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The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium
By Joseph L. Graves, Jr. '77
Rutgers University Press, 2001
Reviewed by James Millette
THIS IS A THOUGHTFUL AND TIMELY BOOK, offered at the turn of the new millennium, on an idea that did not exist in full measure at the start of the old millennium, and which will die away only unwillingly as the human story of the next thousand years unfolds.
The idea is race, a subject that has perplexed the minds, unraveled the emotions, and complicated the lives of millions of people over the last 500 years. There are those who believe, erroneously, that race "has always been with us." And there are those who do not. Joseph L. Graves, Jr., is one of them. The concept of race has a beginning, but as yet no end, because some of the forces that gave it birth are still alive and well. In so saying, Graves, professor of evolutionary biology holding appointments in life sciences at Arizona State University West and in African American studies at Arizona State University Main, targets some of these forces in the organizational design of his work. Ironically, they are fictional.
The emperor had no clothes; but who would tell him so? The only one who dared was the little boy, uninhibited by the presumption that emperors are not supposed to be naked. Graves appropriated his title from Hans Christian Andersen's classic fable because it "likens to how we as Americans have been duped by the myth of our socially racial categories."
In strict scientific terms, race is a myth. But the mythology is so powerful that those who question its validity were for a long time, and sometimes still are, frequently supposed to be foolish and ignorant, while those who indulged, and sometimes still do indulge in racist superstition, have profited mightily from their beliefs and are to be counted among the powerful, the wealthy, the cultured, and the educated.
Intellectual sophisticates, lay and clerical, and hard-nosed businessmen invented race, or, perhaps more argumentatively, reinvented it with vigor. There is these days a thriving literature debating the origins of race.
Graves holds that, until the opening up of the New World, the concept of race, and more particularly its exploitation, was undeveloped. In the process of establishing the new societies (the Americas, as they came to be called), the idea of race became the founding dogma of a type of social engineering based on the notion of human inequality, the scale of which was previously unknown outside the confines of barbarism and religious and political zealotry.
We are, of course, talking about slavery. And since New World slavery was invented, race has never looked back. If it was once true to say "No bishop, no king!" it is even truer to say, when contemplating the history of the racial world: "No slavery, no race." New World slavery brought race onto the historical stage. The paradox is that men thought slavery was rationalized by racial difference.
Wearing his evolutionary biological hat, Gates provides an extensive and erudite narration of the scientific arguments against race, as well as some of the soi-disant "arguments" of some of the main proponents of the notion that race is firmly based on scientific principles and investigations. And if we think the disappearance of New World slavery destroyed the edifice of racial belief, he provides evidence to the contrary. As slavery lay on its deathbed in the late 19th century, the "new imperialism" was putting race, its ideological offspring, to work in support of theories of social Darwinism, which spawned modern day colonialism, super-exploitation, eugenics, Nazism, apartheid, and the neo-social Darwinism of modern-day IQ theorizing.
Graves has more than adequately shown himself the equal of the large task he has undertaken. His book is a significant intervention in the ongoing debate and will do much to enliven the discussion. It should find interested audiences among historians; social, moral, and political philosophers; African American and diaspora scholars; and students, biologists, scientists, and general readers. It will also, undoubtedly, attract its quota of critics. Perhaps its greatest strength is the witness it offers to the unfailing interdisciplinarity of many of the questions touching on the lives and experiences of black people, and the regularity with which these questions invoke the consideration of some of the larger issues facing modern society.