UNESCO Statements on Race

views updated

UNESCO Statements on Race

The establishment of the United Nations (UN) following World War II led to a surge in declarations, conventions, and organizations aimed at promoting human rights and equality. The legacy of Nazism and the failure of the League of Nations galvanized the UN to formulate two critical postwar documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the Genocide Convention (1948). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established in 1945 to “embody a genuine culture of peace.” It was within this international atmosphere that UNESCO, as one of its early public acts, issued a Statement on Race in 1950.

Racism was the essence of Nazism, and the defeat of that regime provided an opportunity to pursue an egalitarian agenda. Despite the defeat of Nazism, racism in the late 1940s remained a powerful ideology. Segregation in the United States was in full force, and southern racism was yet to be challenged politically. UNESCO took up the challenge and established a committee of experts that published the 1950 Statement on Race, which declared that there was no scientific basis or justification for racial bias (The New York Times, July 18, 1950). The publication created a controversy that, in various forms, has lasted ever since. Nevertheless, the publication of the statement marked the emergence of a new scientific orthodoxy that continues into the twentyfirst century. This persistence is most remarkable given the ongoing changes in the study of the life sciences. But perhaps as noteworthy is how the specific makeup of the committee fanned the controversy, for while the subject matter reputedly dealt with issues of physical anthropology and biology, the scientists on the UNESCO committee were largely social scientists. The question of whether race is a biological phenomena or a social construct was, and remains, controversial.

The 1950 UNESCO statement was revolutionary. Although during the previous two decades significant shifts had taken place in scientific perspectives concerning the biology of race, the claim of biological equality advanced in the statement was unprecedented as a declaration by an official public body. The committee asserted human equality based on four premises: (1) the mental capacities of all races are similar, (2) no evidence exists for biological deterioration as a result of hybridization, (3) there is no correlation between national or religious groups and any particular race, and (4) “race was less a biological fact than a social myth,” and that biology proved the “universal brotherhood of man.” The first three, viewed from the perspective of half a century later, have become part of the mainstream, or at least part of liberal orthodoxy. But the fourth claim presented an epistemologically radical position. The “brotherhood of man” had a subversive ring to it at the beginning of the cold war, and the positive assertion about equality based on science remains controversial today. In 1950, many viewed this claim to be the weaker point of the statement, and it was subject to widespread criticism.

During the prewar years, the scientific community had moved from racist positions to a primarily agnostic understanding of the relation between racial biology and social manifestations. Biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists all contributed to a critique that delegitimized previously held racist theories, especially those associated with eugenics in the first quarter of the century. Among the prominent scientists who shaped this antiracist shift were Franz Boas (1858–1942) and his students, including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead in the United States, and biologists such as J. B. S. Haldane, Julian Huxley, Lancelot Hogben, and Lionel Penrose in England. It was Penrose who played a major role in undermining the positivists’ claims regarding racial differences, by showing that in many cases mental ability resulted from a combination of biology-genetics and environment, including pathological causes. Penrose showed that the idea that there was an explicit clear correlation between genetics and IQ could not be proven. The critics, with some exceptions, tended to be outsiders or socially marginal to the scientific community because of their ethnicity, gender, or politics. Even those who were at the heart of the British elite, such as Huxley and Haldane, were outsiders by their professional position or politics. In other words, it was Jews, women, and leftists who predominated in the ranks of those critical of racist viewpoints. From the vantage point of early twenty-first century, the substance of the critics writing on race would be considered to fall among those who believe in deep and biological racial divides. In other words, the theories supported by anti-racist scientists in the 1940s would be considered now by many to be racist. What made them “critics” was that their relative position opposed the conventions of their time. The whole spectrum of scientific understanding of racial differentiation has shifted.

Among this group was Ashley Montagu (1905– 1999), who was born to a Jewish immigrant family in London and later migrated to the United States. Informally part of the Boasian network in New York during the thirties, Montagu never achieved the academic prestige to which he aspired. As an outsider, however, he was to play a major role in the public understanding of the science of race. His most famous book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race was first published in 1942.

UNESCO’s expert committee on race was created by the UNESCO Fourth General Conference, which called for the collection of scientific data on race problems and for an educational campaign to disseminate scientific knowledge of race. UNESCO’s Director-General at the time was Julian Huxley, who had criticized unfounded racist claims for fifteen years and was the coauthor of the book We Europeans, probably the first book to argue for the use of the term ethnic as a replacement for race. This change in terminology was seen as a way to counter scientific and, in particular, Nazi racism. Perhaps even more important to the formation of the committee was the Brazilian anthropologist Arthur Ramos, who headed the Social Sciences Department of UNESCO. He determined the composition of the committee, which reflected his interest in the social sciences and thus challenged the more conventional view of race as a biological category. Montagu turned out to be the only committee member who was a physical anthropologist and had biological expertise. He was therefore chosen to be the rapporteur. In hindsight, it is clear that this choice increased the likelihood of a controversial statement. Montagu was more of an outspoken critic than a consensus builder, and his personal social qualities were not universally admired. His clear and often outspoken position on race was not unknown to the committee, so it would be wrong to assume that their findings were not embraced by the committee as a whole.

In the following decades, Montagu would publish extensively on numerous aspects of social relations, arguing against racism and other forms of discrimination and in favor of egalitarianism. At times, however, he took his analysis and claims further than his peers felt comfortable supporting. In 1950, neither the scientific community nor the public were ready to treat race as a social construction, but UNESCO’s statement was destined to redraw the lines of the debate.

The draft statement of the expert committee was sent out to various international scientists, most of whom were sympathetic to its antiracist viewpoint and had participated in previous public declarations. Their replies underscore both the scientific and political concerns of what can be said about race scientifically, as well as what ought to be said politically. The internal concerns regarding the composition of the committee led UNESCO primarily to solicit the opinion of biologists. The prevailing responses to the draft criticized the positivist view put forth in the statement about the “universal brotherhood of man.” Despite behind-the-scenes politicking, Montagu, as rapporteur, was able to keep this phrase in the final text. Once the statement was published, the result, as expected, was widespread criticism. Among the critics were prominent conservative and racist scientists such as Cyril Darlington, Ronald Fisher, and Ruggles Gates, but also less vehement sympathizers. In general, the debate was largely confined to small scientific circles, but the statement’s effectiveness was damaged by exaggerated assertions that lacked scientific backing.

The press coverage was not extensive, but the scientific turmoil troubled UNESCO at a time when it was struggling to establish political and professional credentials. Consequently, it was pressured to establish a second committee comprising geneticists and physical anthropologists. In an effort to keep a façade of continuity, the new expert committee also included Montagu, and the new statement was presented as an explication of the first statement, not as revision. The new rapporteur was Leslie Clarence Dunn, one of the foremost developmental geneticists, who also published popular text book on biology, and wrote on race, and the focus shifted to biology and physical anthropology. Several of the new members were among the commentators on the draft of the first statement whose opinions were not incorporated into that statement. Among the prominent new members were John Burton Sanderson Haldane, and Solly Zuckerman. Haldane was a Communist who formulated his antiracism as an anti-Nazi stand. While not always sensitive to racial offense, his egalitarianism was explicit and political. Zuckerman’s Jewishness made his position on race more egalitarian than might have been expected from his centrist political position. The committee was far from monolithic, yet it had a strong antiracist and egalitarian commitment. It published its “Statement on the Nature of Race and Race Differences” in June 1951, with its authors highlighted as being “Physical Anthropologists and Geneticists.” It was sent to ninety-six scientists for comments before publication. In addition to the statement, UNESCO printed eight booklets on various aspects of race, and these served as more detailed mini-statements. The industry of scientific antiracism was thus beginning to take shape, moving beyond individual efforts and becoming institutionalized.

An examination of the differences between the first and the second statements displays a wide spectrum of attitudes on the concept of race among scientists in the early 1950s. While most commentators refrained from negating the biological basis for intelligence outright, they became comfortable assigning racial differences to social factors. Race was losing its scientific (i.e., biological) credibility, but it remained a powerful force in popular culture and society. The confusion among these categories has never really been resolved in the public discourse. Although the 1950 statement was primarily sociological, it offered an explanation of the mechanism of racial differentiation through evolution, denied “race” had any concrete meaning, and advocated replacing the concept of race with an “ethnic” framework. The 1951 statement was more tentative, recognized that race mixture (the term at the time for the population descended from recognizable two races) existed “for an indefinite but a considerable time,” and argued that while the process of racial differentiation is unknown, many populations could be classified anthropologically in racial terms. The controversial declaration of the first statement on the biological evidence for universal brotherhood was ignored in the second statement.

The two statements contributed to a new dogma and to confusion about race. They emphasized what is unknown by science about race and pointed to the lack of positivist knowledge of what race is. By asserting that many populations can be classified racially, but then being unable to say much about such a classification, these statements were bound to lead to public confusion. So while the impact of the statements on policy has been questioned by historians, their influence has been significant, if indirect. They were part of a trend by scientists to renounce racial prejudices as lacking a scientific basis. UNESCO continued to fight racism and publish periodically on race, while scientists by and large switched their focus to environmentalism. Over the years, different organizations have pronounced on race, including the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), and the American Sociological Association.

The 1998 statement on race by the AAA for example, illustrates how little had changed since 1950. The AAA statement (which followed the AAPA’s statement) hardly differed in substance from the early UNESCO statements. The focus of the critique of the claims of racial differentiation remained on intragroup variability—differences within the group as opposed to between the group and any group it borders—which has been the main argument against racism since the 1930s. For example, if skin color is the variable to be examined, whites are more different among themselves than from the nearest non whites. The difference between Nordic and any darker skin whites is bigger than between the latter ones and light skin blacks. The principle distinction is true, regardless where one choose to draw the boundaries. It similarly applies to other characteristics. This viewpoint advocates that intragroup differences are far wider than intergroup distinctions. This has been recognized by writers since the 1920s, yet it was presented by the AAA as the central claim for a denial of the significance of race. Beyond this observation, the statement focused on the history of race as a reflection on the science of race. This particular history by the AAA amounted to a sharp criticism of race thinking over time, coupled with an inability to describe any “correct” aspects of race that would explain racial differences.

Another angle to view the transformation of scientific thinking can perhaps be viewed from those who were perceived as right wing conservatives. It is their ongoing explication of racial differences as an explanation of human behavior that provided the motivation for the more recent statements on race. Each of these anti-racist statements aimed to slay the dragon of racism once and for all. Among these scientists, even the hereditarians and racialists, who since the late sixties and early seventies reasserted themselves in claims about the correlation of race and science, followed by the debate over sociobiology, were far less deterministic than even the egalitarians of the earlier period. Their scientific claims were dismissed, but it is historically instructive to see how much the whole spectrum shifted against an epistemology of stable or identifiable races.

UNESCO published additional statements on race over the years, authored by leading scientific figures who pronounced on various questions with the persistent goal of advocating human equality. The dissonance between popular views that race matters in a certain biological sense and the scientific inability to clarify what these differences might be has left scientists criticizing misconceptions without being able to offer an alternative sets of positivistic beliefs. Thus, scientific dissonance is the dominant aspect of the debate. This is illustrated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) statement, which posits that “race is not a biologically determined classification. Race is a product of our social and political history.” This dissonance leads to explicit confusion within the NCI statement itself, which also states that “Despite the fact that race is not a tenable biological classification, there are valid reasons to retain it as an indicator of health outcomes” (1997).

Race persist in popular representations, but cannot be clearly captured by scientific definitions and studies. The need to name a race and to have a clear demarcation of the group conflicts with the wide human diversity that does not avail itself for such clear demarcations. The dissonance is a subject of popular and academic confusion, as the word race conveys different things in distinct discourses and in specific contexts. UNESCO’s efforts to clarify it has done much to articulate an official anti-racist position, but did not succeeded in bringing the debate to an end.

SEE ALSO Montagu, Ashley.


American Anthropological Association. “American Anthropological Association Statement on ‘Race.”’ Available from http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/racepp.htm.

American Association of Physical Anthropologists. 1996. “AAPA Statement on Biological Aspects of Race.” Available from http://www.physanth.org/positions/race.html.

Barkan, Elazar. 1992. The Retreat of Scientific Racism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Barkan, Elazar. 1996. “The Politics of the Science of Race: Ashley Montagu and UNESCO’s Anti-Racist Declarations.” In Race and Other Misadventures, edited by Larry T. Raynolds and Leonard Lieberman, 96–105. Dix Hills, NY: General Hall.

Metraux, Alfred. 1950. “UNESCO and the Racial Problem.” International Social Science Bulletin 2: 384–390.

Montagu, F. M. Ashley. 1942. Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: the Fallacy of Race. New York: Columbia University Press.

———. 1972 (1951). Statement on Race, 3rd ed. London: Oxford University Press.

National Cancer Institute. 1997. “The Meaning of Race in Science—Considerations for Cancer Research.” Available from http://deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/09apr97.htm.

UNESCO. 1952. The Race Concept; Results of an Inquiry. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO. 1961. Race and Science: The Race Question in Modern Science. New York: Columbia University.

Elazar Barkan