Note in addition to his duties as a member of the League of Sporadic Bloggers here at TMW, Jack Hitt is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine. He’s written a long folio on race (and archeology and the creation myths of our continent, among other things) for the current issue, from which the following excerpt is taken. (He’s currently travelling, so I’m posting it for him.) Tom
Does race exist? Of course it does. We see it every day. Guy steals a purse, the cop asks, What did he look like? You say, He was a six-foot-tall black guy, or a five-and-a-half-foot-tall Asian man, or a white guy with long red hair. As a set of broad descriptions of how people look, race exists as a set of visual cues we all recognize skin shade, nose shape, eyelid folds, cheekbone prominence, etc. We hold these vague blueprints of race in our heads because, as primates, one of the great tools of consciousness we possess is the ability to observe patterns in nature. It’s no surprise that we’d train this talent on ourselves.
Here’s some fun: My grandmother was Weinona Strom. Her first cousin was Strom Thurmond, which makes the late senator my first cousin, twice removed. It also makes his half-black daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, my second cousin once removed. This is Essie Mae, recently photographed beside her attractive daughter:
For those of us who have had to contend all our lives with Strummy-boo (that is the family nickname), looking at Essie Mae and seeing the senator’s face gazing out from her own is a kind of thrilling shock. But what’s far more interesting is Essie Mae’s daughter. Because Essie Mae married a man our pattern-seeking brains would recognize as black, the evidence of Strummy’s whiteness is practically gone only one generation later. I suspect that among the great grandchildren, Strummy’s presence in the Washington-Williams family will be as washed away as the Fulbe tribe is in me.
Yet the notion of race as an unchanging constant through time is as old as the Bible. When Noah’s Flood receded, the three boys Japheth, Shem, and Ham went out into the world to engender white people, Semites, and all others, respectively. This doesn’t quite shake out into the later notions of white, black, and yellow, but you get the idea. The boys are still with us. The early word “Shemitic” settled down to become “semitic.” And among amateur chroniclers writing in the ponderous style of the town historian, it’s not hard to find references to the “Hamitic race” as a way of saying “black folks.” Japheth never became a common adjective, perhaps because of that thicket of consonants.
More likely, though, it’s because whites appointed themselves the Adamic task of naming the other races. It was not until the Age of Reason that scientists tried to figureout empirically what race meant and how it came to be. The signal year was 1776, with the publication of a book called On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, by German biologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. At the time, Blumenbach’s theory had a certain symmetry that made it the very model of good science. These days, his theory seems insane. He argued that Native American Indians were the transitional race that eventually led to Asians. (Don’t try to work out the geography of this: it will make your head explode.) And another group which Blumenbach simply conjured from a faraway people, the “Malayans” evolved over time to become Africans. (Again, if you’re puzzling out the geography, watch your head.) At the center of all this change was the white race, which was constant. Blumenbach believed darkness was a sign of change from the original. All of mankind had fallen from perfection, but the darker you were, the farther you had fallen. As a result, the best way to locate the original Garden of Eden, according to Blumenbach, was to follow the trail of human. . . beauty. The hotter the women, the hunkier the men, the closer you were to what was left of God’sfirst Paradise. Here is Blumenbach explaining the etymology of the new word he hoped to coin:
I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men, I mean the Georgian. . .
Blumenbach’s theory is totally forgotten today by everybody (except maybe Georgian men). All that remains is a single relic, the word he coined for God’s most gorgeous creation “Caucasian.” The word itself is lovely. Say it: Caucasian. The word flows off the tongue like a stream trickling out of Eden. Its soothing and genteel murmur poses quite a patrician contrast to the field-labor grunts of the hard g’s in “Negroid” and “Mongoloid.” Caucasian. The exotic isolation of those mountains intimates a biblical narrative. You can almost see it when you say it: the early white forebears walking away from paradise to trek to Europe and begin the difficult task of creating Western Civilization.
The number of races has expanded and contracted wildly between Blumenbach and now, depending on the moodof the culture. The basic three have gone through scores of revisions, growing as high as Ernst Haeckel’s thirty-four different races in 1879 or Paul Topinard’s nineteen in 1885 or Stanley Garn’s nine in 1971. Today, we nervously ask if you’re white, African American, Native American, Asian, or of Hawaiian or Pacific Islander descent.
But it wasn’t that long ago that the question would have turned upon races only our great grandfathers would recognize. Let us mourn their passing: the Armenoids, the Assyroids, the Veddoids, the Orientalids, the Australoids, the DaloNordic, the Fälish, the Alpines, the Dinarics, the Fenno-Nordic, the Osteuropids, the Lapponoids, the Osterdals, the Cappadocians, the Danubians, the Ladogans, the Trondelagens, and the Pile Dwellers.
In the meantime, science has made its discoveries. The mystery of race has been solved. For the longest time, scientists were stymied by a contradiction. Surely skin tone had something to do with colder climates creating paler shades, but then why weren’t Siberians as pale as Swedes, and why were Eskimos as dark as equatorial islanders? The answer was announced in 2000, but it’s so tedious hardly anyone noticed.
Skin pigmentation changed long ago not only to protect skin from different levels of sun exposure that’s obvious but also in order to regulate the amount of vitamin D3 manufactured by the sun just under the skin. This is the theory of Professor Nina Jablonski, a paleoanthropologist with the California Academy of Sciences. So when the first swarthy inhabitants of modern Scandinavia confronted a lack of ultraviolet light, their kind quickly selected out for paler children whose skin would manufacture enough vitamin D3 to keep them healthy. Meanwhile, Eskimos arrived in the Arctic dark-skinned. The local cuisine of seal and whale is rich in vitamin D3, so the skin was never summoned into action. Evolution has one big rule. If there’s no pressure on the system to change, then it doesn’t bother. So Eskimos remained dark. When we look at the different races, according to Jablonski’s theory, what we’re actually seeing is not “superiority” or “good people” or “race.” All that we are seeing, the only thing we are seeing when we look at skin color, is a meandering trail of vitamin D3 adaptation rates.