In this earnest, often angry history of a hot-button subject, Sussman (Physical Anthropology/Washington Univ.; co-author: Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution, 2005) argues that “biological races do not exist among modern humans and they have never existed in the past.”
The idea of race, writes the author, is a cultural rather than biological reality. Tribes always believed that strangers were subhuman, but they could overcome their inferiority by joining the tribe—e.g., converting to Christianity or adopting Roman citizenship. Matters changed significantly 500 years ago, at first in Spain, where the Inquisition determined that Jews—even after conversion—could never be the equals of pure-blooded Spaniards. Simultaneously, Europeans began colonizing America, whose inhabitants, according to most, were subhuman. Oddly, the concepts developed during the Enlightenment did not help. Philosophers (Immanuel Kant, David Hume) and many 19th-century scientists maintained that progress proved the inferiority of nonwhites. Things further deteriorated after 1900, when genetic discoveries gave rise to the eugenics movement, which lobbied, often successfully, for laws preventing people with inferior genes from reproducing. Simultaneously, Sussman’s hero, Franz Boas, was revolutionizing anthropology. He and his followers taught that culture and learning, not genes, determined human behavior. By the 1930s, they dominated the profession. Today, since racism is politically incorrect, Sussman maintains, supporters have migrated en masse to the anti-immigration movement. Some readers may want to skim the book’s last third: a dense review of fringe organizations that trumpet scientific racism and occasionally emerge from obscurity (remember The Bell Curve, which was a best-seller in 1994).
Despite irritating scholarly touches such as footnotes mixed in with text, Sussman delivers a lucidly written, eye-opening account of a nasty sociological battle that the good guys have been winning for a century without eliminating a very persistent enemy.