This Martin Luther King Day, a new look at race

An expert on the history of skin color in societies proposes retiring race as a topic for science research. Her idea echos awareness of the changing notion of race, which may help end racism.

AP Photo
People gather Jan. 15 at the Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan to honor Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

In the United States, the topic of race, or the color of one’s skin, comes up every Martin Luther King Day. It’s a topic every February, which is Black (African-American) History Month. It is also a constant in American news, in issues like the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin or new Justice Department rules on racial profiling. The film “12 Years a Slave” has received nine Oscar nominations. And after six years as president, Barack Obama remains a reminder of a key triumph over race thinking.

Yet a leading scholar on the role of skin color in human societies, anthropologist Nina Jablonski at Penn State University, argues in a recent essay that it is time to retire the idea of race as a topic for scientific study.

“Race has a hold on history, but it no longer has a place in science,” she writes on the website, an intellectual salon.

Until the mid-20th century, many in science still clung to the notion that one’s biological race could define character or even perhaps intelligence. But studies of migration and intermingling have shown people to be too diverse to pigeonhole by pigment.

Race then began to be seen as a social construction, often confused with class and ethnicity. After a while, race became a product of shared experience. It was a choice, not a condition. Individuals only had to decide to identify themselves by race, simply checking off a box on a census form.

Scientists now have no say in this new thinking about race. “The sheer instability and potential for misinterpretation render race useless as a scientific concept,” she writes.

This evolution in race thinking is echoed in politics by comparing the comments of two presidents.

In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson could easily say that “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” For blacks, racial differences “are a constant reminder of oppression.”

In 2013, President Obama told a black audience, “Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured, and they overcame them.”

 He then said that all races in America must come together for one thing: to make sure everyone “got a shot in life.”

Or compare President Clinton’s convening of a national conference on race during his time in the White House. Obama rejects that idea, suggesting that Americans simply bring up the topic “in families, churches and workplaces.”

Race has become a sort of belief system, a way to produce “consistencies in perception and practice at a particular social and historical moment,” says Brown University race scholar Catherine Bliss.

A big step toward ending racism is to recognize how far society has come in redefining the concept of race itself or, as Ms. Jablonski proposes, rejecting the term as a topic for serious scientific study.

On this year’s Martin Luther King Day, that could be a reason for celebration.

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