United to Combat Racism: UNESCO and the Concept of Race, 1945–65

AHA Session 53
Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh
UNESCO and the Statements on Race in the Making
Perrin Selcer, University of Michigan
South Africa, Race, and UNESCO in Its Early Years
Michelle Brattain, Georgia State University
The Sociopolitical Impact of UNESCO’s Race Program
Poul Duedahl, Aalborg University
Archives and Sources on UNESCO, Race, and the United States
Jens Boel, United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Archives
Patrick Manning, University of Pittsburgh

Session Abstract

United to Combat Racism: UNESCO and the Concept of Race, 1945-65

In wake of World War II and the Holocaust came the establishment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Its mission was to ensure peace and security by changing people’s mindsets in the shadow of the war.

For more than 20 years UNESCO was the core of a dispute in international scientific circles over the correct definition of the concept of race, which was essentially a dispute about whether the natural sciences or the social sciences should take precedence in determining the origin, division and value of man. This session takes a look at UNESCO’s measures to combat biological determinism and their impact on its various member states from 1945 to 1965, when the UN adopted The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

A major task was to issue a statement containing a universal definition of race. The Organization’s statement on race of 1950, created by mainly social scientists, highlighted the unity of humankind as a species and claimed that human groups would be more appropriately referred to as “ethnic groups” rather than “races”, a claim which was based on the conviction that subjective feelings of cultural belonging were of primary importance to the choice of a partner and the spreading of genes. The statement was supposed to eliminate racial prejudice, but resulted in massive critique. UNESCO therefore issued a new statement composed by mainly biologists in 1951 that recognized race as a meaningful category. On the other hand, the statement rejected the notion that mental traits could be used in classifying races, and the concept of race therefore lost its potential to legitimize racial discrimination. Before the statement was released anthropologists from all over the world were asked to comment on it in order to strengthen its authority and to evaluate publicly their perception of the concept of race, and in the years that followed UNESCO launched a publication strategy in order to produce a number of works critical of the concept of race. The Organization also requested its member states to improve textbooks and teaching materials, and launched a number of projects to promote solidarity and international understanding.

A range of anti-Semitic manifestations in Europe, segregation in the US, apartheid in South Africa and a rapidly decolonizing world made UNESCO issue a third and fourth statement in 1964 and 1967 that were highly skeptical of the concept of race. These statements legitimized the UN’s definition of race in its convention against racial discrimination. Altogether the session tells the story of the considerable and coordinated efforts made by an international organization to delegitimize biological determinism and to imposing a new view of man.

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