How the Modern Story of Postwar Anti-Racism Ignored the Global South

In his new book, science historian Sebastián Gil-Riaño explores the lives of scientists who shaped one of the first international efforts to combat racism—and then got left out of the story.

Thursday, October 12, 2023

By Laura Dattaro

In 1945, as nations healed from two World Wars, the newly formed United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) began a campaign to educate the globe on the scourge of racism. From its start, UNESCO recognized racism as being in opposition to its task of promoting peace. Its race campaign sought to form and spread a scientific consensus on the equality of all races.

(Image of Gil-Riaño: Adriann Moss)

Sebastián Gil-Riaño, an assistant professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, first encountered this campaign as an undergraduate at the University of Kings College in Nova Scotia, where he was majoring in the history of science. Gil-Riaño, who was born in Colombia, realized that the majority of his classes focused on science in Europe and North America. “I found myself wondering where my part of the world fit into what I was learning,” Gil-Riaño says.

The story of the UNESCO race campaign was no different, he says: Much of the history and debate around it focused on contributions from North American and European scientists. Gil-Riaño approached the campaign from another perspective.

That project ended up forming the bulk of Gil-Riaño’s graduate work, which he turned into his first book, The Remnants of Race Science: UNESCO and Economic Development in the Global South. Published in August, the book tells the stories of scientists and leaders from the Global South who shaped one of the world’s first formal efforts against racism. Gil-Riaño explains the campaign and how it still ripples through antiracist work today.

What was UNESCO’s race campaign?

From roughly 1945 through 1978, UNESCO issued a series of statements, booklets, and declarations that attempted to both define and portray the consensus view among scientific experts on race. It worked to discredit the idea that racism could be grounded in science.

How does your book tell the story of this complex effort?

UNESCO purposefully brought in scientific experts from many different regions. Keeping that contained within a coherent narrative was a challenge. So, I decided to follow the key actors and their trajectories.

An example is one of the first directors of UNESCO’s department of social science; he was a Brazilian physician and anthropologist named Arthur Ramos, and he was from Bahia in the northeast of Brazil. Bahia was famous for its medical school, which became an important site of medical expertise in the Global South in the late 19th century. A group of medical experts there contended that the prevalence of tropical diseases in Bahia was not due to race—as others had previously argued—but rather to environmental factors like lack of public sanitation and hygiene.

Ramos came into this tradition at a moment when some of the key figures in this school had begun to speculate about racial heredity as a potential source of Brazilians’ “backwardness.” He identified quite strongly with a scholar named Raimundo Nina Rodrigues, who epitomizes some of the most racist views within the context of the Brazilian history of science. Ramos imagined himself as cleaning up Rodrigues’ ideas, reframing them by suggesting that criminality was the result of a primitive mentality or cultural backwardness. So, he attempted to say that Brazil’s problems were a product of cultural and environmental, forces but he continued to think of Afro-Brazilians as backward and needing improvement. And he brought this perspective with him to UNESCO when he convened a meeting of “race experts” that led to the publication of UNESCO’s first race statement. That’s an example of the sort of tensions the book aims to illustrate.

What does your work add to our broad understanding of postwar antiracism?

My main contribution was to look at this campaign from the perspective of the Global South. I try to emphasize that many of the key players, the people who were actually charged with the day-to-day administration of UNESCO’s race campaign, either came from the Southern Hemisphere or had spent a significant amount of time there.

The story about the campaign has often been told as the moment when scientific racism came to an end. But that’s not really true. So I also wanted to go beyond the debates around the drafting of these various statements and look carefully at the practical work that key figures from the campaign were doing on the ground, projects that we might now call economic development projects. I was struck by how UNESCO experts described these projects in very racialized language, designed to “improve the lives of backwards and primitive peoples” and “bring them into the modern world” and “give them the benefits of modern technology and hygiene.” I argue that international development is a space where racial ideas are repackaged and persist.

Would you call the UNESCO campaign the first organized antiracist effort?

This is a problem I had to wrestle with. These projects were very much laden with racist ideas. So why would I suggest they form part of a history of antiracism? In my book, I refrain from calling these projects antiracist. I use the language the historical actors used. They mostly thought of themselves as combating “race prejudice” or racial discrimination. Yet the arguments UNESCO’s statements made against the alleged inferiority of non-European races played an important role in challenging racial segregation in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa. So, I argue that these projects are nevertheless important for understanding the history of antiracism.

The UNESCO campaign lasted for decades. How did it change over time?

There’s a major difference between the early UNESCO statements in 1950 and 1951 and a later set of statements published in ’64 and ’67. Then in 1978 you get this declaration on race and racial prejudice, which is meant to have more teeth in a political sense. All of the UNESCO states had to agree to it and abide by it.

The later statements go beyond just talking about how race is not biological and really begin to identify the root causes of racism. They talk about things like structural racism and colonialism and slavery, and they make arguments about needing to restructure the international economic order.

In the reports of the committees who drafted the later statements, there are some really interesting discussions about why opposing racism has to be more than just opposing the biological basis of race. Essentially they said racists are really crafty, and you can get into a game of whack-a-mole if you define racism as solely about biological theories of inequality. That is a strategy that racists can easily evade. There are lots of other ways to practice racism, some without even naming race. The later statements really acknowledge that.

What influence on current antiracist efforts does this UNESCO action have?

One of the ways in which we continue to feel the echoes of this campaign is at moments when we think about how to respond to racism. In the summer of 2020, when George Floyd was murdered by the police, I was really struck by how one of the main responses, at least at an institutional and popular media level, was a proliferation of reading lists. It was this educational offensive, this feeling that maybe we can educate our way out of this problem.

That really reminded me of UNESCO’s early days, right after World War II, when, as an institution, its response to racism was to create a series of booklets that would teach everyone why racism is irrational and wrong. The UNESCO story can teach us something about the way institutions respond to racism and suggests the need to study that critically.

What can this story tell us about combating racism today?

Some readers might find the book challenging in the sense that it doesn’t provide many answers. It mostly raises questions like what is antiracism? Part of what I’m trying to understand is how antiracism became institutionalized at the international level.

Antiracism hasn’t been studied enough. Historians of science have spilled a lot of ink studying the history of racism in science, but we have less frequently taken up antiracism. I hope my book prompts more research on the ways that antiracism has been institutionalized and how it might be done otherwise.