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Robin Nelson sits in her office

Robin Nelson sits in her office

Confronting the Past

By helping pen a new statement on race for the AAPA, Assistant Professor Robin Nelson hopes physical anthropologists can grow from past mistakes.

By helping pen a new statement on race for the AAPA, Assistant Professor Robin Nelson hopes physical anthropologists can grow from past mistakes. 

The atrocities justified using the findings of early physical anthropologists detail some of the worst in human history: the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, Apartheid in South Africa, the sterilizing of Mexican-American women in the 1970s, slavery in the United States, and countless others.

“The horrors are big,” Assistant Professor of Anthropology Robin Nelson says, referencing the legacy of race science in anthropology. “The history is bad.”

During the 18th and 19th centuries, so-called race science was a popular strand of physical anthropology that attempted to link moral and intellectual aptitude to race. It was bad science from the start. Race is a social construct with no basis in biology; intellect is no more linked to race than eye color. But that didn’t stop the field’s fraught findings from being used to justify racism and murder.

“We as physical anthropologists, have always had a hand in race science. Sadly we created it. Craniometry, skull measurements, making hierarchies of people out of different races—all of that is in essence the birthplace of modern anthropology,” Nelson says. “Everyone knows that’s our history but everyone wants to say, ‘That’s not what we do now, we don’t need to talk about that.’”

Nelson does want to talk about it.

One of just a handful of African American physical anthropologists in higher education nationwide, Nelson has devoted her life to this scholarship. But this intersection of racism and bad science remains a personal hurdle for her. Anthropology is different now and at the center of important work, but the history is still there. To this day, racists repackage race science to provide cover for hate speech.

A late-19th-century illustration shows an alleged similarity between “Irish Iberian” and “Negro” facial features in contrast to the higher “Anglo-Teutonic.” Image courtesy Wikimedia.

A late-19th-century illustration shows an alleged similarity between “Irish Iberian” and “Negro” facial features in contrast to the higher “Anglo-Teutonic.” Image courtesy Wikimedia.

In 1996, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) tried to right this wrong, publishing a “Statement on Race” that debunked race science. The statement explained how “race”—effectively a construct grouping people by skin color, hair texture, and width of facial features—consists of just a handful of the thousands of traits that makes humans human. The statement explained that all people—regardless of race—share 99.9% of DNA.

Releasing the statement was a progressive move at the time, and Nelson commends the effort, but the last 23 years have revealed imperfections. The problem with the AAPA’s statement, Nelson says, is it only talked about the science. By relying on jargon and ignoring the social and cultural impact of race—that there is no race without racism—anthropologists muddled their message and missed an opportunity to talk to the masses.

“The language is too clinical and technical. What I’ve learned through my work is that science communication is a bit of an art. You can’t assume that you are actually explaining things to people clearly. You may not be,” Nelson says. “What does a ‘breeding pool’ mean? Or a ‘breeding isolate’ mean to people who are not geneticists? Nothing. What does even a population mean—the way we define populations as biological anthropologists is a very specific thing.”

Last November, Nelson joined several other anthropologists from around the nation to update the Statement on Race. The goal was to make it more clear, more accountable, and more pointed when it came to the impact of race science from a cultural and social perspective.

The group presented the revised statement to the executive committee of the AAPA on March 8, 2019, where it was unanimously approved.

The statement succeeds in its efforts. The science is still there, but situated next to it is strong and clear language that speaks to experts and laypeople alike:

“Race does not provide an accurate representation of human biological variation. It was never accurate in the past, and it remains inaccurate when referencing contemporary human populations. Humans are not divided biologically into distinct continental types or racial genetic clusters. Instead, the Western concept of race must be understood as a classification system that emerged from, and in support of, European colonialism, oppression, and discrimination. It thus does not have its roots in biological reality, but in policies of discrimination. Because of that, over the last five centuries, race has become a social reality that structures societies and how we experience the world. In this regard, race is real, as is racism, and both have real biological consequences.”

It also unequivocally owns the role anthropologists played in race science and the negative impact it had on society, and pledges to not make similar mistakes moving forward.

“Over our history, the AAPA, and many of its members, have been complicit in producing and reifying racist ideologies via the misuse, falsification, or biased production of scientific information. We acknowledge this history and stress that we should not paper over it even as we seek to end these practices and prevent the reemergence of misconceptions about race in the future.”

At about 2,800 words, the statement is shorter than any research paper Nelson has written, but the impact could prove to be far greater. Not just to those within the anthropology community but fellow academics as well.

“I know a lot of people outside of anthropology are giving it to their classes,” Nelson says. “I’ve heard of a lot of folks sharing it with family members they’ve had hard conversations with.”

Nelson says she felt a responsibility to see this statement through. She wants to make it easier for the next generation to thrive in a field that’s been historically hard to access for African Americans.

This document doesn’t fix the problems wholesale, though. It won’t level the playing field or recalibrate the skewed scales to zero. But Nelson hopes it serves as a tool that could be used to someday reset the scales.

“We’re hoping the document starts as an opener for conversations,” Nelson says. “That this is really just the beginning of the conversations we need to be having.”


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Robin Nelson has taught in the Department of Anthropology for three years.