Graves, Joseph L. (2002). The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

219 pp.
$19       ISBN 0-8135-3302-3

Reviewed by Matthew W. Hughey
University of Virginia

September 25, 2004

At the beginning of professor Joseph Graves’ work The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (2002) he writes, “…our society cannot progress toward true justice and equality until we exorcise racism from our collective consciousness” (p. 1). Graves steadfastly maintains that debunking the idea of race as biologically determined is an essential first step to eliminating racism.

Graves’ introductory remarks include a description of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes as a metaphor for the concept of the non-existence of biological race and ends with a comparison to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Both comparisons are suitable in that the racial scope through which society peers must be discarded so that, like the child in the Andersen’s fairy tale, all can see that race-as-biology is fictitious. Moreover, likethe highlighting of environmental pollution in Carson’s book, the biological idea of race conjures up a connotation of unheard or silent violence, which requires exposure and action to eliminate.

While Graves’ work holds no semblance of resting on post-modern theory, his agenda is to divorce race and biology from the mutual symbiotic relationship they have held sway within the legacy of racism in the United States and Europe. The unfamiliar reader may ask, “Why is this relationship the lynchpin to dismantling racism?” The answer is found in the history of race and biology that Graves explores.

Since the formation of the “existence” of race, the concept of race has been a central organizing factor in collective affairs. Many scholars make the claim that race is in fact, the, “central axis of social relations” (Omi & Winant, 1986 [1989]: 61) which serves to legitimate and even account for intellectual, emotional, cognitive, and overall social differences and unequal stratification in society. As a social narrative, race is central to many of the public and intellectual debates about human nature that have sporadically sent the United States and the world into spasm, particularly evidenced by the Kerner Commission that reported, “…our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal” (Kerner, 1968).

Within the realm of public policy, the implications of race have been significant because of its “scientific” biological underpinnings, which have given scholars, and the lay-public alike, a rationale for what is alleged to be intrinsic and unchanging criteria in human populations. Thus, Westernized racial typologies can perhaps best be thought of as attempts to reify ideological arguments on the performance of race into “real” concepts that can then exist existentially outside of cultural context or political intent. These arguments become most visible and vehement in situations of conflict, as evidenced by the reparations debate for the United States chattel slavery system, the recent dismantling of Affirmative Action in California due to Proposition 209, and the recent University of Michigan lawsuits that almost destroyed the legal existence of Affirmative Action if it were not for the narrowly won Supreme Court decision (5-4).

Therefore, given the explosive history of the United States, it is to no one’s astonishment that anthropology, biological determinism, and socio-biology have taken hold of the cultural logic of both town and gown by supplying tools to analyze the concept of race as a fixed and unchanging concept.

Graves’ work was written to dismantle the so-called scientific basis, for first, of the actual existence of race as a typology devoid of racist content and conjecture, and second, to expose the politically motivated ideological underpinnings of biological descents into the abyss of racism. Thus, Graves examines the history of biological diversity from a modern scientific perspective. He writes, “…what we call ‘race’ is the invention not of nature but of our social institutions and practices. The social nature of racial categories is significant because social practice can be altered far more readily than can genetic constitution” (2002: 2).

In light of the importance bestowed upon race within cultural logic of the West, Graves work fits nicely with other texts like Montagu’s Man’s Most Dangerous Myth (1997), Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1981), Smedley’s Race in North America (1999), and stands as a dialectical counter to works like Levin’s Why Race Matters (1997), Rushton’s Race, Evolution and Behavior (1995), and most notably Herrnstein’s and Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994).

Taking on such an entrenched position such a biological determinism and socio-biology often results in a neo-con rebuttal; jumping at the chance to conserve the social pecking order that the belief in biological races has helped to form. Graves writes, “Race is part of the American legacy, and racial exploitation gave the United States license to exist” (2002: 3). Further, he writes, “Modern racist ideology wishes to appear as a part of normal intellectual discourse. Even worse, it attempts to portray its critics as the racists” (2002: 8) Accordingly, Robert Locke of Frontpage Magazine (a journal published in collaboration with David Horowitz’s “Center for the Study of Popular Culture”) writes of Graves’ scholarship,

. . . [the] dumbest idea has to be that race is just a social construct.. . . . social constructivism is one of the Left’s favorite current ideas. Its application to race resurfaces from time to time, most recently in an article by Joseph L. Graves, Jr. in an issue of American Outlook, magazine of the nominally conservative Hudson Institute, whose cover theme is “the illusion of race.” Dr. Graves, a geneticist at the University of Arizona, is also the author of The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millenium, [sic] which has a similar message (Locke, 2002).

Taking on these often poorly formulated and articulated arguments, Graves speaks from his expertise as an evolutionary biologist, providing evidence that only about 6 genes in the human body partially determine the color of a person’s skin, and that further, what genome researches have been uncovering over several years as the “mapping project” have concluded: as far as biology is concerned, race doesn’t exist. Others collaborate Graves’ work, notably, Dr. J. Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, the company that mapped the human genome, who recently said of race and biology; “It is disturbing to see reputable scientists and physicians . . . categorizing things in terms of race” (Balki, 2002).

Thus, the basic plan of The Emperor’s New Clothes is a step-by-step inspection of the expansion and progress of the race concept; from its genesis in classical philosophy to modern times. Graves moves in historical uni-linear fashion, involving the scientific processes of Europe and the United States. What is missed (and is all too common in United States-based race literature) is what other non-Westernized ideologies and scientific processes may have said about the role of race as (or as not) biological determined. However, Graves does do a beautiful job of deconstructing Darwin’s and Spencer’s approach to human variability and their ethnocentrism which caused Whiteness to mysteriously become the standard in the weights and measures that judged race and civilization.

Other chapters focus on the eugenics movement and Francis Galton’s attempts to provide a quantitative ranking of human intelligence. Other topics include the 20th-century American eugenicist Charles Davenport, who is portrayed as a fraudulent and genocidal scientist as evidenced by his work with the Eugenics Record Office and the National Pellagra Commission. Additionally, Graves provides numerous descriptions of links between American and Nazi eugenicists that inform the reader as to the profound ideological connection between racism and White supremacy; thereby supporting the claim that many scholars like bell hooks have made that equated both concepts (racism and White supremacy) as cultural, if not linguistic, synonyms.

In his latter chapters, Graves’ examines racist ideologies’ links between race, intelligence, and disease in which he contrasts growth in the fields of population genetics with the political initiatives that grew in the post-WWII era, specifically; the UNESCO statements on race, the rejection of racism as a valid scientific stance by the scientific community as a whole and the narrative of the civil rights movement in the United States.

Overall, The Emperor’s New Clothes is a laudable appraisal of the history within racial science. However, like many social theorists of racism, he seems to apply a Marxist/materialist approach to race and racism. He writes, “The rise of racial ideology coincided with the development of social institutions that exploited human biological differences for profit” (2002: 3). This very statement paints the picture that the branch of racism grew somehow out of the trunk of classism. Yet, while providing that connotation, he only provides a correlation between race and class, and not causation. The downfall of his tone is that without sufficient articulation of the correlation, the argument reads like a causal sequence of events.

However, the most troubling point in his thesis is his somewhat amateurish disposal of ideology as the indispensable core of racism. He writes,

In the absence of a biological basis for race, racism simply becomes ideology. As ideology it is rightly subject to moral judgment. For this reason, people wedded to racist ideology will object to this work and its approach, because it denies them the scientific high ground. Racist ideologues have been accustomed to the luxury of hiding behind so-called reasoned objective argument while characterizing their critics as emotional or ‘politically correct’ (2002: 2).

This makes the cultural sociologists gasp. Graves does not take into account the notion that all human behavior and institutions (whether physical or imaginative) are socially constructed, including science. By ‘merely’ reducing racism to an ideology that has no scientific basis, Graves believes he undoes the validity of it. While Graves does a good job of divorcing racist ideology from its collaboration with scientific “proof, ” he fails to realize that scientific thought and the canon of biology have just as many moral (and immoral) suppositions as Graves claims only ideology possesses. By arguing that racism has persisted in our society because adequate scientific reasoning has not entered into the equation, Graves ironically raises a question not about the science of the alleged superiority of Whiteness in the West, but instead of the alleged supremacy of science in a world that has been Whitewashed by Westernized epistemology.

Graves undoubtedly champions the scientific method, and elucidates how one may “properly” ask questions about the nature of our world in order to gain a “true” understanding of it. Therefore, his argument begins to be counterproductive; again putting “science” on a pedestal that can be summoned up like a genie to either dispel or collaborate racism’s legitimacy. The further implications of Graves’ labor can actually work to marginalize fields that have been historically sidelined as not inclusive enough of scientific process or legitimate epistemology, like Sociology, Anthropology, Linguistics, Cultural Studies, English, and the rest of the so-called “soft” sciences and “arts.”

Although Graves makes lucid that discrediting the idea that race is biological necessary (but not sufficient) to eliminate racism, his book’s very thesis rest upon the very notion. Graves' book is well suited for those who already know that race-as-biology is a myth. The book works as a nice companion piece to that knowledge in that it supplies specific examples of individuals and organizations that have exasperated or alleviated the race/biology paradigm.

However, the few shortcomings are not to be the hallmark of Graves’ brief (only 219 pages) work, as he works diligently to trace the development of thought about human genetic diversity. His work could be of excellent help to scholars who wish to dispel the coupling of racism and science, but not the hierarchy of the scientific disciplines. He cautions the reader to think critically about scientific findings that have historically been misused in controversies over racial differences in intelligence such as crime, intelligence, disease, and family traits and trends. The strength of the book is in the historical analysis it provides, coupled with the Who’s Who of biology’s past. Using The Emperor's New Clothes in the classroom of upper high school to beginning college levels could be a great way to begin to grasp what race is and what it is not. And in the end, his work is a landscape testament to the ideology of politics and the power of the political brush to paint science and still…life.


Andersen, H. C. (1997). Naomi Lewis (trans.). The Emperor’s New Clothes. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.

Balki, R. August/September 2002. “Biologically Speaking, Race Doesn't Exist” in Abolitionist Examiner.

Carson, R. Silent Spring. (1962 [1994]). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Gould, S. J. (1981[1996]). The Mismeasure of Man. New York, NY: Norton.

Herrnstein, R.J. & Murray, C. (1994). The Bell Curve. New York, NY: Free Press.

Kerner, O. Chairman (1968). “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Levin, M. E. (1997). Why Race Matters. Westport, CN: Praeger.

Locke, R. June 18, 2002, “Race is Not a Social Construct” in Frontpage Magazine.

Montagu, A. (1997). (6th ed.). Man’s Most Dangerous Myth. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Omi, M. & Winant, H. (1986 [1989]). Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s. NY, New York: Routledge.

Rushton, J. P. (1995). Race, Evolution and Behavior. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Smedley, A. (1999). (2nd ed.). Race in North America.Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

About the Reviewer

Matthew W. Hughey
University of Virginia, Department of Sociology


Matthew W. Hughey is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Virginia. His research interests include critical race theory, Whiteness studies, inequality in education and critical pedagogy, religion as impediment and catalyst for human rights, the Black Panther Party and the legacy of Dr. Huey P. Newton.

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