In the Public Interest

In September, I attended a multidisciplinary conference on race sponsored by the American Anthropological Association (AAA), which sought to develop ideas, concepts and events that would form the basis of a public education effort. The effort aims to modify over time the generally understood meaning and use of race by sharing and translating current scientific knowledge derived from the biological and social sciences. This effort is consistent with earlier AAA policy positions that have specifically addressed the lack of scientific support for the concept of race as used and understood in public discourse. (Of course, the task of re-educating the public is made all the more difficult by the U.S. Census Bureau, which continues to ask that individuals designate their race on its census forms.)

September is also the month in which four of my eight grandchildren were born, and they were in my thoughts during the conference. So, in addition to my usual gift thoughts, I was also giving some thought to how they, as well as the other four "grands," might be affected by a campaign to re-educate the nation on what race is and what it is not.

The conference

AAA decided that before the public education campaign could begin, it must assess the state of scientific knowledge and share that knowledge across disciplines. Therefore, AAA extended conference invitations to psychologists, economists, sociologists, linguists, geneticists and, of course, several kinds of anthropologists. Many of them accepted and agreed to confer with each other about their discipline's understanding of race.

As sometimes happens at such multidisciplinary groupings, there was a palpable grasping to comprehend methodological procedures and processes utilized by the various disciplines in their respective research activities, as well as the assumptions used to guide them. Yet it seemed that measured, clear responses to difficult and often challenging questions moved the conferees toward a shared, research-based understanding of race.

Using information gleaned from the Human Genome Project and related research activities, geneticists carefully reported research findings indicating no genetic support for the concept of race. They indicated that individuals are much more alike genetically than different, and that population groups have greater genetic variation within them than between them. (However, I often wonder about such findings as it is agreed that humankind as we know it began in and emerged from Africa; but, as we know, scientific findings are often counterintuitive.)

Conference attendees agreed that their pooled information indicates race is socially, not genetically, constructed--certainly not the first time such a conclusion had been reached. What's new, though, is the public education campaign AAA plans to launch based on that conclusion. Through the campaign, it hopes to very, very carefully deconstruct public misperceptions of race over time. The next steps in this process relate to the how and when to begin this extraordinarily important effort. If invited, I would hope that APA agrees to participate in this campaign.

Race and the grandchildren

As mentioned above, the confluence of birthdays and the conference started me thinking about how the proposed effort to change the nation's understandings about the biological basis of race is likely to affect the lives of my grandchildren. From a grandparent's view, I see them as energetic and healthy African-American youngsters, with a reasonable range of talents and abilities. The public perception of them is unlikely to change, but perhaps the color of their skin and texture of their hair will make people less likely to decide that they require less education, need inferior housing, should receive inferior health care, should be employed in lesser jobs or should only have minor dreams and aspirations. Then, of course, I believe all children, not just my grandchildren, should be able to strive for their dreams without the unnecessary drawbacks of race and the racism it has inspired.

Were I an optimist, it would mean telling my children to prepare their children for a nation less obsessed by race and more likely to judge people on the "content of their character." But as a realist and a pragmatist, I feel such preparation would be premature. My grandchildren are likely to grow up in a nation, for example, whose census forms, say in the year 2050, will quite likely ask them to identify themselves by race.