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.