best of advocacy. Advocacy suggests at minimum an ethical position to try to protect and better the lives of the individuals we work with, in particular those who are without access to power. Science stands for prediction (based on current understanding), followed by systematic observation and analysis and then, usually, revised understanding. But there is something more: we recognize that science is a practice that is undertaken in a social context, and as such it can be limited by the social hierarchies of its time, creating burdens and benefits, winners and losers. To have this awareness is not ‘anti-science.’ Indeed, it offers the sort of tough love of science that all responsible scientists ought to share. And every time the debate about ‘science’ versus ‘advocacy’ re-emerges, we cannot but hope that our discipline’s lengthy track record of critically embracing science can show that the debate itself is based on false premises.
We’d love to put an end to the futility of the science versus advocacy version of “Whack a mole” so we can focus on quality anthropological work for the public good.
Leith Mullings is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and President of the AAA.
Monica Heller is Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and Vice President and President-Elect of the AAA.
Ed Liebow is the Executive Director of the AAA.
Alan Goodman is Professor of Biological Anthropology at Hampshire College, and a Past President of the AAA.
Filed under: Advocacy, Anthro in the Media, Public Affairs, RACE: Are We So Different? | Tagged: American Anthropological Association, Code of Ethics, ethics, RACE: Are We So Different? | 3 Comments »
Race is a small but powerful word! Race shapes how one sees and is seen by others. In the new book, RACE: Are We So Different?, authors Alan H. Goodman, Yolanda T. Moses and Joseph L. Jones explore how the central idea of race has been challenged and changed throughout history.
The book mirrors the nationally recognized public education project and museum exhibition of the same name by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). RACE: Are We So Different? casts a critical eye on race and racism in the United States through the lenses of history, science and lived experience. The book explains how human variation differs from the idea of race and conveys three central messages: 1) Race is a recent human invention, 2) Race is about culture, not biology, and 3) Race and racism are embedded in institutions and everyday life.
“Once in a while, but very rarely, a book comes along that clarifies and reorients a whole field of study. Race: Are We So Different? is such a book. Goodman, Moses, and Jones clearly and powerfully inform and enlighten the reader, not only about the latest scientific understandings of race, but also about why democracy and freedom depend on those understandings. This book is a triumph! Highly recommended for course adoption across the disciplines…” says Howard Winant, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Engaging essays by prominent scholars reveal how the idea and realities of race and racism are experiences today. Illustrated in full color with more than 150 images, RACE: Are We So Different? is a book that will have readers visualizing and questioning what race is really all about.
About the Authors
Alan H. Goodman is Professor of Biological Anthropology and the former Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at Hampshire College, Goodman has written extensively on human variation and the biological consequences of inequality and poverty. Goodman is a past President of the AAA.
Yolanda T. Moses is Professor of Anthropology and Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Excellence and Equity at the University of California, Riverside. A cultural anthropologist, she has published extensively on issues of social inequality in complex societies and cultural diversity in higher education in the United States, India and South Africa. With Goodman, she co-leads the national public education project sponsored by the AAA and funded by NSF and the Ford Foundation. Moses is a past President of the AAA.
Joseph L. Jones was RACE project manager for the American Anthropological Association. He has written on race and the stresses of slavery at the historic, New York African Burial Ground. Jones teaches at Howard University in Washington, DC.