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Yolanda Moses Discusses Anthropology's Sordid Affair with Race

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Yolanda Moses

Anthropologist Yolanda Moses is dragging the world kicking and screaming out of the 19th century.

For decades, the AAAS Fellow and Professor at the University of California, Riverside, has been working to dispel the pernicious pseudo-scientific misconceptions about race that continue to persist long after scientists have thrown them on the garbage heap of bad ideas.

A former president of the American Anthropological Association and a leading voice in her discipline, Moses’ work has pushed her fellow anthropologists to come to terms with the role their discipline played in developing the pseudo-science of race.

“Here in the U.S., race is the cornerstone of our definition of what it means to be an American and what it means to be in charge,” says Moses. “There was a lot we [anthropologists] gave to the world to reaffirm this.”

For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anthropologists helped buttress racial inequality in the United States and abroad through the development of what we now know is more ideology than science.

Anthropologists of the period, says Moses, fell into the trap of the "confirmation bias." They believed inequality was natural and so they developed ideas about nature that justified it.

Among their many pet (and totally fallacious) ideas, anthropologists of yesteryear believed that a person’s inner characteristics—from intelligence to moral fortitude—could be gleaned by observing outward characteristics, such as hair color, skin color, and the bumps on one’s skull. The pseudo-scientists also believed that observable variations pointed to something that was more than skin deep: distinct races and even distinct human subspecies, notions that modern genetics have since dispelled. 

It’s now understood that there is more variation among individuals than there are between so-called racial groups. Human variation exists on a spectrum that can’t be easily divided into races; we are more alike than we are different. "Race" is not a scientific, biological fact, but Moses says this doesn't mean race isn't real. Politically and culturally, race is a very real fact. And for a cultural anthropologist like Moses, that means it should be studied. 

In a 1997 article published in American Anthropologist, the American Anthropological Association’s own journal, Moses made a compelling argument for “Reestablishing ‘Race’” in anthropological discourse and research. At that time, the anthropological community had all but abandoned race as a genuine scientific concept. (It survived longer elsewhere, especially in the field of biology, according to Moses’ and others’ research.) By abandoning the pseudo-science of race, Moses pointed out in her paper, anthropologists had unwittingly abandoned talking about race and its role in fostering inequality.

“Sociologists talked about race. Historians talk about race. But anthropologists weren’t part of that national dialogue,” remembers Moses. “We stopped talking about it because it was an embarrassment.”

Perhaps Moses’ greatest contribution to her discipline has been getting her fellow anthropologists to publically confront that embarrassment. Her now oft-cited 1997 paper was one of several key studies that helped kickstart her discipline’s new discussion about race. Following that paper, Moses and others inside the American Anthropological Association held meeting after meeting, followed by paper after paper. Moses says the goal of these discussions was always about getting the discipline to join the national dialogue about race. 

“If we were going to talk to the nation about race and racism, we had to decide what we would say,” says Moses. “We had our own homework to do as a discipline.”

That homework involved several decades of turning anthropology’s observational tools back on itself by confronting the discipline’s own sordid past.

Starting in 2006, Moses and others in the American Anthropological Association put this history very literally on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota as part of an exhibition called RACE: Are we so different? With stops at the Smithsonian, RACE, now in its third iteration, is still touring. Moses and her colleagues have also turned the project into two books and an interactive website that in 2007 was a nominee for Best Scientific Website by the Webby Awards, a leader in awarding excellence in website design.

To say that the RACE project in its many variations reviews some heady topics is an understatement. RACE covers ground ranging from what the current science says about human variation; to race as a lived experience, including its relationship to American slavery, class, and identity; to how the past pseudo-science of race and its sister absurdity eugenics—the belief that humans could and should be selectively and systematically breed like livestock—didn’t stay in academia but became codified in discriminatory immigration policies and forced-sterilization programs that targeted, among other groups, poor whites, who many believed carried pauperism in their blood as something like an inheritable disease.

“In the 1920s and 1930s, we were forcibly sterilizing people. That work ended up influencing people in Germany, and I don’t need to tell you what happened there,” says Moses. 

Given this stark history, it might surprise you that one intended audience for the RACE project was and is schoolchildren. Moses says when they first tried to launch the project many were skeptical that kids could both intellectually and emotionally handle the subject matter. Moses gives them more credit.   

“The research shows that kids, particularly young kids of color, by the time they are 4 years old know about race. A part of what we were trying to do is to have them and their parents understand how this happened and what they can do about it. Another part of this project was to make the invisible visible and to explain why it [racism] has persisted for so long,” says Moses.

If Moses strikes you as something of an activist, she wouldn’t disagree. Moses has written papers and worked on national efforts addressing the difficulties persons of color, especially women of color, face in academia and how the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, or STEM, fields have a similar diversity problem. She’s also worked to make hiring practices at the University of California, Riverside, more equitable, making her school one of the first to address what’s known as implicit bias—or unconscious stereotyping affecting our choices—a problem many other colleges and universities have also started to address, especially in their hiring practices.    

Now in her 70s, Moses began studying anthropology in the politically tumultuous 1970s, and, like many students at that time, she was heavily involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements. She decided to study anthropology after meeting Margaret Mead.

Moses, who is African American, says she was something of a “firebrand” when she was a student. So when Mead, the famed white anthropologist, visited her campus, Moses decided she was going to interrogate Mead, asking her what she thought about the Black Power movement. To Moses’ surprise, Mead said she thought the movement was great.

“And I thought, I want to know what this field of anthropology is all about,” laughs Moses.

So she became an anthropologist, doing her initial fieldwork on the island of Montserrat in the British West Indies. There she studied how women in the male-dominated society had been elevated to positions of authority because the island’s male laborers had to travel outside of Montserrat to find work. If Mead initially got Moses interested in anthropology, it was Moses’ work on Montserrat that cemented her passion for the discipline, which she says is above all about learning to see from others’ perspectives.

“For me, one of the hallmarks of anthropology is to let the voices of other people speak,” says Moses.

Looking to today’s politics and the current explosion in hate crimes and hate groups, Moses says science’s role in helping us learn to see beyond ourselves is more important than ever. Moses, who continues to teach introductory courses, says she would give the American people the same advice she gives each new freshman class she teaches: “You have to look deeper….You have to understand the history and you need to ask, ‘In whose interest is it to keep this system going?’ And if it’s dysfunctional, you have to ask, ‘How do we stop it?’”

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<p>Yolanda Moses</p>
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Nathan Gilles