Book Review: Is Science Racist?

Is Science Racist: Debating Race, by Jonathan Marks- Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was released in the midst of a societal reexamination of the pervasiveness of and value ascribed to race in America. As a new generation is being reacquainted with racial disparities that have existed in perpetuum in the United States, the ontology of race is often lost in the scramble for social justice. On one hand we have the white supremacists arguing (poorly) for racial purity and a strict racial hierarchy. On the other hand is everyone else1. In Is Science Racist?, Marks reignites discussion around what race actually is and science’s (as an institution and pool of knowledge) role at inventing and formalizing race as natural, value-laden categories.

The book is a very easy read; as a matter of fact, it’s only 128 pages long. I read the entire book on a flight from Charlotte, NC to Oakland, CA. The book is organized in a very organic manner, building from an introduction of the concept of race, through examples of scientific reification of race as natural categories, to what we know and why it matters. It is another example of Marks’ wit and nuanced way of both thinking and writing about sensitive and important topics. The book challenges the reader to evaluate his/her own ideas of race and reflect on where they come from and why those beliefs are unquestioningly held.

As for the content of the book, it is meant to be a brief treatise on the subject instead of a comprehensive work. SPOILER ALERT: to answer the question posed by the title of the book; yes science is in fact racist 2. As a matter of fact, the original title of the book was Why is Science Racist? but you can’t spoil the punchline up front! Marks does many things at once in order to support the argument of the book (see the above spoiler). He critiques the very essence of what scientists and non-scientists thick about race, resituates race as a bio-cultural category, calls into question the types of questions postulated by people performing research in human biodiversity, and argues why a more nuanced understanding of what race is and its cultural consequences are paramount.

Today, arguments about what race is falls on one side of the fence or the other. Either race is a biological category and thus physical characters as well as behavioral and psychosocial characteristics can be explained by genetics or race is a cultural construct and race is merely the product societal beliefs about difference. Marks takes a more nuanced approach to this. He observes the pervasion of the biological/cultural dichotomy in language despite human traits not being as easily reducible to one or the other 3. Instead, both work in concert and thus race is a bio-cultural category. We, as a society, ascribe meaning and value to human biodiversity. A consequence of this is cherry-picked data, racist interpretations, and the allowance of racist ideas to pervade science. Questions like “were the white and black races created separately” or “did the white and black races evolve differently”4 both assume in the question that races are natural categories and as Marks states that both retain “the significant common bio-political meaning.”4

Marks refers to the paradox of science, where espousing creationist ideas gets you labeled as an ideologue, unable to perform respectable, objective5 science. However, holding racist ideas isn’t so bad. “People might look at you askance, but as a racist you can coexist in science alongside them, which you couldn’t do if you were a creationist.”6 Therefore, “science is racist when it permits scientists who advance racist ideas to exist and to thrive institutionally.”6

Chapter Five,”What we know, and why it matters” is the book’s crescendo. While the rest of the book historically contextualizes and critiques scientific racism, the final chapter discusses what science actually tells us about human biodiversity, what it means, and why it is important to a contemporary conception of human biodiversity without race-as an untenable biological concept. The 10th point of the chapter is the most important: “Racial issues are social-political-economic, not biological.”7 Given that the human species has very little genetic variation (even when compared to chimpanzees or gorillas) and that most variation occurs as within (polymorphisms) and not between (polytypy) groups, the issues associated with race are of a social nature. In order to address issues of health disparities, economic inequality, class hierarchy, education, employment, crime, etc. we must tackle them as social problems and not a failure of biology, evolution, or breeding. Reducing these disparities to genes and treating class as an essential characteristic of race does nothing to create a more amicable and equitable society.

Now more than ever, we need opposition against scientific racism from within science. It can’t be left up to religious organizations and leftist political parties to put pressure on the racists. We as scientists have a moral obligation to stand up against racist, cherry-picked, divisive science. The language used to perpetrate racist science has become more sophisticated and covert. This makes it more palatable to the public but it needs to be exposed for what it is- unacceptable- and those that continue to paint up racist ideology as science are not welcome. In 128 pages, Marks is able to put the scientific community on blast. This is an important read for anyone, but maybe most importantly, other scientists. I highly recommend this book!

  1. I understand that this is an oversimplification but I think it fair to say that white supremacists put themselves in opposition to what we think of as ideal American values and the values of most Americans.
  2. Was this a shocker?
  3. Pages 28-29.
  4. Both from page 16.
  5. Whatever that is?!
  6. Page 3.
  7. Page 122.

Disclaimer: Dr. Jonathan Marks was my thesis advisor and an inspiration for why I study what I do today. I am forever indebted to the guidance he offered me while studying under him. That being said, I am reviewing this book as I do any other.

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