Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.4 (2003) 600-602
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Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie. By Tukufu Zuberi (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2000) 193pp. $24.95
Zuberi analyzes the origins, practices, and flaws of "racial statistics" in contemporary social science. In service of this project, Zuberi synthesizes texts from a variety of disciplines, including the history of statistics and the social sciences, the history of slavery and the African Diaspora, and methodological analyses of statistical practice. His goal is to reveal the racist origins of the classification schemes and standard statistical techniques that, he claims, vitiate the use of "race" as a variable. He calls for "deracializing the logic of social statistics" in the name of developing "racial statistics for racial justice" (134), but the book is too brief and incomplete to achieve its goal. Throughout, there are confusions in language and definition, particularly with regard to key concepts and definitions of "race" and "statistics," which make it difficult to know exactly what Zuberi is proposing.
It is well known that from the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, Euro-American theories of human origin and development were imbued with racist notions of higher and lower races. It is also well known that part and parcel with the writings of theorists who made major scientific developments of the biological and social sciences often came now-discredited conceptions of genetic or biological differences among human ethnic groups. The question that Zuberi poses is the extent to which these now-discredited notions (for example, [End Page 600] polygenesis of human origins, the hierarchy of human groups, Social Darwinism, and eugenics) continue to saturate and hence compromise statistical practice and data collection. He detects an abiding racist tradition, as well as an antiracist reaction to it (beginning with William E.B. Du Bois) which he proposes as a model for proper social scientific work. So "racial statistics" can be both racist and antiracist.
But what exactly does Zuberi mean by "racial statistics"? "Statistics" in common parlance signifies both data—that is, numerical information—and the scientific discipline that deals with the collection, classification, analysis, and interpretation of numerical facts or data. Zuberi spends most of his analysis on the history of the scientific disciplines, attempting to trace the racist ideas of the entire corpus of biology, statistics, and social science in fifty pages. Quotations from Carolus Linnaeus, Francis Galton, Karl Pearson, Herbert Spencer, Arthur Jensen, William Schockley, et al. march through his pages to show how racial prejudices saturated the work of these scholars.
In this context, Zuberi fails to provide any understanding of what truly motivated the statisticians in this group—for example, positive versus negative eugenics—what they meant by race (often a notion of societal class or country of origin), and the specific prejudices that they evidenced (as in the case of Pearson's antisemitic commentaries). There is little disagreement that the views of such statistical giants as Galton, Pearson, and Ronald Fisher about eugenics motivated their study of statistical methodology and the creation of specific tools like the intraclass correlation coefficient for measuring heritability and the analysis of variance.1 But are the foundations of the contemporary statistics that emerged from their work racist as a consequence?
Zuberi's treatment of the historical grounding of the data systems is briefer. He reports that "A data revolution accompanied the social transformation that culminated in emancipation of the formerly enslaved Africans.... These new data gave statistics a new area of study—society" (35). In contrast to his attempt to trace, albeit cursorily, the intellectual origins of scientific racism, he presents no equivalent administrative, intellectual, or political history of how official statistics in general, and official statistics on race in particular, developed. His explanation of the demise of racialism in biology and anthropology is political. But even if his argument that the defeat of Nazism and the success of the civil-rights and anticolonial struggles were responsible for discrediting racist thinking is not completely accurate, many contemporary geneticists have certainly come to the conclusion that...