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Relocating anti-racist science: the 1950 UNESCO Statement on Race and economic development in the global South


This essay revisits the drafting of the first UNESCO Statement on Race (1950) in order to reorient historical understandings of mid-twentieth-century anti-racism and science. Historians of science have primarily interpreted the UNESCO statements as an oppositional project led by anti-racist scientists from the North Atlantic and concerned with dismantling racial typologies, replacing them with population-based conceptions of human variation. Instead of focusing on what anti-racist scientists opposed, this article highlights the futures they imagined and the applied social-science projects that anti-racist science drew from and facilitated. The scientific experts who participated in drafting the first UNESCO Statement on Race played important roles in late colonial, post-colonial and international projects designed to modernize, assimilate and improve so-called backward communities – typically indigenous or Afro-descendent groups in the global South. Such connections between anti-racist science and the developmental imaginaries of the late colonial period indicate that the transition from fixed racial typologies to sociocultural and psychological conceptualizations of human diversity legitimated the flourishing of modernization discourses in the Cold War era. In this transition to an economic-development paradigm, ‘race’ did not vanish so much as fragment into a series of finely tuned and ostensibly anti-racist conceptions that offered a moral incentive for scientific elites to intervene in the ways of life of those deemed primitive.

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1 This was the first of several meetings where UNESCO's 1950 Statement on Race was drafted. The 1949 committee consisted of Ernest Beaglehole, Juan Comas, Luiz Aguiar Costa-Pinto, E. Franklin Frazier, Morris Ginsberg, Humayun Kabir, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Ashley Montagu. The minutes from the 1949 meetings are summarized in UNESCO, Summary Report (of the Six Meetings), Meeting of Experts on Race Problems, 29 December 1949, UNESCO/SS/CONF.1/SR1, 1949.

2 UNESCO, op. cit. (1).

3 For histories of the statements as marking the demise of race science see Barkan, Elazar, The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the US between the World Wars (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Stepan, Nancy, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain, 1800–1960 (Hamden: Archon Books, 1982); Stocking, George W., Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982); Provine, William B., ‘Geneticists and race’, American Zoologist (1986) 26(3), pp. 857887. For interpretations of the statements as a moment of reflexivity see Reardon, Jenny, Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Brattain, Michelle, ‘Race, racism, and antiracism: UNESCO and the politics of presenting science to the postwar public’, American Historical Review (2007) 112(5), pp. 13861413; Selcer, Perrin, ‘Beyond the cephalic index: negotiating politics to produce UNESCO's scientific statements on race’, Current Anthropology (2012) 53(S5), pp. S173S184, doi:10.1086/662290. Gannett, Lisa, ‘Racism and human genome diversity research: the ethical limits of “population thinking”’, Philosophy of Science (2001) 68(3), pp. S479S492, doi:10.2307/3080967; Lipphardt, Veronika, ‘The Jewish community of Rome: an isolated population? Sampling procedures and bio-historical narratives in genetic analysis in the 1950s’, BioSocieties (2010) 5(3), pp. 306329; Bangham, Jenny, ‘What is race? UNESCO, mass communication and human genetics in the early 1950s’, History of the Human Sciences (1 December 2015) 28(5), pp. 80107, doi:10.1177/0952695115600581.

4 Stoler, Ann Laura, ‘Racial histories and their regimes of truth’, Political Power and Social Theory (1997) 11, pp. 183206.

5 Adams, Vincanne, Murphy, Michelle and Clarke, Adele E., ‘Anticipation: technoscience, life, affect, temporality’, Subjectivity (September 2009) 28(1), pp. 246265.

6 Anderson, Warwick, ‘Racial conceptions in the global South’, Isis (1 December 2014) 105(4), pp. 782792. de la Cadena, Marisol, ‘Are Mestizos hybrids? The conceptual politics of Andean identities’, Journal of Latin American Studies (May 2005) 37(2), pp. 259284. Wade, Peter, Race and Ethnicity in Latin America (Chicago: Pluto Press, 1997); Appelbaum, Nancy P., Macpherson, Anne S. and Rosemblatt, Karin Alejandra, Race and Nation in Modern Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Stepan, Nancy, ‘The Hour of Eugenics’: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).

7 McCarthy, Thomas Anthony, Race, Empire, and the Idea of Human Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

8 Stepan, op. cit. (6); Wade, op. cit. (6); Cueto, Marcos and Palmer, Steven Paul, Medicine and Public Health in Latin America: A History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Dávila, Jerry, Diploma of Whiteness: Race and Social Policy in Brazil, 1917–1945 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

9 Tilley, Helen, Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development, and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870–1950 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011); Bonneuil, Christophe, ‘Development as experiment: science and state building in late colonial and postcolonial Africa, 1930–1970’, Osiris, 2nd series (1 January 2000) 15, pp. 258281; Conklin, Alice L., A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). Ferguson, James, Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). For other examples of colonial development projects see Zimmerman, Andrew, Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); Mitchell, Timothy, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

10 Cullather, Nick, ‘Development? It's history’, Diplomatic History (1 January 2000) 24(4), pp. 641653, doi:10.1111/0145-2096.00242; Gilman, Nils, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Engerman, David C., Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003); Latham, Michael E., Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and ‘Nation-Building’ in the Kennedy Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). Anderson, Warwick, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

11 Scott, David, ‘Colonial governmentality’, Social Text (January 1995) 43, pp. 191220.

12 Mazower, Mark, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); Anker, Peder, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895–1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Sluga, Glenda, Internationalism in the Age of Nationalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Lake, Marilyn and Reynolds, Henry, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

13 Smith, Neil, American Empire: Roosevelt's Geographer and the Prelude to Globalization (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003).

14 UNESCO, op. cit. (1)

15 UNESCO, op. cit. (1).

16 Louis Wirth, ‘Implementation of the Resolution of the Economic and Social Council on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities’, Committee of Experts on Race Problems, Paris, 7 December 1949, UNESCO/SS/Conf.1/2, p. 3.

17 Wirth, op. cit. (16), p. 4.

18 UNESCO, The Race Concept: Results of an Inquiry (Paris: UNESCO, 1958). For useful analyses of the 1950 and 1951 statements see Gayon, Jean, ‘Do biologists need the expression “human races”? UNESCO 1950–51’, in Rozenberg, Jacques J. (ed.), Bioethical and Ethical Issues Surrounding the Trials and Code of Nuremberg: Nuremberg Revisited (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003), pp. 2348; Brattain, op. cit. (3); Selcer, op. cit. (3); Yudell, Michael, Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), pp. 148159; Teslow, Tracy, Constructing Race: The Science of Bodies and Cultures in American Anthropology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 305315.

19 Cole, Sally Cooper, Ruth Landes: A Life in Anthropology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), p. 157.

20 Arthur Ramos, Introduction to O Negro Brasileiro: Etnografia Religiosa e Psicanálise, excerpt published in Revista Latinoamericana de Psicopatologia Fundamental (2007) 10(4), pp. 729744, 744, available at

21 Lange, Brad, ‘Importing Freud and Lamarck to the tropics: Arthur Ramos and the transformation of Brazilian racial thought, 1926–1939’, The Americas (2008) 65(1), pp. 934, doi:10.2307/25488071.

22 During this period, Ramos lent a hand to the nation-building projects of the Vargas regime and organized a week of activities commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 1938 and the importance of Afro-Brazilian culture for Brazil's national identity. See Cole, op. cit. (19), pp. 157–158.

23 On eugenic projects during the Vargas administration see Stepan, op. cit. (6), pp. 162–170.

24 See Dávila, op. cit. (8), pp. 21–51.

25 Dávila, op. cit. (8), pp. 39–40.

26 Maio, Marcos Chor, ‘O Projeto Unesco e a Agenda das Ciências Sociais no Brasil dos Anos 40 e 50’, Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais (1999) 14(41), pp. 141158, available at

27 Costa-Pinto, Luiz Aguiar, O negro no Rio de Janeiro (São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1953), p. 25.

28 On Costa-Pinto's career and views on race relations see Maio, Marcos Chor, ‘Uma Polêmica Esquecida: Costa-Pinto, Guerreiro Ramos e o Tema Das Relações Raciais’, Dados (1997) 40, pp. 127162.

29 Giraudo, Laura, ‘Neither “scientific” nor “colonialist”: the ambiguous course of inter-American Indigenismo in the 1940s’, Latin American Perspectives (1 September 2012) 39(5), pp. 1232, doi:10.1177/0094582X12447275; Giraudo, Laura and Sanchez, Juan Martin, La Ambivalente Historia del Indigenismo: Campo Interamericano y Trayectorias Nacionales 1940–1970 (Lima: IEP, 2011).

30 Comas, Juan, ‘Cultural anthropology and fundamental education in Latin America’, International Social Science Bulletin (1952) 4(3), pp. 451461, 451.

31 Walsh, Casey, ‘Eugenic acculturation: Manuel Gamio, migration studies, and the anthropology of development in Mexico, 1910–1940’, Latin American Perspectives (2004) 31(5), pp. 118145, doi:10.1177/009-4582X04268405.

32 Hobhouse also argued that animals could evolve by overcoming their biological instincts. He called this process ‘orthogenic evolution’ and imagined it as a model for understanding the nature of ‘race progress’ in society. See Renwick, Chris, British Sociology's Lost Biological Roots: A History of Futures Past (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 107110. For Hobhouse's influence on the development of sociology in Britain see Collini, Stefan, Liberalism and Sociology: L.T. Hobhouse and Political Argument in England, 1880–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

33 Morris Ginsberg, Preface to Rumney, Jay, Herbert Spencer's Sociology: A Study in the History of Social Theory (New York: Atherton Press, 1966), pp. 23.

34 Ginsberg, op. cit. (33), p. 3.

35 Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawney, Ginsberg, Morris and Wheeler, Gerald Clair William Camden, The Material Culture and Social Institutions of the Simpler Peoples: An Essay in Correlation (London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd, 1915), available at, p. 6.

36 Hobhouse, Ginsberg and Wheeler, op. cit. (35), p. 6.

37 For example, Ginsberg and Hobhouse classified simpler peoples with categories such as ‘simple hunters’, ‘higher hunters’, ‘hunter and gatherers’, ‘incipient agriculture’, ‘agriculture pure’ and ‘highest agriculture’. Hobhouse, Ginsberg and Wheeler, op. cit. (35).

38 Steinmetz, George, ‘A child of the empire: British sociology and colonialism, 1940s–1960s’, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences (1 September 2013) 49(4), pp. 353378.

39 Beaglehole, Ernest, Property: A Study in Social Psychology (New York: Macmillan Co., 1932), p. 19.

40 Beaglehole, op. cit. (39), pp. 20–21.

41 Beaglehole, op. cit. (39), p. 127.

42 Beaglehole, op. cit. (39), p. 315.

43 Beaglehole, op. cit. (39), p. 294.

44 Ritchie, James, ‘What ever happened to cross-cultural psychology?’, New Zealand Psychological Society Bulletin (1992) 92, pp. 1721; Ritchie, J.E., ‘Obituary: Ernest Beaglehole’, Journal of the Polynesian Society (1966) 75(1), pp. 109119; Shapiro, Harry Lionel, The Anthropometry of Pukapuka: Based upon Data Collected by Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1942).

45 Beaglehole, Ernest, ‘Race, caste, and class’, Journal of the Polynesian Society (March 1943) 52(1), pp. 111, 6.

46 Beaglehole, op. cit. (45), p. 2.

47 Beaglehole, op. cit. (45), p. 6.

48 For discussions of this debate in imperial social science and settler-colonial anthropology see Hiatt, L.R., Arguments about Aborigines: Australia and the Evolution of Social Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Wolfe, Patrick, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event (London: Cassell, 1999).

49 Montagu dedicated this book to Malinowski and to Edward Westermarck, a Finnish social evolutionist. Montagu, Ashley, Coming into Being among the Australian Aborigines: The Procreative Beliefs of the Australian Aborigines, 2nd edn (Routledge, 1974; first published 1937), p. xvi. In his description of Aboriginal beliefs on kinship Montagu drew heavily on The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899), a colonial ethnography written by Australian anthropologists Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen, as well as on The Psychology of Primitive People written by the social psychologist Stanley Porteus.

50 Montagu, op. cit. (49), pp. 326–327.

51 Montagu, op. cit. (49), p. 329.

52 My analysis here is influenced by Anne McClintock's concept of anachronistic space; see McClintock, Anne, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995).

53 Montagu, Ashley, Man's Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2001), 259.

54 Saint-Arnaud, Pierre and Feldstein, Peter, African American Pioneers of Sociology: A Critical History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), pp. 204248.

55 See Burgess, Ernest W., ‘Editor's preface’, in Frazier, E. Franklin, The Negro in the United States (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1940), pp. ixxvii, available at, accessed 9 October 2015.

56 On Herskovits and Frazier's debate about African roots and Afro-Brazilian families see Romo, Anadelia A., Brazil's Living Museum: Race, Reform, and Tradition in Bahia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), pp. 124132.

57 Frazier, op. cit. (55), p. 488.

58 Stoczkowski, Wiktor, ‘Racisme, antiracisme et cosmologie lévi-straussienne’, L'Homme (2 May 2007) 182, pp. 751, doi:10.4000/lhomme.29406.

59 Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Race and History (Paris: UNESCO, 1952), 6.

60 Lévi-Strauss, op. cit. (59). For a discussion of how Lévi-Strauss was influenced by Mauss see Johnson, Christopher, Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Formative Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Conklin, Alice L., In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013).

61 On the role of genetics in Lévi-Strauss's ideas about historical change see Müller-Wille, Staffan, ‘Claude Lévi-Strauss on race, history and genetics’, BioSocieties (2010) 5(3), pp. 330347.

62 See Stoczkowski, op. cit. (58); Müller-Wille, op. cit. (61).

63 On the imperial context of grand comparative sociological studies see Connell, Raewyn, Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).

64 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), p. 10.

65 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), pp. 9–11.

66 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), p. 8.

67 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), p. 10.

68 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), Fourth Meeting, pp. 1–2.

69 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), Fourth Meeting, p. 2.

70 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), Fourth Meeting, p. 4.

71 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), Fourth Meeting, p. 3.

72 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), Fourth Meeting, p. 3.

73 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), Fourth Meeting, p. 3.

74 UNESCO, op. cit. (1), Fourth Meeting, p. 3.

75 Klineberg, Otto, Tensions Affecting International Understanding: A Survey of Research (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1950), pp. 12.

76 Studies from this project include de Azevedo, Thales, Les élites de couleur dans une ville brésilienne (Paris: UNESCO, 1953); Bastide, Roger and Fernandes, Florestan, Relações Raciais entre Negros e Brancos em São Paulo (São Paulo: Editôra Anhembi, 1955); Costa-Pinto, op. cit. (27); Leiris, Michel, Contacts de civilisations en Martinique et en Guadeloupe (Paris: UNESCO-Gallimard, 1955); Wagley, Charles, Race and Class in Rural Brazil (Paris: UNESCO, 1952).

77 Métraux, Alfred, ‘Race and civilisation’, UNESCO Courier (1950) 3(6), pp. 89.

78 Wagley, Charles, ‘Alfred Métraux’, American Anthropologist (1964) 66(3), pp. 603613.

79 Métraux, Alfred, ‘Applied anthropology in government: United Nations’, in Kroeber, A. (ed.), Anthropology Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953), pp. 880894, 881.

80 Fallacies of racism exposed: UNESCO publishes declaration by world scientists’, UNESCO Courier (1950) 3(6–7), p. 1.

81 Rohde, Joy, ‘Gray matters: social scientists, military patronage, and democracy in the Cold War’, Journal of American History (2009) 96, pp. 99122; Solovey, Mark, ‘Project Camelot and the 1960s epistemological revolution: rethinking the politics–patronage–social science nexus’, Social Studies of Science (2001) 31, pp. 171206.

82 Escobar, Arturo, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

83 Ferguson, James, The Anti-politics Machine: ‘Development’, Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

84 Dudziak, Mary L., Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

For their invaluable feedback and support in preparing this article, I am thankful to Michelle Murphy, Warwick Anderson, Emma Kowal and the anonymous reviewers. Earlier versions of this article benefited from conversations with Susan Lindee, Projit Mukharji, Ramah McKay, Alison Bashford, Mark Solovey, Hans Pols, Marcos Chor Maio, Carlos Lopéz-Beltrán, Alejandra Bronfman, Karin Rosemblatt, Sarah Walsh, Chin Jou, Miranda Johnson, Ricardo Roque, Ben Silverstein, Rosanna Dent and James Dunk. Thanks also to Charlotte Sleigh and Trish Hatton for their help in bringing this article to press. Research for this article was supported by an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship (FL110100243).

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