Friday, December 28, 2007
Brattain on Race, Racism, and Antiracism: UNESCO and the Politics of Presenting Science to the Postwar Public
Posted by Mary L. Dudziak
Race, Racism, and Antiracism: UNESCO and the Politics of Presenting Science to the Postwar Public by Michelle Brattain, Georgia State University, appears in the new issue of the American Historical Review, now available on-line. Here's the AHR editor's description: In “Race, Racism, and Antiracism: UNESCO and the Politics of Presenting Science to the Postwar Public,” Michelle Brattain examines how the concept of race was reconstructed as a biological category, through a history of an international, post–World War II, antiracist public education project sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The project, intended to discredit Nazi‐style scientific racism, ultimately produced two collectively authored scientific “statements on race.” The first statement's claim that race was more “social myth” than “biological fact” was rejected by many scientists, who subsequently forced UNESCO to convene a second panel to revise the statement. The ensuing controversy, Brattain argues, should not be seen as merely an academic or disciplinary concern but was rather a historical artifact of race science itself. In spite of the lack of compelling evidence either confirming or denying racial differences, the UNESCO deliberations revealed the extent to which a belief in race and racial differences was a default assumption that fixed the logical structure of the debate. Although ostensibly antiracist, the postwar reconstruction of race as a natural category left science vulnerable to racist manipulation and enabled later demands for “colorblind” policy. While historians have frequently analyzed archaic constructions of races and racial identities, Brattain argues that they must extend historical analysis to the race category more generally and interrogate its use in historical scholarship. The preservation of race as an ahistorical, natural category, she concludes, whether as reformed by antiracist scientists or unintentionally reconstructed in the work of historians, compromises antiracism and facilitates racism.