AnthroBites: Scientific Racism

AnthroBites is a new series from the AnthroPod team, designed to make anthropology more digestible. Each episode tackles a key concept, text, or theme, and breaks it down into manageable, bite-sized chunks.

Our guest for this episode is Rachel Watkins, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at American University, who talks us through the origins and legacies of scientific racism. For more on Watkins’s approach to teaching and research in anthropology, check out this recent interview in American University’s Blackprint.

Further Resources

Key Figures Mentioned in This Episode

Learn More about Scientific Racism


AnthroPod features interviews with anthropologists about their work, experiences in the field, and current events. This episode was produced by Siobhan McGuirk, with executive assistance from Arielle Milkman, and transcription by Sean Furmage. To pitch your own episode ideas or to offer feedback, email us at [email protected]

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Music: Sweeter Vermouth by Kevin MacLeod.


SM: Welcome, Dr. Watkins.

Rachel Watkins: Thank you.

SM: So, Dr. Watkins, how can we as anthropologists, start to trace the history of this concept?

RW: Well, as a biological anthropologist I’m connected personally to the discipline that is largely—or it’s noted as being—largely responsible for the concept, in that the scientists who ushered in biological anthropology as a profession, as well as a discipline, were largely anatomists and doctors who believed in this notion of essential difference between groups of people. So, in other words, the kind of surface level differences—skin color, hair texture, what have you—were attributed a level of significance that really kind of belies their biological power, in that people are not reducible to these traits that we think of as racial. They all reflect biological possibilities that we all have.

SM: Okay, and what was the time period, or the context, in which these ideas about fundamental human difference on the basis of appearance became popular?

RW: Or the mixture—it’s actually the mixture of appearance and behavior and other aspects of biological fitness. It really goes back as far as Linnaeus, who we don’t think of in the context of biological anthropology, but his kingdom/phylum/class/order/family/genus/species level of nomenclature also included subspecies. And so he had, for instance, Homo sapiens europaeus—that was for Europeans—and [Homo sapiens] asianicus and [Homo sapiens] africanus. And he described these empirical differences in terms of looks, but then he also attributed behavioral characteristics to these looks and various levels of intellect to these looks. And so that really formed the basis of what we understand as racial difference today.

SM: And so how did that approach to human difference influence the development of the discipline of anthropology?

RW: Well, in biological anthropology, these early forebearers, if you will, kind of sought out to contribute scientific data that confirmed racial difference. So, you have biological anthropologists who are doing studies, largely on anatomy collections—getting skeletons of named blacks, and whites, and Indians, and doing various measurements and assessments to reify this notion that people are not only racially different, but that racial differences are indeed observable. Not only on the surface in terms of skin color, but also in terms of the shape of certain bones, or the angle of certain bones, or differences in the shape of the skull. So, Samuel Morton is somebody who, in particular, contributed to this kind of very meticulous process of measuring the skull that was used to reify these racial differences.

SM: Can you talk a little bit about how these ideas justified colonialism, for example, or slavery?

RW: Right. These beliefs about essential difference, as I said, were hierarchical, right? So it wasn’t just that they were these sorts of objective differences, but this difference was used to construct a hierarchy in which Europeans were on the top, and African-descended folk were on the bottom. And, as I mentioned, each racial group was attributed a certain level of intellect, or ability, what have you. And Homo sapiens africanus, if you will, was described as being of low-intellect and being in need of supervision and care. And so that type of description, that sort of racialized belief in difference, justified this enslavement, right, this natural circumstance for African-descended folk to be in, being supervised, and all of that. And then, also, there were kind of physiological differences—differences related to susceptibility to diseases, lung capacity, I mean all of these things were kind of worked out, mapped out, on the bodies of African-descended people based on these fundamental beliefs about racial differences. It started with that Homo sapiens africanus idea.

SM: As you’re speaking, I can think of lots of examples—legacies of these ideas. So the ideas that we have about, for example, sports stars are still very connected to the ideas that Adolf Hitler put forward about Jesse Owens, you know back in the day. What has been the legacy, in your view, of these ideas about a biological kind of fundamental differences between people?

RW: Well, that’s a great example, of the athletic prowess—[that] is one of the ways in which this race concept stays around. And one of the more insidious aspects of race is that people believe—because of its power, because of the way in which we really rely upon it, especially in US society, to explain how we see the world and how people are interacting—there’s a belief that racial differences can be complimentary. In other words, if you're saying that somebody is a really good athlete, right, well what’s wrong with that? That's complimentary. Or if you’re saying, you know, Asian people are really good at mathematics, or science, well that’s a compliment, what’s wrong with that? And the problem is that that again reifies this idea that people are essentially different. And that these differences that we see in people are differences that we only see in that group of people. And that again belies the biological reality of what we know about our diversity. I think anthropologists continue to struggle with balancing teaching and writing about how race doesn't exist and how race is a social construction, with dealing with the realities of racism. Sure, there's a way that we should be teaching and talking about race as a social construct, but we also need to use our work to render visible the realities of racism and how it impacts people in their daily lives.

SM: So how do we start to tease out those ideas and say, well, let’s think about them in a different way?

RW: Well, I think one thing that’s particularly helpful is to think about the particular context in which you’re seeing these things. We kind of take these environments, where we see a lot of, say named black people, in the lineup for a hundred-meter dash as a natural environment. Which again is a legacy of racial thinking—this idea that certain people can be attributed to certain environments and that they best function in those environments. So, I think anthropologists, you know being good deconstructionists, can bring to people’s attention [to the fact that] this is not a natural environment. This is a field in which a group of people who have trained very hard are lined up for a race. This doesn’t reflect the actual diversity of people who are good at the hundred-meter dash. I mean that's just one example. And you can look at the history of, say basketball, where we—now, we still continue to think of basketball as a largely “black” sport, but it initially in the U.S. was predominantly made up of Jewish men. And it came to be something where you had a lot of black athletes. But now, notice, it’s very diverse. It’s much more diverse. So that again, kind of speaks to the fact that, you know, this is not a kind of natural environment for a specific group of people to thrive.

SM: Right, absolutely. I wanted to ask a little bit about how this legacy of an idea has become more technical, or has become about the idea of genes and genetic difference. And genetic essential difference, rather than say skull size or bone density. Could you talk a little bit about that shift, and how we can respond to that?

RW: Yeah. I mean so, the Human Genome Diversity Project was very important in terms of mapping out our human genome and the stated goal of doing so was to amplify this notion of common humanity, right, that we all kind of come from this source. And [the human genome diversity project] is a kind of empirical representation of this, you know, map of humanity, as opposed to different groups of people. The issue is, or the problem is, that race is such a powerful concept, right? And we fully understand that science is, in and of itself, a social practice—that the ways in which genomic data are interpreted reifies the notion of racial difference. So you have these examinations of genes for a particular thing that are not necessarily aligned with what we know about genetic principles—about how genes function and what they can and cannot tell us. And that includes genetic ancestry testing, right, how these data are being used in a way that suggests that genes can tell you who you are. That again reflects this idea that there's some biological element, you know, there's some biological essence to us that can be identified in a way, again, that belies scientific principles.

SM: So, tell us a little bit about how biological constructions of racial difference have informed your work.

RW: Being an anthropology major at Howard University had a huge impact on me, in that the first African American to get a doctorate in biological anthropology was both a student, and later a professor, at Howard.

SM: And what was his name?

RW: Oh, William Montague Cobb. And he ushered in this era at Howard of looking at and deconstructing this biological notion of race. So, when I was at Howard, I did research on his collection and helped to curate this collection of skeletons that he put together to demonstrate that there’s skeletal diversity within named racial groups that kind of flies in the face of this idea that you can look at a bone, or measure it, or assess it in some way, shape, or form and tell whether or not it belongs to a person of a particular race. So, what he attempted to do was promote this idea that people are not just biological, right, we’re biological and cultural. And that we need to be read and understood as such. So, skeletons should be used, or any kind of biological element of a human being, should be analyzed in a way that demonstrates the connection between that person's biology and how they’re socially embedded, or their cultural context. And so this is something that I kind of took with me and carried through my graduate work and my writing afterward, and research afterward, which attempts to kind of build on that idea by way of looking at the Cobb Skeletal Collection in more of a cultural context. And also, experimenting with the idea of examining skeletal remains in ways that perhaps fall outside of a traditional scientific context. And there are lots of biological anthropologists who are doing this in various ways. There are biological anthropologists who are using fictional narrative. In my case, I recently constructed a study sample from the Cobb Collection that’s made up of people for whom we have skeletons and those for whom we no longer have skeletons. And that's going to allow for an analysis of the population sample that better reflects the way that the collection was initially established, whereas the skeletons that we have now just reflect a small portion. Another way in which I’m attempting to contribute to furthering this idea of deconstructing race is by way of looking at how black feminist scholarship can be used in skeletal biology studies and bio-anthropology across the board. There’s been a feminist turn in archaeology. There’s been a feminist turn in bio-archaeology. We have Whitney Battle-Baptiste’s book on black feminist archaeology. [But] there's been no such turn in biological anthropology. And so this literature I’m finding is very helpful in understanding why there hasn't been such a turn and what needs to be done to move that forward.

SM: And so you think that there’s a kind of disciplinary move forward that needs to take place alongside that kind of broader, social move forward in terms of our understanding and efforts to deconstruct the idea of race, while still understanding and addressing the pernicious impacts of racism in the United States and the world today?

RW: Exactly. There are ways in which we do a great job—you know on the historical contextualization and all of that—but in terms of subjecting our work to cultural readings, right, so not just the data, but also ourselves, that doesn't really happen [laughs] to the extent that it should. And so again, this literature I’m finding is helpful in moving that project forward. Because there's the aspect of race and racism that pertains to the “material” we study, the individuals we study, you know, the individuals whose skeletal remains we have. And then there are the racial politics of the discipline that we need to consider. How is it that our research practices might have an impact on how we're interacting as scientists with one another, or how, for instance, diverse a particular field is. Certainly, biological anthropology isn't very diverse. And so, we can't just continue to do all of this great historically contextualized work as bio-anthropologists and ignore the fact that, you know, it's largely white and male, still.

SM: And what people look for is not necessarily what’s there to be found.

RW: Exactly. Yes! [laughs] Very well said. Yes, I agree.

SM: Well, thank you so much for deconstructing this concept for us and for introducing us to your work.

RW: Thank you!