Notes on ‘race’ in a supposedly ‘non-racial’ time

But race is the child of racism, not the father.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me, 2015.

Thinking through differences

The drafting of a commissioned article on the contested concept of ‘race’ for a special issue of the Norwegian sociological journal Sosiologisk Tidsskrift  later this year has availed me with an opportunity to re-visit some of the extensive social science literature on this topic.
If Americans can regularly be observed talking excessively and incessantly about ‘race’, the reverse can be said to apply to Scandinavians, who have learned to avoid the term as best they can. Given that people on both sides of the Atlantic in actual fact seem unable to transcend the limitations of our racial imaginaries, as Alan H. Goodman, Yolanda T. Moses and Joseph L. Jones rightly note in their recent important volume on ‘race’ (p. 28), both approaches do however come with specific costs. One such observable cost in the Scandinavian and Norwegian context is what often amounts to a public denial of racism based on phenotypical markers relating to skin colour. With the exception of Eastern European Romas, surveys in Norway from recent years indicate that Norwegian-Somalis experience the highest levels of prejudice and labour market and housing discrimination. If we are to offer sociological reasons for this state of affairs, we must of course note that these are complex and multifaceted, and probably related to factors such as Norwegian-Somalis being among the most recent arrivals among immigrants and refugees in Norway, the fact that it is a group which has a relatively low skills and education base, low labour market participation rates, especially for women, and that they are overwhelmingly Muslim. However, it would be naive to think that prejudices, racism and discrimination against Norwegian-Somalis are completely unrelated to the fact of Norwegian-Somalis having dark skin. And so part of the price of our having learned not to talk about ‘race’ in Norway is that we do not talk about racism based on perceptions of ‘race’ in racial imaginaries either. And this, as my Norwegian-African friends will in many cases readily testify, is a problem, in as much as it means that we currently talk a great deal more about stereotypes, prejudices, racism and discrimination targeting Muslims and Jews in Norway, than about the ways in which individuals of African background and descent are targeted in and through the same phenomena, and are made to feel outsiders to ‘Norwegianness’ on an everyday basis.
What has to my mind perhaps been most striking in reviewing the available scholarship in this field is the discernable absence of any relevant scholarship and discussion of the concept of ‘race’ in Norwegian anthropology. I might of course have missed something here, but the general point still stands. My anthropological contemporary and fellow anthropology student at the University of Bergen, Margrete Fredriksen, wrote a noteworthy cand. polit. dissertation about conceptions of ‘whiteness’ among Norwegian females in relationships with males of African background in Norway back in 2001, and there is of course also the seminal work of the late Marianne Gullestad (1946-2008) to look back on 
, but apart from this, there is precious little of it. Which is, in a sense, quite remarkable, especially in light of early Norwegian anthropology’s close and extremely problematic links with the paradigm of so-called ‘scientific racism’ and eugenics, and contributions to German Nazism’s and German Nazi anthropology’s ideas about the supposed existence of a ‘superior’ ‘Nordic race.’ For unknown to most Norwegian anthropology graduates to this very day (since none of this is ever taught in our departments), Norwegian phychical anthropologists were between ca. 1890 and 1940 obsessed with the ideas of ‘scientific racism’, ‘race’ and ‘racial thinking’ and establishing ‘scientific’ criteria for the supposed existence of a ‘Nordic race’ through measuring and classifying the Norwegian population.
The Norwegian military doctor and anthropologist Halfdan Bryn (1864-1933) was a close associate and a strong influence on the leading Nazi German racial biologist, Hans F. K. Günther (1891-1968), whose pamphlet Kleine Rassenlehre was the bestselling title of its kind in Nazi Germany.
Günther, who had married a Norwegian student of German in the early 1920s, developed his ideas about the ‘Nordic race’ whilst living for some years with his Norwegian wife in the small town of Skien in Norway in the 1920s, where he also established contacts with the man who would become the Class A traitor and Nazi collaborator in Norwegian history, Vidkun Quisling. Günther, who got an appointment as a professor of ‘racial science’ at the University of Jena courtesy of an appointment by a Nazi provincial minister in 1933, was the racial scientist who presented the supposedly ‘scientific’ arguments for the racist and anti-Semitic Nurnberg Laws at the German Nazi Party NSDAP’s Party Congress in 1935. According to the historians Terje Emberland and Matthew Kott, who has written the standard work on the German SS in Norway during the Nazi Occupation of Norway from 1940 to 1945,
Günther’s ideas about the ‘Nordic race’ exacted a profound and lasting influence on the German SS chief and war criminal Heinrich Himmler, and goes a long way towards explaining why Himmler and the SS paid such an inordinate attention to SS presence and recruitment in Norway during World War II.
The idea that invocations of ‘race’ and ‘racial thinking’ in Norwegian and Scandinavian history has been limited to the far right would of course be unsustainable on simple empirical grounds. People familar with the history of ‘racial classification’ and its close links to post-Enlightenment ‘scientific racism’ will be aware of the fact that the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné in his scientific work placed the Nordic indigenous population, the Northern Saami, at the very bottom of the ladder among human populations. The idea of the ‘racial inferiority’ of the Saamis (then known by the derogatory term Lapps) has had a long life and afterlife in the Nordic countries: The Norwegian parliament, which untill the 1970s by and large lined up in favour of a policy of forced assimilation of the Saami, described the Saami as belonging to an ‘inferior race’ in acts of Parliament in 1905. The late Norwegian anthropologist Harald Eidheim (1925-2012) in his important work on the mixed Norwegian and coastal Saami municipality of Nesseby in the province of Finmark in the 1950s found that local Saamis, who in the face of the pernicious stigmatization of the Saamis as ‘unclean’ and ‘unhygienic’ which the Norwegian state’s long-standing and often brutal assimilationist policies had generated carefully avoided giving away any signs which would identify them as Saami in public, referred to themselves as members of an ‘inferior race’ in discussions with the anthropologist. And not to mention the widespread support, which included the leading medical scientists at the University of Oslo, for the Norwegian Sterilization Law of 1933, through which the Norwegian Parliament provided licence for the state’s sterilization of itinerant Roma- and Romani-speaking Norwegian ‘taters’ untill the 1970s, and was rationalized through ‘racial thinking’, supported even by the leading Norwegian social democrats of the day.

Anthropology and the concept of ‘race’

Even though ‘racial imaginaries’ never seem to leave us completely, and one from time to time witnesses attempts to re-introduce thoroughly de-bunked and discredited biological concepts of ‘race’, whether in the form of Norwegian journalist of science Bjørn Vassnes
waxing lyrical over the unscientific and unsustainable musings of a Nicholas Wade,
or Norwegian pop sociologists Harald Eia and Ole Martin Ihle lending credence to Charles Murray’s ideas about the IQ levels of African-Americans on national Norwegian television and in books,
and pretending that IQ measurements has not long since been discredited as a means of testing intelligence among population groups,
it has by and large become received wisdom in scientific circles that ‘race’ is nothing but a socially and historically constructed concept, and not a biological reality. But the story of how we got from a world in which the notion of biological ‘races’ was received popular and scholarly wisdom to the one which most of us inhabit today has not received much attention, though it deserves exploring.
Modern anthropology has many unsung heroes, but in this context perhaps none more so than the late Ashley Montagu. Montagu (1905-99), whose real name was Israel Ehrenberg, a British Jew born in London’s East End at a time of regular anti-Semitic riots, received his education under the tutelage of Bronislaw Malinowski at the LSE and Franz Boas at Columbia University. It was of course the German-born and Jewish Boas who was the anthropological pioneer in de-bunking the claims of the then hegemonic racial eugenicists in the US of the day, and training a whole generation of cultural anthropologists who adhered to the virtues of the nascent cultural turn in anthropology, but Montagu was the by far most radical and consistent in so doing. A principled defender of civil rights for African-Americans and women’s rights at a time during which this was far from kosher even in anthropological circles, Montagu only held a tenured post once during his life time, at Rutgers University, whose anthropology department he established in 1948. He was hounded from his professorate at Rutgers University in 1954 due to his vocal and public opposition to Senator Eugene Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunt, and spent the rest of his life as a most prolific anthropological freelancer surviving on the revenue from his plentiful books and articles. This was of course at a time during which many US university administrators were actively involved in secretly reporting academics suspected of Communist sympathies to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and blacklisting them in order to ensure that they never obtained tenure, whilst outwardly professing the virtues of the academic freedom which the targeted academics were deemed to threaten by virtue of their alleged political sympathies, as Jonathan R. Cole notes in a recent edited volume.
David H. Price in his pioneering work on the FBI’s surveillance and persecution of activist anthropologists suspected and accused of Communist sympathies in the 1950s  , and the then AAA leadership’s connivance, participation and complicity in the FBI’s surveillance and persecution, notes that Montagu resigned in protest against the AAA’s failure to stand up to McCarthyism in 1955. Montagu, the author of the bestselling Man’s Most Dangerous Myth : The Fallacy of Race, first published in 1942 and now in its sixth edition and still in print had already by 1936 decided that the concept of ‘race’ was beyond analytical rescue and that anthropology would have to abandon it altogether in favour of the concept of ‘ethnic groups.’
Through historical circumstance, Montagu became the main drafter of the pathbreaking yet ultimately very controversial First UNESCO Statement on Race in 1950, which a group of leading anthropological and biology experts which also included the far more internationally known French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss had been commissioned to write by UNESCO’s first director Julian Huxley.
Montagu’s penchant for polemics meant that he was far from uncontroversial in anthropological circles either, but as both Ronald Wald Sussman
and Michael Yudell imply in their fine recent work on the histories of the concept of ‘race’ in and beyond anthropology, Montagu’s arguments have stood the test of time, and far more so than most of anthropological theory in the time that he lived and worked.
What Montagu could not possibly have foreseen was of course that the concept of ‘ethnic groups’, consecrated in Norwegian and international anthropology through the late Fredrik W. Barth’s (1928-2016)
classic Ethnic Groups And Boundaries from 1969 would by the 1990s even be put to use by uneducated and marginalised white Norwegian neo-Nazis as the substitute for the discredited term ‘race’ that Montagu insisted that it was not supposed to be, in a subtle attempt to evade determination by society at large as what they were, namely racists.

And now…what?

The towering giant of Afro-American letters and early US sociology, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), was, as Kwame Anthony Appiah has pointed out in a brilliant recent little book
the first to realize that the retention of the concept of ‘race’ as a social and historical, rather than a biological construct, enabled a form of ‘racial solidarity’ which could and would be crucial in anti-racist struggles from the civil rights struggle in the USA to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
We now live in a late-modern neo-liberal world in which social, economic and political elites waste no time or opportunity in declaring that ‘we are all post-racial now’,
in professing their own alleged ‘colourblindness’
and in declaring that to insist on ‘race’ as a social and historical lived experience with real and tangible consequences including in the biological lives of ordinary people of colour in Europe and the USA is to subscribe to the fallacies of biological concepts of ‘race’.
All whilst enabling and abetting social, legal and political means for preserving white privileges and hegemonies, and working hard to undermine some of the pivotal achievements in the struggle for equal rights and dignity.
I have no clear answer to the analytical quandary this poses, but think Alana Lentin’s recent question as to whether ‘eliminating ‘race’ in our time obscures its trace’ is a question worth posing.
And that doing so, as a matter of course, does not imply succumbing to the fallacies of biological conceptualizations of ‘race’, and resucitating all the epistemological and ontological horror which come with that.

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