In June 1935, Wellfleet summer resident Carleton Coons, a Harvard University professor and archeologist, helped supervise the excavation of Native American remains, stone weapons, and shell fragments in the Hemenway’s Point area of Eastham’s Nauset Marsh. The results of that work are now preserved in the Peabody Museum at Harvard.
In his influential and controversial 1962 book, The Origin of Race, and its 1965 sequel, The Living Races of Man, Coons divided modern humanity into seven subspecies of Homo sapiens. He categorized the Nauset Indians he had studied years before — the people who had inhabited the Outer Cape for many hundreds of years before the large-scale 17th-century European migration — as “Mongoloids,” a group that included the people of north and south Asia as well as the pre-colonial Americas. The physical features he noted were brown eyes, straight and coarse black hair, beaked noses, and reddish-brown skin.
At first glance, Coons’s words appear merely descriptive, typical of the scientific penchant for classification. But Coons also believed that some “races” reached the Homo sapiens stage in evolution before others and therefore had achieved a higher degree of civilization than other “races.” As one might expect, Caucasians (or, his word, “Caucasoids”) were at the top of his hierarchy. Coons was not alone among anthropologists in having adopted this racist mindset, but many scientists had not only rejected it by 1965 but had also begun to abandon the very idea of race.
Race, as it is taught in nearly every college science department in the country today, is understood to be a sociocultural phenomenon whose roots are cultural, not biological. The phenotypic (that is, physical) features that generally distinguish human “races” from one another (e.g., skin color) change gradually across the landscape — what evolutionary biologists refer to as “eco-geographic variation” — but do so without clear boundary lines.
It wasn’t until the late 20th century that genetic studies would be able to categorically refute the existence of biogenetically distinct races and demonstrate with absolute certainty that there is no gene for “race.” As most students of racial history know, however, the belief in the concept of race has long been lodged in the American psyche, and scientific truth hasn’t been able to remove it.
The important thing to understand in regard to Carleton Coons’s theories and ideas is that they were not based on an objective compilation and synthesis of data and facts. The truth of the matter is that he had been conditioned to think the way he did by a concept of race that had firmly taken root in America by the 1700s and that still held sway in the 1960s. In short, bigotry was embedded in his way of thinking from the start.
Over time in America, “race” became a synonymous descriptor for people of different ethnicities and socioeconomic levels. Racial “science” was used to link intellectual and cultural differences to physical differences among modern humans. And over time, as theories of racial inferiority and superiority took hold, they were translated into rigid racialized categories and embedded into law, social institutions, and cultural mores.
Which brings us to the present controversy over Critical Race Theory (CRT), which was conceived in the 1970s by legal scholars trying to understand why the civil rights legislation passed in the 1950s and ’60s had not succeeded in eliminating racial inequality in America.
The core ideas that make up CRT are straightforward. First, American racism doesn’t manifest itself only as the behavior of prejudiced individuals; it is systemic. The systemic nature of American racial inequality is woven into America’s cultural assumptions, social structures, economic policies, and legal systems. It manifests itself in our laws, criminal justice practices, voting policies, health-care system, and schools. As a result, race consciousness is deemed a necessary component of overcoming racial stratification.
Critical Race Theory is not an attack on white Americans, nor is it intended to indoctrinate schoolchildren. And it is most definitely not racist. To label as racist the examination of the manner in which society and the social structures deeply embedded in that society are racist is patently absurd.
The artist Lin-Manuel Miranda has had the grace to accept the merits of the argument from those who criticized the casting of the film In the Heights for its inherent colorism. His transparency and honesty stand in stark contrast to the Congressional Republicans who, engaging in strategic denial, expose a subterranean racism with their politically motivated attacks on voting accessibility and cynically orchestrated dog-whistle condemnations of Critical Race Theory.
Carleton Coons was a racist, and I wonder if his racism spilled over into malicious, overt bigotry. My guess is that it did not. But I also wonder how Coons would respond today if he were confronted with the fact-based understanding of race now universally accepted in the scientific community, one that irrefutably argues that human physical variations do not fit a racial model.
It is long past time for us all to recognize the threadbare “I’m not a racist, but…” argument against CRT for what it is — defense of an evil status quo.
Andrew Hay lives in Eastham.