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.

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.

Left: Book cover for “The Remnants or Race Science,”; right, Sebastián Gil-Riaño.
Sebastián Gil-Riaño, an assistant professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, is the author of “The Remnants of Race Science: UNESCO and Economic Development in the Global South.” (Images: Courtesy of OMNIA; portrait by Adriann Moss)

Sebastián Gil-Riaño is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science in the School of Arts & Sciences. He was born in Colombia, and as an undergraduate at the University of Kings College in Nova Scotia, Gil-Riaño 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.

According to Gil-Riaño, much of the history and debate around the UNESCO race campaign focused on contributions from North American and European scientists. “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,” he says. 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.

“One of the first directors of UNESCO’s department of social science [was] a Brazilian physician and anthropologist named Arthur Ramos, and he was from Bahia in the northeast of Brazil,” Gil-Riaño explains. “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.”

This story is by Laura Dattaro. Read more at OMNIA.