Race: The Reality of Human Differences

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  • Transforming Anthropology, Vol. 14, Issue 1, pp. 5359, ISSN 1051-0559, electronic ISSN 1548-7466. 2006 by the AmericanAnthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article contentthrough the University of California Presss Rights and Permissions website, at http://www.ucpress.edu/journals/rights.htm.


    Audrey Smedley is professor emerita in anthropologyand African-American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the author of Race in NorthAmerica: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview, whosefirst edition won an Outstanding Book Award from theGustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rightsin North America in 1994. She is presently preparing athird edition of this now classic work. Her researchinterests include the history and spread of the ideologyof race, comparative slavery, human ecological adapta-tion, and the roles of women in patrilineal societieswhich she examined in her 2004 book, Women CreatingPatriliny.

    In this piece Audrey Smedley critiques one of the morerecent books of the race scientists, Race: The Realityof Human Differences (2004) by Vincent Sarich, a bio-logical anthropologist, and Frank Miele, a journalistand science writer. While many experts have con-demned the science sections of the book, Smedleycharges that these authors also misrepresent and distortthe histories of various civilizations around the world,particularly the attitudes of people in ancient societiestoward Africans. They misuse the work of African-American scholar Frank Snowden and claim err-oneously that all historical societies recognized racedifferences and denigrated Africans as inferior humanbeings.

    KEYWORDS: race, history, racialization, humanbiophysical differences, ethnocentrism, ideology

    Under the intellectual leadership of psychologistJ. Philippe Rushton, race scientists have been vigorousin their defense of the idea of race and the inequalitiesamong human groups that race portrays (Rushton2000).1 For the most part, they have used findings in thescience of genetics to promote their argument that DNAvariations reflect vast differences among the races. In2004, a biological anthropologist, Vincent Sarich, and ajournalist, Frank Miele, joined this small group of racescientists with another book, Race: The Reality ofHuman Differences. In it, they employed the same argu-ments as did Rushton, but they added a further dimen-sion of specious historical materials to contend that

    Africans (Blacks) were looked down upon throughouthistory; this presumably justifies the contemporary lowstatus of Africans and African Americans in the con-temporary world. This review article is for those manyscholars in various fields who are unfamiliar with worldhistory and who might be inclined to accept the highlydistorted versions of history promulgated by these raceadvocates.

    To buttress their arguments, Sarich and Mieleturned to Frank Snowden Jr., one of Americas preemi-nent Black scholars. A classicist and expert in theancient Greek and Latin languages, Snowden taught atHoward University for more than forty years. Hisknowledge of the cultures and peoples of the ancientworld is impeccable, and he is widely known andremembered for his outstanding lectures. One of hismajor intellectual interests was examining the presenceof Negro African peoples in these ancient civiliza-tions. Although his work reflected aspects of an olderconception of race, especially the accepted wisdom ofearly-twentieth-century science scholarship about racialcategories, he demonstrated that dark-skinned peoplesfrom inner Africa were present in all of the ancientcivilizations of the Mediterranean. In two major books,at least one important exhibit, several coedited books,and many articles, Snowden provided evidence that(1) dark-skinned peoples of Africa (Negroes) werewell known and integrated into these ancient societiesthroughout the Mediterranean, (2) there was no discrim-ination against Blacks of any shade because of theircolor, (3) no stigmas or value judgments were attachedto people because of their physical differences, and(4) indeed, there is no evidence in the ancient writingsthat the idea of race existed as we know it today(Snowden 1970, 1983). Many historians have confirmedSnowdens conclusions (see, for example, Pieterse1992:chapter 1; Thompson and Ferguson 1969).2 I havepointed out elsewhere (1998) that Herodotus and otherhistorians of ancient times never mention skin color intheir descriptions of the many ethnic groups who servedas mercenaries in the Persian and other wars, thoughmany were Africans. These historians differentiated themilitary forces by their fighting equipment, weapons,battle tactics, battle formations, and dress in battle, all ofwhich are cultural features.


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    It is surprising, therefore, that Sarich and Mieleshould attempt to use the work of Snowden to argue thatpeople of the ancient world recognized racial differ-ences (i.e., Blacks and Whites) as we do today and thatthey looked down on Black Africans. Snowden warnedagainst the tendency to read modern racial conceptsinto ancient documents and to see color prejudice wherenone existed (Snowden: 1983:6364). But this is pre-cisely what Race: The Reality of Human Differencesdoes. To the degree that its authors invoke Snowdensname and misrepresent his work, this book is an affrontand an insult to an outstanding scholar.

    But the authors dont stop at the ancient world ofEgypt, Greece, and Rome. In several pages, they makethe same claims about ancient India and China and fol-low this with ten pages in which they claim that peoplesof the Muslim world recognized race and racial differ-ences. Throughout these sections of the book, there areno specific references, no citations in footnotes, and noexplicit sources mentioned, although a few generalsources appear in the notes at the back of the book.

    The claims made about India and China have beencontradicted by many contemporary scholars who haveemphasized that the modern idea and ideology of raceappeared in these areas following contact with theWestern world (see Banton 1977, Blakely 1993 Channa2002a, Cox 1948, Diktter 1992, 1997, Drake 1987,Fryer 1984, Robb 1997, Sakamoto 2002, Tomiyama2002). Throughout Asia, as in Europe and Africa, ethnicdifferences and sometimes ethnic conflict were presentand are described in ancient documents. Some of theseconflicts were absorbed into, and transformed by, thenew racial ideology of the nineteenth century.According to one of Japans outstanding historians,Ichiro Tomiyama (2002), the concept of race (jinshu inthe Japanese language) was imported to Japan withother Western scientific ideas in the midnineteenthcentury. Its meaning metamorphosed in this very differ-ent cultural setting into an ingredient of nation buildingand as a boundary-producing mechanism, especiallyin the Japanese relationship with Koreans, Okinawans,and the Ainu (see also Takezawa 2003b).

    Biological anthropologist Kazumichi Katayamaanalyzed the history of the term jinshu, describing it asa very ambiguous classificatory term whose meaningwas drastically changed to equate with race in theEuropean style of discriminating among human beingsafter the 1890s. Before that, it was a neutral term forreferring to any kind of grouping (Katayama 2002,Takezawa 2003a). In twentieth-century Japaneseanthropology, jinshu continued to be used to denotehuman groups and was taken as equivalent to race asrepresented in the UNESCO statements. It should notbe confused with ethnic groups, linguistic groups or

    nations . . . but [refers to] groups distinguished by anassemblage or frequencies of genetically determinedphysical traits ; thus, it was equated to the Englishterm race in scientific circles. Katayama adds thatjinshu is still an ambiguous typological term and, likerace, not well defined biologically. Japanese anthropol-ogists, he notes, beginning in the late nineteenthcentury, had been trained in Western traditions ofanthropological scholarship, and some tried to usecraniometric techniques to distinguish Japanesefrom Ainu, Honshu, and Ryukyu peoples. However,Katayama claims, jinshu today is rarely used byJapanese anthropologists.

    The educated Chinese elite became aware of theconcept of race when they found themselves beingidentified as yellow peoples in the seventeenth cen-tury and stamped with peculiar behavioral characteris-tics by writers in the West. Like most other groups inhistory, the Chinese were ethnocentric toward neighbor-ing peoples and had even demonized some subgroups,but had not created an ideology of race. The harshlynegative and demeaning characterizations of other eth-nic groups in some of the classical Chinese writingscontrasted barbarians with themselves (the civilizedpeoples), much as the Romans dichotomized theirworld. Diktter claims that this was cultural prejudice(ethnocentrism) up until the Opium Wars (1840s), whenthe stereotypes became racial (Diktter 1992:44). Whenthe idea of race and its ideological components wereintroduced to China, it was through missionary publi-cations and Japanese books that presented translationsof Western ideas of race, especially the works ofGobineau and Blumenbach (Sakamoto 2002).

    When the British ventured into India in the eigh-teenth century, they found on this massive subcontinenta heterogeneity of peoples and cultural forms. Physicalvariations were, and still are, enormous, with generallylighter-skinned people in the north and west, with grad-ual changes to some of the darkest-skinned people inthe world in the east and south. Differences in hair tex-ture and facial features also ranged widely. Culturally,they varied from tribal peoples living in small villages,to large chiefdoms, to the Hindi states. The Britishbrought the idea and ideology of race to India and triedto assimilate their racial categories to Indian culturalstructures; that is, they attempted to force the manycomplex castes (a term introduced by the Portuguese) tocorrespond to their notions of race (Bates 1997). Butthe Hindu concepts of jati and varna bore no relation-ship to the English ideology and value system (Channa2002a, Klass 1980). All Brahmins were not light-skinned, and all members of low-caste groups were notdark. Indeed, black and white did not carry the samemeanings in Hindu cosmology, and darkness itself had

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    traditionally positive meanings (Channa 2002b). Britishefforts to find indigenous races were futile.

    In their section dealing with the Muslim world(pp. 4656) Sarich and Miele, following Rushton, usethe writings of Bernard Lewis, the only historian ofthe Middle East who has argued that Muslim Arabsdiscriminated against Black Africans. None of the out-standing historians of the Near or Middle East (e.g.,Gibb 1970, Hourani 1991, Hitti 1953, Mansfield 1982)have made such a claim (Hunwick 1978). They are allvery much aware of the extensive interaction through-out history of all the peoples in Eastern Africa, NorthAfrica, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. All haverecognized that many of the great leaders of the Islamicworld, and many of its scholars and poets, were ofAfrican origin, or had physiognomies such that theywould have been considered Black in America. The firstmuezzin in Islam was Bilal, a former Abyssinian slave.3

    Throughout this history, many political, military, andreligious leaders of Islam, men of high status andwealth, had Nubian mothers, and this continued into thetwentieth century (President Sadats mother was fromthe Sudan; the mothers of Presidents Naguib andNasser were dark-skinned women from Upper Egypt).One of the more famous rulers of the Muslim Empirewas al-Misk Kafur, an Abyssinian. Rarely do any of thehistorians mention the color of the thousands of out-standing individuals in Islam, but Hitti (clearly writingfrom a Western point of view) says of Kafur, The caseof this black slave rising from the humblest origin towield absolute power was the first but not the last inIslamic history (Hitti 1953:456, emphasis mine). Thecaliph with the longest rule in all of Islam, al-Mustansir(103594), had a Sudanese slave mother who served asregent, holding and exercising power until her son cameof age. Men of Black ancestry in Saudi Arabia wereoutstanding scholars and poets in the pre-Islamic eraand during the rise of Islam.

    Many of the indigenous peoples of North Africaand the Middle East appear to the objective eye ashighly mixed. Traveling from Morocco across NorthAfrica into Egypt, the Sinai, Syria, Lebanon, throughSaudi Arabia, overland into Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, andbeyond, one observes populations within which skincolors vary from light to very dark. And large numbersof individuals have kinky hair, with or without darkskin, as we can see every night in the TV news photo-graphs of conflicts in this region. Individual variation infacial features is very broad and mirrors what onewould see in any major American city, from long thinnoses to wide ones, from thin lips to the thick evertedlips we associate with the Negroid peoples of CentralAfrica, from small features to large, heavy features, andeverything in between. Despite this diversity, Muslim

    society never developed indigenous racial categories orstructured their societies along the lines of race, basedon skin color or any other features. Even their slaves ranthe gamut from Slavic peoples (Whites) in the northto the Zanj (Black) peoples of East Africa.

    With the increasing focus on Africa as the majorsource of slaves from the sixteenth century on, somewriters in the Middle East (as in Europe) attempted tojustify such slavery by referring to the physical traits ofsome of Africas peoples, but such descriptions wereaesthetic judgments of individuals, not society-widevalues about all of Africas peoples.4 As late as the mid-dle of the nineteenth century, when the idea and ideol-ogy of race reached its greatest intensity worldwide,Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled widely in theMiddle East, as he did in the United States, disagreedwith his friend Arthur de Gobineau, the greatest expo-nent of race ideology in Europe, on the existence ofracism in the Middle East. Thus in no way, either tribalor aristocratic, does the Persian nation have any racialprejudices, he wrote. She is too mixed for that, andshe carries her own indifference so far that the numer-ous Negroes here are considered on a basis of perfectequality (de Tocqueville 1959:276). Peter Mansfield, anoted British authority on the Arab world, describes theArabs as people who have widely varying physicalcharacteristics. Because of the admixtures of Turkish,Caucasian, Negro, Kurdish, Spanish and Berber bloodan Arab today may be coal-black or blond-skinned andblue-eyed (Mansfield 1982:534).

    The Saudi royal family, even today, includes manymembers who would be considered Black in NorthAmerica. I have seen some of them while traveling inEurope, North Africa, and Egypt. Prince Bandar, theSaudi ambassador to the United States, in his youngerdays very much resembled Ron Brown, President BillClintons Black secretary of commerce (who was killedin an airplane accident). With light-brown skin andkinky hair, they could have been brothers. Were PrinceBandar to don blue jeans and a T-shirt and walk alone inhis own embassy neighborhood in Washington, D.C., heundoubtedly would be stopped by the police because ofhis physical features alone.

    It is not enough to proclaim that the people of theMuslim world were racists because they engaged inslave trading in Africa. They also traded in Europeanslaves and for a much longer time. Slavery is more than5,000 years old (see Smedley 1999); the heavy concen-tration on Africa as a source of human slaves emergedonly in the last 500600 years. Skin color did notbecome socially significant in the way that it is in theUnited States and western Europe until the intrusion ofEuropean (particularly British) racial values in the nine-teenth century. Even Bernard Lewis himself, in his

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    early publication, The Arabs in History, stated that themain criterion of classification in these times [earlyMuslim history] was religious (Lewis 1967:15), andhe did not suggest that the idea of race and race ideol-ogy provided the basis for the fundamental social strat-ification in the Muslim world as it does in the Westernworld. He even observed that there was an awareness ofdifferences in early Islam, but the differences were notexpressed in rigid categories (Lewis 1967:79).

    With regard to the stated objectives of their book,Sarich and Miele specifically aim to contradict themajor points made in the PBS documentary seriesRaceThe Power of an Illusion: that the idea of race isa recent social or cultural invention and that, althoughhuman physical variation existed and was recognized bypeoples before the modern world, the concept of racewas absent. Their position is that race is a valid biologi-cal concept and that we [humans] have an inborn ten-dency to sort people into groups (Sarich and Miele2004:13). They believe that all humans, even children,have used physical traits as the basis for dividing peopleinto natural groups: in other words, any recognitionof human physical variation is tantamount to race.Moreover, they argue, the law recognizes racial differ-ences, and the commonsense definition of race asexpressed in law and in peoples experience of humandifferences shows that races exist. But this is a circularargument. Of course, from the very beginning, the lawwas implicated in the manufacturing of the social con-struction of race, both reifying and legitimizing racialcategories, as well as defining membership in them(Lopez 1995, 1996; Morgan 1975; Parent 2003). But thelaw, when it was not trying to establish purity of bloodor blood quantum, relied on the criterion of popularknowledge or popular understanding to define thecontours of racial identity and to promote racial cate-gories. In this way, American law affirmed, perhapsunwittingly, that race was essentially a folk idea5 (seeDominguez 1994 and Lopez 1996 among others).

    Race scholars such as Vincent Sarich, Frank Miele,Philippe Rushton, Richard Lynn, and others would haveus believe that any perception or recognition of humanphysical differences, whether in history or in contem-porary times, constitutes race. However, they provideevidence revealing that race is more than mere physicaldifferences. Social status, ranking, and hereditaryinequality are implicated in their arguments. For exam-ple, they seem to think it necessary to find in ancient lit-erature statements that appear to denigrate people ofAfrican ancestry. Thus, they have found a translation ofancient Egyptian around the time of Sesostris III thatridicules black Africans (Sarich and Miele 2004:35).(Quite apart from the questionable accuracy of thetranslation, their interpretation assumes that all Black

    Africans were called Nubians, which is false, and thatSesostris III saw himself as White, or at least not asBlack.6) They also argue that writers of the Muslimworld produced derogatory characterizations of otherraces, especially black Africans, and an increasingtendency to demean their intellectual abilities (Sarichand Miele 2004:47). The evidence for this is skimpyand based on skewed and distorted materials. But theauthors clearly understand that value judgments abouthuman worth are critical to the worldview of race; with-out them, physical variations would be irrelevant.

    Historians and social analysts of contemporaryrace ideology have demonstrated that race is a society-wide worldview comprised of culturally inventedbeliefs and attitudes about groups deemed to be inferior(Allen 1994, Banton 1977, Banton and Harwood 1975,Fredrickson 2002, Hannaford 1996, Lopez 1995,Morgan 1975, Smedley 1999). And these beliefs andattitudes today can be fabricated for virtually anyvulnerable population. All that is needed is to imputeinferior qualities to an exploited definable group,declare that these qualities are innate and immutable,and find some gullible scientists to affirm the groupsinferior status. This is not mere social construction asthe authors would have us believe. When Hitler racial-ized the Jews, Gypsies, and other minority populations,physical similarities and differences were irrelevant. Ifthe Japanese racialized the Koreans, Burakumin, andAinu, it was not because they could prove phenotypic orgenetic differences between themselves (the superiorrace) and these other groups. When British scholarsattempted to impose racial categories on the great diver-sity of peoples in India, they were unsuccessful becausesuch arbitrary categories, based largely in differentia-tion of peoples by skin color and other physical fea-tures, were irrelevant and not part of the traditions ofthis huge area. All they succeeded in doing was intro-ducing an artifact of their own culture, a positive valu-ation for light skin color and Caucasoid features, mostlyto an elite minority of people who became westernizedin many other ways. The ideology of race is far morepowerful than mere physical variations.

    Throughout the colonial world, there developedattitudes and beliefs about native peoples, aboutimported slaves, and about others that have nothing todo intrinsically with the physical characteristics of thesepeoples. Western-imposed racial values and stereotypeshave captured the minds of multiple millions of peopleand affected the ways they interact with one another andwith the West. Such values were inventions in the mindsof politically powerful people, not realities of the tradi-tional societies or the natural world.7 One major reasonfor the transmission and acceptance of race ideologyaround the world had to do with decisions made by

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    powerful political agents for the structuring of unequaleconomic and political power and for the exploitation ofvulnerable peoples. Premodern ethnocentrism may bean important factor in the willingness of any givensociety to racialize the others, but not all instancesof ethnocentrism have led to racism. That race hasbecome such a potent force in the world is due largelyto its plasticity and availability to be manipulated andemployed for political purposes (Allen 1994, Smedley1999). Most of all, the myth of hereditary groupinequality, a major component of race ideology, hasbeen well served by the law, the church, and medical,educational, and other institutions and buttressed by theauthoritative voice of science. The Sarich and Mielebook merely continues the tradition.

    NOTES1. Rushton argues that there are genetically based

    psychological and behavioral, as well as physical, differ-ences among the races. Most importantly, he believesthat differences in intelligence are innate: Asians aresuperior to Whites, who are in turn superior to Africans(Blacks). On many social traits such as aggressiveness,impulsivity, marital stability, law-abidingness, and sexu-ality, Asians fall at one end of a spectrum and Blacks atthe other extreme, with European Whites in the middle.

    2. Modern historians of Africa also explore theinteractions of the peoples of Africa with theMediterranean and Near Eastern peoples. And they con-tradict the portrayals of primitive Africa by Rushton,Sarich, and other race scientists (see Bovill 1968,Connah 1987, Ehret 2002, and Rotberg 1965, amongothers). The Bible is another source of knowledge aboutinterrelationships among these peoples.

    3. Manumitting slaves was a meritorious act underIslam. Some slaves were even married to their mastersdaughters (Hourani 1991:116).

    4. Although some writers in both Europe and theMiddle East produced negative and derogatory descrip-tions of Blacks, the vast majority of ordinary peoplewere illiterate and never or rarely exposed to thesebeliefs. They dealt with Africans and other dark-skinned people as individuals. Scholars who are expertson the topic make a clear distinction between colorprejudice and racism (Drake 1987).

    5. A large body of literature under the rubric ofCritical Race Theory has developed in the legal fielddealing with race and the law.

    6. It has long been conventional wisdom, espe-cially in the United States, that the ancient Egyptiansthemselves should not be classified as Black,because, as Samuel Morton observed, no Negroescould have built such a great civilization (see Smedley1999:233). On their tomb paintings, the Egyptians

    painted themselves realistically in varying shades oflight brown to reddish brown to black. Even if therewere no such depictions, we could logically concludethat people inhabiting such a hot tropical land, with fewtrees, over time would have evolved dark skin coloring.

    7. Historian Anthony S. Parent Jr. (2003) hasargued that it was a small, but wealthy and powerful,planter class that first introduced the idea of slaveryonly for Africans to Virginia. There were economic andother reasons for this: among them, Africans had manyskills, knew how to grow tobacco and other agriculturalproduce, were accustomed to working in tropical heat,and had immunities to Old World diseases. Most of all,Africans were vulnerable; they were not British andhad none of the protections of English laws. Thisintentional decision set into motion the invention ofthe idea and ideology of race (Smedley 1999; see alsoAllen 1994 and Morgan 1975, among others).

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