Some Forensic Anthropologists Are Urging Their Peers To Stop Identifying The Race Of Skeletons

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A group of forensic anthropologists are arguing that trying to identify the racial ancestry of skeletons is based on racial stereotypes and are urging their peers to drop the practice.

The College Fix reported that forensic anthropologists typically try to identify the age, sex, height, and racial ancestry of human remains, but a small group of scientists are trying to remove race from the list.

“We urge all forensic anthropologists to abolish the practice of ancestry estimation,” wrote Elizabeth DiGangi of Binghamton University and Jonathan Bethard of the University of South Florida in a study earlier this year. The pair in July wrote a letter to the editor of the Journal of Forensic Sciences further arguing their case.

“Forensic anthropologists have not fully considered the racist context of the criminal justice system in the United States related to the treatment of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; nor have we considered that ancestry estimation might actually hinder identification efforts because of entrenched racial biases,” the authors wrote in their study.

As the Fix noted, the study and the letter to the editor were “written following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which caused many academics to reconsider the racial implications of their professions.”

In their study, DiGangi and Bethard argued that “Ancestry estimation contributes to white supremacy.” The pair said they use Critical Race Theory to “continue to situate and contextualize our challenge to the use of macromorphoscopic (hereafter, morphoscopic) traits, as well as introduce critiques of craniometric and dental morphological analysis in ancestry estimation.”

DiGangi and Bethard’s attempts to get forensic anthropologists to stop identifying skeletons by race has been met with criticism.

San Jose State anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss told the Fix that, “If forensic anthropologists abandon determining race, then they are going to be doing victims and their families a big disservice and are basically engaging in a dereliction of their duty.”

“I think it’s this weird phenomena; they want to place emphasis on the social construction of race (and racism), but want to deny the biological concept of race,” she added. “Nevertheless, they would never support making the argument that one can self-determine race.”

Weiss also said that it was mainly the classification of human remains as White, Black, or Asian that appeared to be the most controversial.

“So far anthropologists have not been as good at determining the difference between Asians from various regions,” Weiss told the Fix.

Kyra Stull, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Nevada, Reno, also opposed DiGangi and Bethard’s study, writing along with a group of others who pushed back against the duo.

“As part of the medicolegal community seeking justice for the deceased and closure for the living, forensic anthropologists must delicately balance the complicated relationships between population history, social constructs, and legal systems not only in ancestry estimation, but in the totality of the biological profile,” Stull and the group wrote.

“Skeletal features can be used to make predictions about probable social race groups because of their correlations to local population distributions,” the critics wrote, adding that, “no empirical data indicate that forensic anthropological ancestry estimates promote racially biased investigative outcomes.”

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