Confronting the Past

Race does not have its roots in biological reality but in policies of discrimination

Confronting the Past
“(Race) does not have its roots in biological reality, but in policies of discrimination,” reads the AAPA’s new statement on race and racism, which Robin Nelson helped craft.  / Image courtesy SCU

The atrocities justified using the beliefs of early physical anthropologists detail some of the worst in human history: the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, apartheid in South Africa.

“The horrors are big,” assistant professor of Anthropology Robin Nelson says. “The history is bad.”

During the 18th and 19th centuries, so-called race science was a strand of physical anthropology that attempted to link moral and intellectual aptitude to race.

“We as physical anthropologists have always had a hand in race science,” Nelson says.

In 1996, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, AAPA, tried to right this wrong, publishing a “Statement on Race.” It was a progressive move at the time, but history revealed imperfections. It was too technical and did not speak to cultural impact. To this day, racists repackage race science to provide cover for hate speech.

In late 2017, Nelson joined a group of anthropologists to make the statement more clear and pointed when it came to the impact of race science. The AAPA unanimously adopted the revised statement in March 2019.

“We’re hoping the document starts as an opener for conversations,” Nelson says. “That this is really just the beginning of the conversations we need to be having.”

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