Race Is Not "Just Skin Deep"
November 28, 2007, 04:20 PM
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From a CNN article on Lois Gibson, the forensic artist who drew the picture of "Baby Grace" from the toddler's decomposing body that led to her grandmother recognizing her.

But it was decades of research that help her nail the image.

A trained artist can look at a skull and immediately tell the race and gender of a corpse. And that's the beginning of giving a name to the unknown.

"If you turn the skull of a white male sideways, it's almost like a truck hit it. It's just straight up and down flat," said Marla Lawson, a renowned forensic artist who works for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. "The forehead protrudes very little and the chin sinks in. But for African-Americans, they slightly slope at the forehead and they protrude slightly at the mandible and they have these great cheekbones. Their skulls weigh more than white people's skulls, and their teeth will be whiter and brighter usually."

An Asian person's skull will have a wider facial area, Lawson said, but people of Hispanic descent are more challenging because the structures are nearly identical to Caucasians.

But determining male and female is easy, said Lawson who created the first, and dead-on, likeness of Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph while he was a fugitive. Run your fingers vertically over your eyebrows. Males feel a defined ridge under the brow line. A woman's face is smoother. ...

Anthropologists spent years taking measurements from various cadavers — male, female, chubby, emaciated, short, young, old, Asian, Latino, black, white. They've compiled those measurements in how the depth from skin surface to bone differs based on all those factors for 21 different spots on a face and placed those averages in a chart. Forensic artists use those measurements to determine how much flesh and contour to put on a skull to create a bust or make a sketch.

I don't watch much TV other than football games, American Idol, and Seinfeld reruns, but I gather there are many hours per week of shows like the various CSIs devoted to forensic medical investigations. Surely, watching these kind of police procedurals imparts the knowledge that race and sex are the first thing forensic scientists figure out from looking at skeletons, right?

So, how can the popular "race is just skin deep" myth survive? Do most people just compartmentalize their knowledge and never draw connections between the various facts they know? I'm really baffled by how people can fail to notice things like this.

I guess it's a little like how for 2000 years everybody accepted Aristotle's assertion that a heavy rock falls faster than a light rock without testing it. But, when it comes to race, you don't even have to perform an experiment. You just have to apply facts you already know in one realm (your daily life) in another realm (social theory). But almost nobody does that.