Archive for scientific racism
My son was born with a large bruise-like birthmark on his low back and buttocks. Not overly concerned, but curious, we asked our White nurse about it. She told us it was called a “Mongolian spot.” Both my husband and I must have had a visible reaction, because she quickly followed with, “I don’t know why they call it that. They just do.” A year later I recounted this story to a white family member (whom I am close to and love dearly). He didn’t see a problem. Thought I was overreacting. The conservation quickly deteriorated into a heated argument. Not knowing my history I was helpless to defend myself. Wasn’t “Mongolian,” he wondered, just a harmless – maybe even nice – reference to the people of Mongolia?
Mongolian spots are congenital birthmarks found on the lower backs, buttocks, sides and sometimes shoulders, of primarily infants with East Asian heritage (but also East African, Native American, Polynesians, Micronesians and Latin American). They typically disappear 3-5 yrs after birth.
The term was coined by German internist and anthropologist Erwin Bälz who spent 27 years in Japan and is considered cofounder of its modern (western) medicine. In 1881 he married a Japanese woman and had two multiracial Asian children of his own. In 1902, he was appointed personal physician-in-waiting to Emperor Meiji and the Imperial household of Japan. Finding blue spots on Japanese babies, he thought these spots were characteristic of Johann Bluembach’s “Mongoloid” race, and named them accordingly.
Johann Friedrich Bluembach was a massively influential figure in the development of race as we know it today. Sometimes referred to as the “Father of Scientific Anthropology” or the “Founding Father of Craniometry,” he laid out the scientific template for contemporary race categories.
In his On the Natural Variety of Mankind, he mapped a hierarchical pyramid of 5 human types (founded on the description of human skulls):
- the Caucasian, Caucasoid, or “white” race
- the Mongolian, Mongoloid, or “yellow” race
- the Malayan or “brown” race
- the Ethiopian, Negroid or “black” race
- the American or “red” race
Though Blumenbach strongly opposed slavery and believed in the potential equality of all people, he placed “Caucasians” at the top of his pyramid because a skull found in the Caucasus Mountains was to him “the most beautiful form of the skull, from which…the others diverge.” Many European scholars at the time showed tremendous interest in the Caucasus Mountains, particularly the holy “Mount Ararat.” It was there, according to the Old Testament (Genesis 8: 4), that Noah’s Ark came to rest after the Flood. Supporting a Judeo-Christian worldview, Bluembach considered the Caucasus Mountains to be the birthplace of humankind (i.e. only Europeans) and that the Mongolian and the Ethiopian had diverged from the Caucasian. By stark contrast, it is thought his use of “Mongoloid” derived from the Mongol people who caused great terror throughout Eurasia during the Mongol Empire invasions.
Blumenbach’s works themselves were not widely read in early America but American academics (notably Samuel George Morton) distorted and recast them. This “scientific” image of man went on to form the basis of modern racial theory, and hence racism. Today, in addition to obvious negative socio-political associations, the term “Mongoloid” is also considered derogatory by the scientific community due to its association with discredited models of racial classification. I believe most would agree all the –oid racial terms (e.g. Mongoloid, Caucasoid, Negroid, etc.) are controversial and offensive no matter how they are used.
And yet, despite its insidious history and racist associations, we continue to use “Mongolian spot” to label a physical appearance of our young Asian and multiracial Asian children. In fact, I have even heard it used endearingly, or sweetly, as a signal of the child “belonging” to Asian culture. Interesting to me how our nurse deferred blame to some unidentifiable other, “I don’t know why they call it that. They just do,” denying her role as an active agent in perpetuating the term. As a postpartum nurse she is on the frontline. She is in every day contact with hundreds, probably thousands, of parents of Asian and multiracial Asian children. Bewildered by the entry of a new person into their life, I’m sure many of these parents tiredly accept “Mongolian spot” on her medical authority, and then move on to try to figure out the incredible tasks of breastfeeding and/or sleeping. I suspect no one would reprimand her if she simply started saying, “O that’s just a birthmark. Sometimes we see those types of birthmarks on Asian babies.” Just leave out the “Mongolian” all together.
So what’s stopping her?
What’s stopping us?
~ Sharon Chang, originally posted at Multiethnic & Multiracial Asian Families
Recently, two articles in important sociological journals have contributed further to the white-framed sociological discourse of race. The latest edition of Sociological Theory (June 2012) published Shiao, Bode, Beyer, and Selvig’s “The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race,” an essay that argues for reinvigorating biological understandings—more specifically, the “biosocial causation”—of race. A number of problems accompany this piece, the primary being its white-framed perception of races contorted by biologism/eugenics and a pained attempt to be “scientific.” Reverting to Eurocentric scientific racism is a sign of the times, increasingly used to de-legitimate the status, societal position, and social, economic, cultural, political-legal rights and empowerment of people of color.
Possibly more alarming than the Sociological Theory (ST) piece on race is a short essay in the July 2012 issue of Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews (CS) [pdf]. The Editor’s Remarks on Booker T. Washington and Robert E. Park’s The Man Farthest Down subtly frame racial discourse from a white perspective. Indeed, this type of “under-the-radar” white framing appears to be more problematic than more obvious forms discovered in the ST article, because it 1) often goes undetected, thus unchallenged; 2) reinforces dominant white-framed beliefs subconsciously and piecemeal; and 3) often passes as “universal,” “objective” (nonbiased), and therefore “race neutral” exposition.
To grasp the white framing of race operating in the CS Editor’s Remarks, it is helpful to have some background knowledge of Washington and Park. Both were extremely important in developing mainstream ideas about race in society (Washington) and sociology (Park). Washington was the most influential African American leader of the early twentieth century, who espoused a social philosophy of a black socio-economic self-sufficiency, evading racial conflict and criticism of white racism, and pragmatic accommodation to whites in power. After acting as Washington’s secretary, Park helped establish Chicago School sociology and lead the study of race in academic sociology. Park’s framework for understanding race, with its focus on the four-stage race relations cycle and Euro-assimilation, continues to define the sociology of race.
As the Editor’s Remarks observe, “the four-stage race-relations cycle [is] still taught to undergraduates.” Park is credited with shifting the study of race away from biological to cultural explanations of races and differences among races. However, this claim of Park’s departure from social Darwinism is largely refuted by a number of race scholars, such Ralph Ellison (1964), John Stanfield (1985), and Vernon Williams, Jr. (1996), among others. They point out that Park espoused racial prejudices when discussing whites and people of color and that his explanations of the segregation of races are intellectual tools easily used to justify white supremacy. Park assumed that all “primitive” races (i.e., people of color) aspire to assimilate to the social world and behaviors of the “civilized” white race.
Ethnicity, culture and assimilation paradigms developed by Park, and then Gunnar Myrdal, Milton Gordon, the Nathan Glazer-Patrick Moynihan team, and practiced by many contemporary sociologists, outline an unrealistic depiction of race. The study of ethnicity and culture routinely avoids discussion of ideational and material realities of race/s, the white-imposed hierarchy and systemic ordering of racial groups, and societal effects of institutional, structural and systemic racism. Ethnic and cultural studies are normally framed from a white perspective that neglects crucial socio-historical differences between European migrants and migrants of color from different parts of the globe and tends to position European cultures over other worldwide cultures. In the US, white ethnic groups have largely disappeared and assumed a generic white identity (see the ethno-racial categories listed in the US Census or any job application), whereas ethnic groups of color are subject to hyper-critique, problematic categorization and division, and stigmatization that is inherently Eurocentric.
Assimilation theory bespeaks a colonialist mentality and centuries-old white supremacist attitudes. Assimilation theory assumes Euro-domination and justifies Eurocentrism, a belief in dominance of European models of society and human relations (“civilization”), and social practices that reinforce white elites’ power interests, ideologies and cultural mores. It is clear that the stages of assimilation Park outlines mirror the steps of European colonization (see Lyman 1973, Steinberg 2007). As the assimilation theorist Milton Gordon illustrated with the concept Anglo-conformity, assimilation has long had specific meaning and connotation: assimilation to the European ideals, behaviors, and culture of Anglo-Saxons. While Anglo-Saxons once sat atop the racial hierarchy, a number of other white ethnic groups have joined the ranks of Anglo-elite and formed a broader based white power elite. Today, a more general conformity to whiteness or white racial framing has replaced the outdated and now too-limited understanding and practice of Anglo-conformity. Like ethnicity and culture paradigms, the assimilation paradigm largely omits serious discussion of racial conflict, the societal effects and human costs of racism, and the well-organized racist ideologies and practices of the group that has the most power to define race, whites, and especially elite whites.
Washington and Park’s ideas about race reflect key elements of white-framed sociology and support a Eurocentric perspective of race. Despite his contributions to the black community, Washington failed to discuss the fundamentally unequalized racial structures and racism in the US. Elite whites’ funding for the Tuskegee Institute, the black educational institution Washington founded, demanded he remain silent about systemic racism and the powerful whites and white institutions that uphold racist society. Instead, in return for whites’ financial, political and media support, Washington downplayed and misrepresented struggles of African Americans, highlighting problems of black agency (individual and group) rather than societal problems associated with systemically racist social system and the racist institutional structures created by whites that prop that system (W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903).
It is surprising that the CS Editor’s Remarks reintroduced Washington and Park’s sketchy writings on race, considering the many holes in Park’s sociological theories and Washington’s social philosophy. Park explained away Eurocentrism, while Washington downplayed it. It is contemporary sociologists’ job to see through and then discredit out-dated, ethnocentric race theories of Park and the propagandist, apologist racial rhetoric of Washington.
In a recent post in Psychology Today, Satoshi Kanazawa wrote an incendiary post titled “Why are African American Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Woman.”
In Kanazawa’s post he purports that black women are categorically and scientifically less attractive than men and women of other racial groups, including black men. His “findings” are based on Ad Health (a longitudinal study funded by the US to analyze “adolescent health outcomes”) interviewers’ “objective” ranking of the attractiveness (on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1=very unattractive and 5 =very attractive) of white, black, Asian, and Native American Ad health participants.
Kanazawa does not specify the race and background of the Ad Health interviewers.
Kanazawa takes as fact the rankings of the Add Health interviewers and based on their opinions he purports that indeed black women are the most unattractive group of individuals regardless of sex and race. Kanazawa concludes his argument stating:
The only thing I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone. Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other races, and testosterone, being an androgen (male hormone), affects the physical attractiveness of men and women differently… In contrast, women with higher levels of testosterone also have more masculine features and are therefore less physically attractive. The race differences in the level of testosterone can therefore potentially explain why black women are less physically attractive than women of other races, while (net of intelligence) black men are more physically attractive than men of other races.
Kanazawa’s argument is of course baseless and there is no scientific evidence to support his notion that black women have more testosterone than other races of women. The perception of Kanazawa and the Ad Health interviewers is a direct reflection of the historical social construction of black women (and whites) by elite white men, such as Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier. This is a society historically constructed by elite white men, whereby their notion of beauty is treated as the irrevocable truth. A socially created “truth,” that has not only been accepted by whites, but also by some people of color. As far back as the 15th and 16th centuries, European travelers and scientists have defined black women as innately inferior to white women in beauty, sexuality, and femininity. These early European travelers often defined black women as masculine and thus fit for the hard life of slavery.
My recent research examining 134 contemporary white men’s perspectives of black women reveals the deep seated racist and sexist frame that many white men operate from as it relates to black women. This is a frame that unfortunately has been adopted by some people of color. Overwhelmingly the white male respondents in the study, rooted in the historical social construction of black women, found black women only attractive if they met a white normative standard. Those black women considered physically unattractive were those with traits defined as “black,” such as, coarse” or “nappy” hair; “black” facial features, “big lips” and “wide noses”; dark skin; and “larger” and “disproportionate” body shapes (using the language of the participants).
For example, one respondent in his 20s stated the following about black women and the standard of beauty:
There are some black women who are attractive. And they aren’t full black. The only black women I find attractive are a mix of black and [E]uropean, black and [L]atino, or black and [A]sian. They end up with the tan complexion, and hair that doesn’t look frizzled or like a brillo pad.
Similarly, another respondent in his 50s stated the following about black women and attractiveness:
I think black women’s features are too extreme; they are too dark, and they usually are much too large for my tastes. The black women I have know[n] are very aggressive and have terrible attitudes…The only black women I have found even marginally attractive are smaller, lighter-skinned black women with nice rear ends. ala Beyonce.
Another respondent, an older working-class male, articulated one of the most racialized and gendered social constructions of black women, when he stated:
“I tend to read African features as somewhat masculine. The ‘blacker’ the person, the less femininity I tend to see.”
Whereas the other respondents alluded to black or too-black features as a negative “extreme” that indicates unattractiveness, this respondent articulated that perceived unattractiveness as a sign of masculinity. His assertion that black features on black women are masculine is rooted in the deeply racialized and gendered construction of the black female body, which includes the firm denial of femininity, beauty, and womanhood.
Hence, it is no surprise that people like Kanazawa hold such negative perceptions of black women’s beauty as irrevocable fact. Kanazawa and the Ad health interviewers have adopted a deep seated frame of reference where whiteness and white defined notions of beauty are so deeply entrenched that they are not recognized as the racist and sexist constructions that they are. For them and a large proportion of this global world it is simply the unquestioned norm.
There’s a growing body of evidence that implicates racism in a variety of negative health consequences. Yet, the research on ‘health disparities and race’ neither focuses on whiteness nor on the ways that racism plays a role in health.
The Health Disparities Industry. Much of public health is driven by a concern with, and research on, ‘health disparities.’ If you’re not familiar with this field (or, subfield), it works like this:
“The literature on racial disparities in health by definition involves comparisons across groups defined by some racial classification system. Perhaps the most common of these comparisons take the form of the following general proposition: [Black/Hispanic/Native American] [children or adults] have higher rates of [the condition, disease, or 'disability' under investigation] than whites, primarily because of [explanatory variable]” (Daniels and Schultz, 2006, p.97).
There is a vast amount of scientific literature, and a number of federal agencies, built on this formulation. The equation is always the same: measure some health outcome (rates of heart disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS) in “minority” populations and compare it to the rates in the white population. Don’t misunderstand me. I think it’s a good thing, indeed an important thing, to focus on the health of folks who are black and brown because they carry a disproportionate burden when it comes to health. And, black and brown folks endure less than equal care when they encounter the health care system. Both these – health and health care – deserve attention from scholars, activists and those in public policy.
In a recent article critical of the health disparities industry, Shaw-Ridley and Ridley chart the scope of this industry and question the ethics of it. The problem is that there’s a lot that remains unexamined in the ‘health disparities’ framework.
Whiteness & The White Racial Frame in Health Disparities. Defining whiteness has been a central project of the construction of what it means to be American. What it means to be “white” is built into the U.S. Census. This history is the subject of a recent book by Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People. She observes that:
“Until the 1960′s, there were two racial dialogues going on the United States. One was more or less Southern, and that was black-white. The other had to do with various kinds of white people.”
The fact that white people have dominated the U.S. since its founding has also meant that they (we) have shaped the very way that we view reality (e.g., everything from laws, relationships, media, discourse,) in the U.S. This shaping of how we ‘frame’ things is referred to by Joe Feagin as ‘the white racial frame.’ The basic idea of the white racial frame is as follows:
The North American system of racial oppression grew out of extensive European exploitation of indigenous peoples and African Americans. It has long encompassed these dimensions: (1) a white racial framing of society with its racist ideology, stereotypes, and emotions; (2) whites’ discriminatory actions and an enduring racial hierarchy; and (3) pervasively racist institutions maintained by discriminatory whites over centuries. White-generated oppression is far more than individual bigotry, for it has from the beginning been a material, social, and ideological reality. For four centuries North American racism has been systemic–that is, it has been manifested in all major societal institutions.
Even though as Painter and Feagin note that whiteness and the white racial frame are central to the the American social and political context, these are little remarked upon within the literature on racial disparities in health outcomes. Indeed, the white racial frame permeates the research on race and health, and in particular, the research on ‘health disparities.’
The usual construction of ‘health disparities’ research constructs whiteness in two ways:
“First, it establishes a comparison between whites as a referent group and some ‘other’ group whose health is evaluated in comparison to that of whites. In an Ideal world, such comparisons may demonstrate arenas in which health outcomes do not differ by race, challenging ideas of racial group difference. If, however, funders are less likely to support research in which susbstantial racial differences are not apparent, or if publishers are less likely to publish articles that find no statistically significant differences….the literature will reinforce racial health differences while minimizing similarities… (Daniels and Schultz, 2006, p.97).
The comparison group in this research is always whites, which puts those who are not white in a “one down” position. The question as it’s framed in this research is always “What’s wrong with this [non-white] group? What’s happening that their health outcomes are ‘disparate from’ [not as good as] the health outcomes of whites?” The second way that that health disparities research constructs whiteness is through:
“….the use of racial categories and comparisons with no consistent foundation fo rthe theorizing, understanding, or interpreting observed racial differences (or their absence) in health outcomes provides space for a wide range of potential explanations. Each of these ‘explanations’ implicity or explicitly constructs both race and whiteness. “ (Daniels and Schultz, 2006, pp.97-8)
The overwhelming majority of research on ‘health disparities’ never examines whiteness nor implicates the actions of white people in this equation. This may be changing, however. Very recent research by Blodorn and O’Brien (of Tulane University, “Perceptions of Racism in Hurricane Katrina-Related Events: Implications for Collective Guilt and Mental Health Among White Americans) examines the implications of health disparities on whites. This is a rare focus in this research.
Racism. Contrary to the passive voice construction of most ‘health disparities’ literature, there are indications in the literature that there are actors responsible for at least some of the racial inequality contributing to the racial inequality in health outcomes. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there’s an increasing amount of evidence in the scientific literature that supports the claim that racism is a contributing factor to ill health. The pernicious sleight-of-hand in the ‘health disparities’ literature is that most of this research focuses on “perceptions” of racism among black and brown folks, but none of this research (at least none that I’ve found) acknowledges the reality of racism nor does it address those who are the perpetrators of racism in contemporary American society.
What Needs to Change. Clearly, there are unequal health outcomes that need to be addressed (see for example, Glady Budrys, Unequal Health: How Inequality Contributes to Health or Illness). On almost every measure, those in our society who are Black, Latino or Native American will die sooner than those who are white. For almost every disease, such as cancer and diabetes, those who are Black, Latino or Native American are more likely to contract the disease than whites, and once the disease is contracted, more likely to die from it.
This is one of the many costs of racism in our society and it must change.
However, looking only at those who must pay these costs as the source for changing these mechanisms of inequality is misguided. We need to begin to critically examine those who hold the most power and resources in society, that is at white people, for the ways that they contribute to and benefit from the inequality in health outcomes.
Susan Reverby, a Wellesley College professor, recently discovered records that reveal a two-year study designed by white researchers and supported by the U.S. government was conducted in which people in Guatemala were intentionally infected with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
This STD study conducted from 1946-48, health researchers from the United States and Guatemala intentionally infected Guatemalan sex workers, prisoners, soldiers, and hospitalized psychiatric patients with gonorrhea, chancroid, and syphilis. Reverby’s student prompted the U.S. Department of Health & Human services to release this information about the study. It is officially referred to as “The 1946 STD inoculation study.” And in an email statement, Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – the current version of the institution that originally ran the study – said this:
The 1946 STD inoculation study should never have happened. We are committed to the respect and safety of research participants. In this spirit, the U.S. government will convene an international group of experts to review and report on the most effective methods to ensure that all human medical research conducted around the globe today meets rigorous ethical standards and how training of researchers will ensure such abuses do not occur. If you have questions or comments regarding ethical human research and this study, please send them to 1946Study@cdc.gov.
This renewed commitment to ethical research by Dr. Frieden is an important one but may fail to persuade skeptical listeners familiar with the history of other ethical violations.
The fact is that the researcher who discovered the Guatemalan study made this discovery in the archived papers of Dr. John Cutler, a U.S. public health researcher who was also involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study. Cutler was white and all the “participants” in the study were African American men. While the Tuskegee study design did not intentionally infect subjects with syphilis (a common misunderstanding), the researchers violated medical and research ethics by withholding treatment – a simple shot of penicillin – that would have effectively cured the disease. Further, the men in the study were never told that they were being used as research subjects. The combination of these two facts (withholding medical treatment that would have cured the disease, and not telling them they were research subjects) are used as textbook examples of ethical violations in research. The additional, and some could argue, central fact that these were white researchers violating the human rights of black subjects is an ethical violation that continues to reverberate today in a variety of ways. (For further research on Tuskegee, see James H. Jones’ classic text, Bad Blood and the more recent, and broader in scope, Medical Apartheid, by Harriet Washington.)
The reality is that the actions of Cutler, in Tuskegee and Guatemala, were not the isolated actions of a “bad apple” working outside the aegis of the CDC (and its predecessor organization, the U.S. Public Health Service). He was a well-respected M.D. and public health researcher who defended his involvement in the Tuskegee study until his death in 2003. (For video footage of Cutler defending Tuskegee on camera, be sure to see the documentary The Deadly Deception, which also includes interviews with a handful of the survivors of the study.)
Both the studies designed by Cutler, in Guatemala and in Tuskegee, Alabama, were premised on several notions that remain with us today. First, is the notion that the pursuit of “scientific knowledge” is a worthwhile goal in and of itself, followed closely by the idea that pursuing this goal justifies almost any means necessary to achieve it. Still with us, too, is the idea that white researchers are somehow entitled to the biological “resource” of others. As a society, we continue to subscribe to the idea that there are some groups of people who, because they are less powerful, it’s okay to conduct research on them. Perhaps the key idea underpinning Cutler’s research was that the “course of the disease” of syphilis would be different in blacks (or Guatemalans) than in whites. Today, many continue to cling to facile notions of racial differences in biology, while research consistently show these are insignificant. These ideas, taken together, share much in common with the worldview of the doctors that Robert Jay Lifton describes in his book, Nazi Doctors, about the physicians who practiced medical experimentation on Jews held in concentration camps. In an interview with Cutler, James H. Jones asked him whether he saw any similarity between his study at Tuskegee and the experimentation in the death camps. Cutler, looking incredulous and wounded, replied, “But they were Nazis!”
When the panel Frieden is convening comes together, they would do well to not only review the historical legacy of racism in public health, but keep in mind the way these ideas continue to permeate public health research today.
Interesting article over at RaceWire (racewire.org) about the unbeknown and unrequited contributions of Henrietta Lacks to the field of science. In 1951, exactly 58 years ago yesterday, Mrs. Lacks died of cervical cancer. Just 3 years later, cells from her body were cultured at Johns Hopkins into the “HeLa cells” now used as the standard vaccination for the polio virus. The kicker? The cells from Lacks’ body were used without her consent, without her knowledge, and without any reparations to the Lacks family. As stated,
While the cells were commercialized early on, and have recently been used to create a whole new lucrative industry of gene mapping the family of Mrs Lacks has (of course) never been offered any part of the wealth. They have only been asked to contribute yet more cell and blood samples, ‘for the good of science.
And it was not until 2001 that Johns Hopkins scheduled an event to honor Lacks’ contribution and to thank her family. Unfortunately, the event never happened.
This reminds me of the countless Black men exploited by white scientists in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study of 1932 . This study, arguably the most despicable and atrocious example of state racism, eventually led to the 1979 Belmont Report, which is now standard operating procedure for scientific research with human subjects. However, the fact that the study continued under various supervisors until it was leaked to the press in 1970 bears testament to the enduring (white) logic of science and racism. In both Lacks’ case and the Tuskegee study, Black bodies were seen as expendable commodities by white researchers, who took advantage of their subjects and in the case of the Tuskegee study, ultimately killed them, their families and spouses.
As we have often argued on this blog before, American wealth and privilege has been born out of the sacrifices and injustices of people of color, particularly those of African Americans. It is striking how many Black Americans suffer from health inequality today despite their contributions to the very medical procedures and vaccines we now take for granted.
Why does the field of science proclaim objectivity in the face of such incontrovertible racism? Can we really tease out our sociocultural biases and prejudices when conducting scientific research?
Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade revealed a glimpse into the depths of his own racism on the air recently. During a discussion of a study based on research done in Finland and Sweden which showed people who stay married are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s, this exchange happened (short, less than 1 minute):
In this clip, Kilmeade questions the results of the study saying, “We are — we keep marrying other species and other ethnics and other …” The co-host tried to distract Kilmeade, but he goes on to add, “See, the problem is the Swedes have pure genes. Because they marry other Swedes …. Finns marry other Finns, so they have a pure society.”
The argument Kilmeade is making, and to their credit that his co-workers at Fox News seem appalled to hear, is one that’s rooted in the discredited racial pseudo-science of eugenics.
Eugenics, which reached ascendancy in the U.S. and Europe in the 1930s, advocated social progress through encouraging those deemed “fit” to reproduce to have children and discouraging, even coercing through forced sterilization, those thought to be “unfit.” One of the intellectual factories producing knowledge steeped in eugenics was at Cold Spring Harbor Lab on Long Island, just outside New York. While claims about “fitness” and “unfitness” were sometimes tied to inherited disease, just as often these designations were linked to poverty and race. Thus, people who are poor or not considered white are designated “unfit.” Indeed, in the extreme version of eugenics, some people were considered “less than human” or of “another species.” This kind of thinking is part of what fueled the Third Reich’s calculated extermination of six million Jews. Following the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of the camps, the theory of eugenics fell into disfavor.
In his book, Backdoor to Eugenics (NY: Routledge, 2nd Ed., 2003), sociologist Troy Duster explores the ways that current practices, such as prenatal detection of birth defects, gene therapies, growth hormones, are once again introducing “genetic answers” to what are fundamentally social questions. In Kilmeade’s ill-informed discussion of research about the length of marriage, he is stepping into a long tradition of eugenics as the scientific basis for racism and antisemitism. Fox News rarely disappoints as a source for broadcasting such retrograde thinking.
Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. For some time now, this birthday has brought much commentary on his theory of evolution, especially about the controversy generated by conservative religious groups who reject his theory and the extensive scientific evidence supporting much of it. Darwin is often listed as one of the ten most influential thinkers in Western history (a parochial listing, as the list makers leave out the rest of the world), and probably deserves that designation.
Religion and evolution get the attention most of the time when Darwin is publicly debated, but his racial views are also getting a little attention as well. They should get much more attention. To his credit, Charles Darwin was opposed to slavery, and this got him into trouble a few times, but he shared many of the anti-equality racist views of his day. In The Independent Marek Kohn notes the shift in thinking during Darwin’s life about the monogenetic origin of humanity:
When Charles Darwin entered the world 200 years ago, there was one clear and simple answer to the slave’s question. All men were men and brothers, because all were descended from Adam. By the time Darwin had reached adulthood, however, opinions around him were growing more equivocal. During his vision-shaping voyage on the Beagle, he was able to consult an encyclopedia which arranged humankind into 15 separate species, each of a separate origin.
Reviewing a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Kohn summarizes thus:
Evolutionary thinking enabled [Darwin] to rescue the idea of human unity, taking it over from a religion that no longer provided it with adequate support, and put the idea of common descent on a rational foundation. . . . [However, as he aged and] As attitudes to race became harsher, sympathies for black people in the Americas more scant, and the fate of “savages” a matter of indifference, Darwin’s own sympathies were blunted by the prevailing fatalism.
As he got older, especially in his famous, The Descent of Man, Darwin fell in line with much of the racist thinking of his day and even developed an early version the perspective later called “social Darwinism”:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
In his view, the “civilized races” would eventually replace the “savage races throughout the world.” Darwin’s earlier and most famous book was entitled: The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. In such influential and momentous writings Darwin applied his evolutionary idea of natural selection not only to animal development but also to the development of human “races.” He saw natural selection at work in the killing of indigenous peoples of Australia by the British, wrote here of blacks (some of the “savage races”) being a category close to gorillas, and spoke against social programs for the poor and “weak” because such programs permitted the least desirable people to survive.
By the late 1800s a racist perspective called “social Darwinism” extensively developed these ideas of Darwin and argued aggressively that certain “inferior races” were less evolved, less human, and more apelike than the “superior races.” Prominent social scientists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner argued that social life was a life-and-death struggle in which the best individuals would win out over inferior individuals. Sumner argued that wealthy Americans, almost entirely white at the time, were products of natural selection and as the “superior race” essential to the advance of civilization. Black Americans were seen by many of these openly racist analysts as a “degenerate race” whose alleged “immorality” was a racial trait.
Though some have presented him that way, Darwin was not a bystander to this vicious scientific racism. In their earlier book, Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore summarize thus:
‘Social Darwinism’ is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start–‘Darwinism’ was always intended to explain human society.
Why has his racist thinking received so little attention in the celebration of his ideas and impact?
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. …. Read More→
There’s quite a controversy brewing within academic circles about a tenured full professor of psychology at Cal State U. Long Beach, Kevin McDonald, that raises important questions about the creation of knowledge, the academic enterprise and race. McDonald, who is an evolutionary psychologist, contends that Jews are a separate race driven by genetics and evolution to band together, both for “group survival” and to undercut white, Western culture. Further, he asserts that the Third Reich’s Nazi movement developed specifically to counter “Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy.” He claims to be “agnostic” about whether or not the Holocaust happened, and yet, testified on behalf of infamous Holocaust-denier, David Irving. Not coincidentally, McDonald says that he testified in support of Irving because he was motivated by a desire to defend academic freedom, not deny the Holocaust. Although McDonald includes a disavowal on his website that he does not “condone white racial superiority, genocide, Nazism or Holocaust denial,” his actions – and his research – suggest otherwise, as Scott Jaschik demonstrates in his piece in Inside Higher Ed (Feb.14). Jaschik points out that a favorable story about McDonald’s work appears on Vanguard News Network, a white supremacist website. And, in Heidi Beirich’s thoroughly devastating piece on McDonald for SPLC’s Intelligence Report, she notes that his work is more popular than Mein Kampf with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. In fact, David Duke draws heavily on McDonald’s work for his own antisemitic and racist autobiography, My Awakening, and the condensed version, Jewish Supremacism. And, according to Beirich’s report, in 2004 white supremacists David Duke (former Klansman and Louisiana legislator), Don Black, Jamie Kelso (of Stormfront, the main online portal for white supremacy) and Kevin Alfred Strom (of the neo-Nazi National Vanguard) all attended a ceremony in which McDonald was honored by The Occidental Quarterly, a white supremacist journal. McDonald is pictured here receiving the award, alongside Virginia Abernethy, a self-described “white separatist.”
As you might expect, the controversy is widely being framed as an issue that tests the bounds of academic freedom. This is both an obvious, and a deeply problematic, way to frame this particular case. On the one hand, McDonald is an academic with tenure (and a promotion by his peers to full professorship) who has controversial and unpopular views and should, within the rules of the academy, be allowed to express those views.
On the other hand, framing McDonald’s vile “scholarship” as within the bounds of what is acceptable and even protected within the academy is deeply problematic given the context of his position within a public university with a commitment to human rights, diversity, and to offering an equal educational environment for all who enroll there. I’m generally quite critical of absolutist defenses of “free speech,” and am persuaded by critiques of the first amendment grounded in critical race theory.
Yet, I find this particular case vexing Read More→