Scientific Racism: Gates Interviews Watson

Back in October (2007), I wrote about the storm created by legendary genetic researcher Watson’s racist comments that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”  Now, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., prominent scholar of African American Studies at Harvard University and editor of The Root, has interviewed Watson.    The Root contains both a transcript (including some video) of the interview and an article by Gates analyzing the interview.  Both are worth reading in detail for anyone interested in ‘race’ and the expression of scientific racism.    (And, indeed, the ‘comments’ on both the transcript and the article are worth reading through if anyone wonders whether we’re in a ‘post-racial’ society.)  Near the beginning of his article, Gates writes:

He had uttered the unutterable, the most ardent fantasy of white racists (David Duke would wax poetic on his Web site that the truth had at last been revealed, and by no less than the discoverer of the structure of DNA). His words caused a ripple effect of shock, dismay and disgust among those of us who embrace the range of biological diversity and potential within the human community. It was as if one of the smartest white men in the world had confirmed what so many racists believe already: that the gap between blacks and whites in, say, IQ test scores and SAT results has a biological basis and that environmental factors such as centuries of slavery, colonization, Jim Crow segregation and race-based discrimination—all contributing to uneven economic development—don’t amount to a hill of beans. Nature has given us an extra basketball gene, as it were, in lieu of native intelligence.

Gates goes on to say that when he read about Watson’s remarks, he was “astonished, not to mention angered and saddened.”   He writes, “I was also determined to ask him about these comments directly.”  Thus, the interview.  Gates visited Watson at Cold Spring Harbor on March 17 for the interview, and afterward, Gates concludes:

I don’t think James Watson is a racist. But I do think that he is a racialist—that is, he believes that certain observable traits or forms of behavior among groups of human beings might, indeed, have a biological basis in the code that scientists, eventually, may be able to ascertain, that the “gene” is some mythically neutral space and what it purportedly “measures” or “determines” is independent of environmental factors, variables and influences. The difference, the distinction, between being a racist and a racialist is crucial.

In the passage that follows, Gates makes the case for what he sees as the difference between  being a “racist” and being a “racialist”:

James Watson is not the garden-variety racist as he has been caricatured by the press and bloggers, the sort epitomized by David Duke and his ilk, and he seemed genuinely chagrined, embarrassed and remorseful that Duke and other racists had claimed him as their champion, as one of their own, because of his remarks as quoted in the London Sunday Times. And, as we might expect, he apologized profusely for those remarks, contending that he had been misquoted, at worst, and his remarks taken out of context, at best.

It’s fascinating to me (perhaps not surprisingly since studying David Duke is part of my research), that Duke is sort of a ghostly presence  throughout this interview.  ….Gates references him several times, and Watson uses him to distance his own remarks from being “racist,” in Gates’ typology.  Yet, even though Gates is at great pains to make the distinction between being a “racist” and being a “racialist,” it ends up being a distinction without a difference in Gates’ own analysis:

Watson’s error is that he associates individual genetic differences (which, of course, do in fact exist) with ethnic variation (which is sociocultural and highly malleable). Character traits—abilities and behaviors, such as intelligence or basketball skills, that are popularly attributed to groups and are defined as “genetic”—will, in fact, continue to delimit the freedom of choice and expression of individuals who fall into those “racial” categories, regardless of our individual attainments and achievements. In the end, visions that are racialist may end up doing the same work of those that are racist. [emphasis added]

Ok.   So, if “visions that are racialist” end up doing the same work as those that are “racist,” what’s the point in making that distinction then?   I think the answer comes back at the very beginning of the piece where Gates is being effusive about Watson’s accomplishment’s.   Gates is so in awe of this man that he seems to want to absolve Watson of his views that are completely consistent with those of white supremacist’s David Duke’s views.  Here’s a bit from the transcript:

Watson: I don’t know. If they find genes for all kinds of Jewish intelligence, I don’t think it’s going to affect me in the slightest.

Gates:                But would it affect me?

Watson:              Well, it shouldn’t affect you.  You’re very successful.

Gates:                I mean me, collectively. My people.  (Laughs)  I’m doing okay.

Watson:             No, I mean, I was watching the basketball games yesterday.  And I’m just trying to say, you dominate.

Gates:               Oh, you mean black people?

Watson:                    Yes.

He may be a Nobel-prize winning scientist, but Watson’s understanding of ‘race’ here is about as unsophisticated and crudely shaped by a white racial frame as anything you’ll find on David Duke’s site or elsewhere.  Watson’s discussion of the potential discovery of a genetic basis for Jewish intelligence and Black’s “innate” ability to play basketball speaks to a vast well of ignorance about the volumes of social science research on race and ethnicity in the U.S. context. (And, his discussion of Ethiopians elsewhere in the transcript affirms the same well of ignorance about the world beyond the U.S.).

Given his limited understanding of the social construction of ‘race,’ it’s somewhat astonishing that Gates wanted to interview this man.   That is, until you consider Gates’ own rather uncritical acceptance of the notion of IQ and his fascination with tracing “genetic roots” (no doubt part of the allusion intended by the name of his online publication).   Throughout the interview with Watson, Gates returns again and again to the notion of “IQ,” and while he seems critical at certain points, there’s a way in which he seems to give credence that this is an acceptable, valid way to measure something meaningful.  The pseudo-science of intelligence tests is something that Joe has written about extensively here, so I won’t repeat that here, but the short version is this is a case of there’s no “there” there.  Such tests don’t measure anything except one’s ability to take tests well.  The other thing to keep in mind about Gates here, is that he led the PBS project on tracing African American genealogy.  Now, it would be a mistake to confuse genealogy with genetics, but people often do (and the series conflates these in various ways).  While I’m fairly certain that Gates is not confused about these two, particularly given his own discovery of his ‘mixed’ racial lineage, I’m nevertheless disappointed that he didn’t push Watson harder on the issue of ‘admixture,’ the geneticists’ term for the reality that we are all of ‘mixed’ racial lineage.   I’m disappointed because Gates failure to press Watson on this represents a lost opportunity to challenge the re-emerging biological hegemony for explaining racial differences.

At one point in the interview, Watson claims that he is most concerned with “social justice.”  If this is true, then it is long overdue for him to examine how his biologically-based views of race contribute to racial inequality and take seriously the ways that his ideas are not just “used by” extremists like David Duke, but are completely consistent with Duke’s white supremacist ideology.


  1. Joe

    Nice and thorough piece, Jessie. I wish we could get your analysis into the traditional white-controlled mass media.

    This is basically about how you frame the key concepts of “IQ” and “race.”

    It is amazing that any intelligent human being would consider the superficial paper-pencil and object manipulation tests, called so grandly “IQ” tests, to be measures of something so broad as “human intelligence.” Such tests only measure s VERY limited range of human skills. They are “skills tests,” and calling and viewing them correctly as just that, destroys the whole “IQ” (mine is better than yours) and “race”argument. Thus, from the broader perspective, Watson must have a very low IQ:))

  2. Jessie Author

    Thanks, Joe. I’ll let you know if 20/20 calls… 😉 The thing that always gets me about people like Watson is that they are called on – here by Gates who should really know better – to comment on social realities like ‘race.’ It’s always an act of extrapolation, moving beyond their area of expertise that just reveals their ignorance about such matters and confirms the basest stereotypes. I just caught an episode of NOVA about E.O.Wilson, founder of sociobiology, who makes the same error. Wilson is perfectly credible talking about ants and other insects, but then he moves to extrapolate from ants to human beings and, not surprisingly, creates works of fiction based on stereotypes.

  3. Joe

    Yeah, we social scientists should get to talk a lot about DNA and ants too, right? No one ever asks us to do that. But every one (dope?) is an expert in our fields…..


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