When Race is Social, Not Science

Prof. Linda Martin Alcoff wrote a stunning editorial in Sunday’s New York Times about critical race theory, claiming that folks in Arizona have confiscated “books and other materials” in a bid to “oversee what can be taught” in schools.

Critical race theory tackles the topic of race as a social construct, and is central to a curriculum in, for example, ethnic studies.

The issue isn’t about whether “race” exists from a scientific perspective (we are all the same race) but rather, what does race mean socially? Economically? Politically?

But why bury the books?

Alcoff says that an Arizona law, passed in 2010, gives school boards the authority to take actions if the curriculum promotes a race or class of people or if a course is taught that’s designed for a particular ethnic group.

You have to wonder what would happen to an introductory class in Native American studies in such a climate.

Alcoff makes the point that, in order to critique race, we need to talk about it. And where better than our schools?

Lately I’ve been steeped in ways in which scientific discourse frames American Indians and one of the most recursive issues rests on the presumption that science is devoid of value judgments. That science is somehow pure; that objectivity provides an armament against bias.

But history clearly demonstrates that science has championed theories that herald race as a bona fide marker of intelligence, athleticism and creativity.

So we must continue to talk about it. Loudly.

See Alcoff’s opinion column at:


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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