I presented on how anthropologists understand differences between people from different racial or ancestral groups. We only had five minutes to speak. As any faculty member knows, five minutes is only enough time to clear your throat and introduce yourself, so I wrote out my comments and spoke very, very fast. I'm sharing them here:
Our nation has a long history of believing that immigrants – or any people whose ancestry is different from that of the people in charge – have lower intelligence, poorer skill sets, lesser work-ethics, or lower inherent worth. The field of Biological Anthropology developed in the context of studying just this question. In the 18th and 19th century, early Anthropologists were part of society’s elite: mostly male, mostly Anglo-Saxon, mostly Protestant. They used everything from IQ tests to skull measurements to evolutionary theory to “prove” that people of different ancestries were inferior in some inherent way.
Since then, Anthropology had learned a lot about human differences, so from that perspective I’d like to suggest two things you should keep in mind when you hear blanket pronouncements about the inherent characteristics of people based on their ancestry or nation of origin:
One, racial categories are reflections of power, not biology. Every one of us is different, genetically and physically. But, our differences are continuous and varied; they don’t fit neatly into discrete categories, but we as a society create racial categories that are artificially discrete. Let’s consider a white woman who has two children. One child’s father is Black, the other child’s father is white. The children are siblings, so they are very close biologically, with a lot more genetic overlap than I have with any other white person in this room. But, socially, one child is Black, the other is White. Race is not a reflection of biology, but a social category.
These social categories were created to fit social needs, not to reflect human biology. For example, Early Colonial America didn’t use racial categories the way we do. People from Africa and Europe could be free servants; people from Africa and Natives of North America could be enslaved. They weren’t “Black” or “White”. But, (to elide a lot of history) the European colonists couldn’t meet their labor demands with free labor, so they created a harsh system of slavery, different from what had been seen previously in Europe. This was slavery for life, handed down for generations. And because this system didn’t fit with moral precedents, they also created a race-based system to justify it. They invented “Black” and “White” to justify this brutal system based on claimed “inherent differences” between people.
This isn’t the only time our culture (or others) have created racial categories to reflect or serve the power structure of society. Through history, what our nation has defined as “White” has depended on who was in power. Many European immigrant groups (Irish, Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans) were not considered White. As those immigrants were assimilated into the U.S., their racial status changed.
The second thing you should keep in mind when you hear blanket pronouncements about the inherent characteristics of people based on their ancestry or nation of origin: everything Anthropologists have learned from the late 1800s until now suggests that environment is far more important than “inherent biological differences” in understanding differences in behavior, skills, and success between groups with different ancestral backgrounds. As I said, early Anthropologists spent a lot of time trying to measure “inferior racial characteristics” in people from different parts of the world, but we modern Anthropologists like to forget those flawed studies and instead date the founding of our field from the work of Franz Boas in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Franz Boas showed that the “racial characteristics” that his fellow anthropologists had measured in immigrant groups, such as differences in skull shape, disappeared in their American-born children. .When immigrant’s children grew up in the U.S., in the same environment as “native-born” Americans, they had the same traits and outcomes. So, the “inherent biological differences” that these scientists thought they were measuring weren’t inherent at all, they were a product of the environment
We now have more than 100 years of data showing that when people from different ancestral backgrounds are given the same opportunities to succeed, they do. We now know that IQ, SAT-scores, and other standardized tests -- which are very flawed measure of intelligence -- are a better reflection of socio-economic status than race, for example. We can look at twin studies of genetically identical people raised in different environments which show that environment – particularly socio-economic status – has a major impact on standardized test scores. We can look at standardized tests of Americans from different races who are raised outside the racial caste system of the U.S. and see that, when raised without constant exposure to those biases, racial differences in standardized test-scores disappear. We can look at people of color from different socioeconomic backgrounds. All of these studies show that standardized test scores reflect how many years of good-quality, well-funded schools you attended, not inherent intelligence differences between people.
Too often, our society hasn’t given different communities the same opportunities to succeed. Our society throws up innumerable barriers in front of African-American, Latino, and Native American Indian people. Individuals in these communities face discrimination, housing segregation, school segregation and underfunding, and fewer professional opportunities and barriers to advancement. To the extent that we, as a society, put similar barriers in front of new immigrants, we can expect similar inequalities in education, wealth, or skill attainment. But, this is a social problem, not an inherent difference in ability between those who were born in this country and those who were not.
Trust me, I’m an anthropologist. We have tried for hundreds of years to find measurable differences in the intelligence, morality, work-ethic, or inherent worth of different communities. The only differences we’ve found are the ones we’ve created ourselves.