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Wash U. anthropologist: Race doesn’t really exist

‘The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea’ by Robert Wald Sussman

Race is a social concept, not a scientific one.

“Biology shows us there are no real races in the world,” Washington University physical anthropology professor Robert Wald Sussman told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Monday. “Humans are just humans, basically.”

Sussman explores how religion, pseudo-science and prejudice have been used since the Spanish Inquisition to promote racism, eugenics and anti-immigration policies in his book “The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea.”

Race isn’t an issue of black versus white. Separating people by race into “us” versus “them” categories began as an economic tool, Sussman said. Jews were some of the first targets.

At the time of the Spanish Inquisition, there were two theories: monogenetic and polygenetic. Both came down to religion. The monogenetic followers believed everyone was created by God, but people farther from Europe were degenerate and needed to be civilized and educated. The polygenetic followers believed that people outside of western Europe were created before God created Adam, making them sub-human.

Racial divisions persist, based on economic status, religion, skin color and heritage.

“It means that we can divide the continent and our nation into different races no matter what we think and no matter what people think, and that’s what we do,” Sussman said. “If they don’t like browns now, people coming in from South America, that’s a race. If they don’t like blacks staying in America, that’s a race. And people who are racist just divide it that way.”

Overall, Sussman said attempts to combat racism are succeeding, but it’s been “very slow.” That, in part, is because racism is everywhere, he said.

“Racism is what we’ve been taught. We’ve been taught to look at the world and look at how we live and categorize different people different ways, and that’s a thing that’s taught to us by our schools, by our churches, by the radio — everything we look at is related to, in some ways, race.

“We have to keep teaching people that people are people, and they’re not one race or another.”


Washington University anthropologist Robert Wald Sussman talks about his book, "The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea."  

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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