Americans increasingly blame the failures of minority individuals in our society on "racial" inferiority. Anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen argues cogently that the problems are cultural, not "racial," and that they are rooted in the assumptions of mainstream American culture, not in the biological or cultural failings of "others."
By summarizing scientific evidence proving that "races" do not exist and that few biological traits actually correlate with the color of one’s skin, Cohen shows that differences in ability cannot be linked to "race." The growing gap between rich and poor and the economic subordination of minority groups, he says, are rooted in the arbitrary rules that govern American society. Culture constrains our ability to understand and appreciate the actions of others and often prevents us from seeing the consequences of our own actions or realizing our alternatives. American perceptions of what constitute merit, health, hygiene, freedom, progress, property, economics, justice—and even our own history—are distorted. Our insistence that ours is the best or only view promotes intolerance and racism. Cohen shows that definitions of intelligence, IQ tests, hiring practices, and evaluations of job performance contain many more cultural biases than we recognize and thus restrict the opportunities of minority individuals.
By breaking down American cultural assumptions, Cohen offers a strong defense of affirmative action and multicultural education. He concludes with some suggestions for the future—to end the racism and indifference to one another that mark our society.
Mark Nathan Cohen is Distinguished Teaching Professor at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He is also the author of Health and the Rise of Civilization and The Food Crisis in Prehistory, published by Yale University Press.
Winner of a 1998 Bruno Brand Tolerance Book Award given by the Simon Wiesenthal Center
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