Humanism & Anthropology: Allies in the Fight against Racism

Just seventeen days ago a man named Robert Bowers perpetrated the deadliest attack ever on Jews in the United States (and, yes, only six since the last mass shooting in our nation). “All the Jews must die!” Bowers reportedly yelled on the morning of October 27 as he opened fire and killed eleven people attending Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Apparently, after the gunman was injured in a shootout with police, he repeated that sentiment in the ambulance and upon arriving at a hospital where medical staff, some of whom were Jewish, treated his wounds.

This attack, like the one committed by Dylann Roof at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015 and another committed October 24 by a Kentucky white supremacist, prompted me to contemplate, once again, what’s so terribly wrong with the idea of racial purity.

I am 99.2 percent Ashkenazi Jew according to 23andMe. The service, like several others on the market, tracks and tests your DNA. It offers clients a deep dive into their health genome as well as their relatedness to other humans and our evolutionary cousins, the Neanderthals. My genes tell the story of my family’s geographic isolation and ethnic inbreeding not unlike other Eastern Europeans of centuries past.

By all rights, my strong European pedigree should ally itself nicely to the most ardent supporters of race separation and white nationalism. After all, for most racists in America and in Europe, having such a strong European heritage would be considered an asset. That is, except for one very major issue: I’m the wrong type of European.

Regardless of my nonbelief and avowed humanism, I cannot escape and nor do I wish to deny my cultural identity. Even as racists will look at me, hear my name, and lump me in with their views of what a “Jew” is and how “they” must be handled. Such stereotyping is easy because it doesn’t require those who hold racist beliefs to give any individual their personhood or value.

This not only deletes my inclusion in the eugenic preferences and fantasies of the alt-right (for which I’m proud), it also reveals the inept and deeply wrong thinking upon which all racism is founded. For each of us willing to understand, genomic science offers the knowledge that we are one human family that has developed an array of genetic variation to meet the challenges of the environments in which our immediate families or past ancestors survived and thrived.

Believing they’re from pure stock, most modern racists and neo-Nazis may not have their DNA tested or will adamantly deny results if they show ancestry that invalidates their purity claims. Joan Donovan, whose postdoctoral work at UCLA looked at how white nationalists use DNA ancestry tests to prove racial purity, noted that white supremacists who learned they had African or Jewish ancestry didn’t “reckon with their genealogical disorientation.” Instead they turned to conspiracy theories (like the one that claimed employees at a DNA testing company had admitted to altering tests to “screw with racists”), or otherwise rationalized that they knew better.

And yet, while they may look in the mirror and see “whiteness” staring back, their genomes tell a different story.

Racism isn’t new and since humans are pattern-seeking primates we tend to invent, reinvent, and invest in certain ideas, both bad and good, for our social health and identity. Modern day racism may seem like an aberration, and it is abhorrent to most laypersons, scientists, and anthropologists. However, race theory and eugenics once had a stronghold, a fact that must be owned, not forgotten.

Who else but anthropologists, of whom I am one, could devise a plausible sounding schema such as “savagery, barbarism, and civilization” as a way to describe that all culture goes through identical forms of social evolution? (Of course it doesn’t happen that way.) It takes little effort to anticipate that white European culture would be the pinnacle of “civilization” in that classification, especially since white Europeans invented it.

In its nineteenth-century form, early anthropology was used to support and justify tyranny. It allowed itself to be a tool of both social and racial segregation. It was used to justify internal social strife as well as external rampant imperialism. Its ideas were used for the continuance of human bondage and suffering and it aided in the destruction of indigenous cultures, languages, religions, and societies.

Clearly, though, not every scientist, philosopher, or anthropologist of the time supported eugenics. T.H. Huxley, Joseph Hooker, Asa Gray, William H. Draper, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Charles Darwin each rejected the theory of racial superiority, especially when used to justify human bondage and other forms of slavery. They saw the idea of such superiority for what it is: a deeply ill-informed belief that one’s own group of people or nation is superior to that of other cultures, groups, and nations. Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, two major activists for human rights and women’s suffrage, saw racism as an evil as well. These are just a few examples of notable people who accepted others as equal to themselves and different cultures as equal to their own.

Into the twentieth century and through the 1930s, eugenics was a popular research area for some scientists, even as it was quickly dropping out of favor with modern anthropology. European eugenics “research” served to bolster the ontological beliefs of fascist regimes and their terrible deeds—deeds that would lead to massive ethic and racial cleansing and that would engulf Europe and half the planet in a war ostensibly fought by the Allies to save secular democracy and human dignity.

Fast-forwarding to present day, our humanistic ethics and the anthropological discipline’s worldview has improved greatly. In fact, the American Anthropological Association’s best practices demand that we “do no harm” to people and cultures around the globe, that each person should be given deep respect, and that helping to understand each other is essential to each future generation’s success. This certainly aligns with not only the Humanist Manifesto III, but also the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The suffering of past tragedies based on race policy and eugenics need not become just hallmarks of world history. They remain constant reminders of our current selves, especially since humans in some parts of the globe still commit genocide and accept eugenics, a discredited pseudoscience, as a valid area of scientific investigation.

As the Tree of Life massacre has reminded us once again, our human ability to be intolerant towards one another is alive and well. It may have been previously considered fringe, but in the last few years open racism appears to have become normalized in American political discourse and personal attitude.

It certainly won’t be anthropology or humanism that participates in oppression. Both have grown too grounded in verifiable data while becoming increasingly diverse to fall backwards into pseudoscience and racial stereotyping. Both serve to lift the burden of pain off of people. They can help to educate in so many languages and venues. They can open doors and minds to tear down racial violence and make way for a more common and humanistic understanding of each other.

In 1971, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead co-published a book entitled A Rap on Race. The book came out during a turbulent time in US and global history. Racial segregation and riots had occurred in numerous American cities, and the United States was still knee deep in the Vietnam War. Yet, their book was one of candor and intimacy. Written by an activist and an anthropologist to highlight injustice while working to build understanding of what was happening in America at the time.

In 2018, not only must we continue to study and highlight the reasons why individuals and groups act the way they do, but as social activists we must stand for social justice and the oppressed as well.

As activists, diplomats, educators, and humanitarians, we work and travel in circles that will lead us to change for the better. Humanism and anthropology are entwined emissaries for greater personal and group understanding of the world we share.