Think Tanks: Incubators of Scientific Racism

Following on the heels of the Watson debacle last week, British geneticist Prof. Steve Jones writes in the Telegraph that


“science has nothing to say about race and intelligence.”


Would that this were true. Unfortunately, science is far too often implicated in the creation, perpetuation and justification of racism, as Dennis Rutledge explains in this peer-reviewed article from 1995. Tracing the philosophical underpinnings of scientific racism from the early work of Darwin, Spencer, and Sumner, to the intelligence testing movement led by Galton and Binet, and lastly to the contemporary race and IQ studies of Jensen, Herrnstein, and Murray, Rutledge demonstrates the ways that science is often used as a justification to propose, project, and enact racist social policies.

In the contemporary U.S., scientific racism is often incubated in ostensibly “objective” think tanks, such as the Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Pioneer Fund. William Tucker, in his book The Funding of Scientific Racism: Wickliffe Draper and the Pioneer Fund, (University of Illinois Press, 2002), explores the insidious way the Pioneer Fund has promulgated scientific racism. For example, Tucker links the Pioneer Fund’s Draper to a Klansman’s crusade to repatriate blacks in the 1930s; and, he connects later directors of the fund to campaigns organized in the 1960s to reverse the Brown decision, prevent passage of the Civil Rights Act, and implement a system of racially segregated private schools. More recently, the Pioneer Fund helped promote the scientific racism of Hernstein and Murrary’s The Bell Curve, which argues that Blacks are less intelligent than whites, and has been discredited by a number of scholarly publications, including Joe Kincheloe and colleagues’ book, Measured Lies.

Also in the line up of think tanks promoting scientific racism is the Manhattan Institute, which was created by British billionaire Avery Fisher, along with former CIA-chief William Casey. Originally the International Center for Economic Policy Studies (ICEPS), the goal of the Manhattan Institute was, according to Loic Wacquant, “to apply the principles of the market economy to social problems.” In terms of race, this meant dismantling the advances of the civil rights movement, and relocating African-Americans and poor people out of the big cities. Many of the racist policies of the Rudy Guiliani mayoral administration in New York City followed closely on the heels of Manhattan Institute reports.

It’s hard to compete with the Pioneer Fund when it comes to egregious scientific racism among think tanks, but the American Enterprise Institute certainly comes close. Lewis Brown founded AEI in 1943 to counter New Deal philosophy, and since 1986 it has been headed by Christopher DeMuth, and under his leadership AEI has taken a dramatic rightward turn. Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado in their book, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda, report that in 1991 Bork received $150,880 from such sources; D’Souza got $98,400 plus an additional $20,000 to promote his controversial book, Illiberal Education. Deborah Toler writes about the right-wing think tank production of scientific racism for FAIR, and she pulls no punches in setting out the clear connection between AEI and overt racists:

“Still, even for the initiated, the ferocity of AEI’s work on race is quite breathtaking. Although the mainstream media are now deploring the overt racism of hate groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens…, the fact is that there is an overlap between the analyses of “respectable” conservatives, like those at AEI, and the overt racial hatred of white supremacist organizations like CCC.”

So, while some may dismiss Watson’s remarks last week as the ravings of an elderly man with dementia, this is too easy. What’s needed is a more critical view of the way science, or perhaps more accurately, scientific propaganda is implicated in the promotion of racism.


  1. Thomas Volscho

    We had a discussion in Noel Cazenave’s class how it would be useful, using a Marxian lens, to analyze what proportion of the surplus (of surplus product) gets earmarked for investment in ideological systems (think tanks, foundations, etc.) aimed with the reproduction of racism.

    Kevin MacDonald, famed evolutionary psychologist at Cal State Long Beach claims not to be anti-semitic and racist (or at least a purveyor of racist ideology) but has given talks to white supremacist groups and if you scan aryan nations blogs the world over he is often cited extensively.

  2. Jessie Author

    Analyzing the surplus for how it reproduces racism sounds like a great dissertation idea for someone.

    There are lots and lots of that brand of scholar, like McDonald, who blur the line between mainstream, scientific racism and the extremist, aryan nation racism. William Shockley is another on that list.

  3. You are mistaken by thinking that I have taken the easy way out by attributing Watson’s racist views as a mere rant by an elderly person.
    Since most of the readers of my blog are not from the scientific field, it is essential for me to project to them that scientists are not above prejudices.
    It is also essential to simplify the blog contents for better understanding by readers from all fields.
    The theories that you have defined in your article are only for a selective community.
    Arent you aiding the propaganda of racism just by writing about it?

  4. Jessie Author

    Madhuri ~ When I said it was “too easy” to label Watson afflicted with dementia, I meant to suggest that calling racism a mental illness is a critique that doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of shifting racism. If Watson is mentally ill or suffering from dementia, then we can dismiss his comments, and the ways they’re connected to broader structures of racism. That’s the part I meant was “too easy.” As for this site “aiding the propaganda of racism just by writing about it,” I’d have to disagree, and just leave it at that.

  5. George Chell

    At least two individuals at the Manhattan Institute are racists: Heather MacDonlad and Steven Malinga, who are all for free market libertarianism until the white people are harmed by these free market policies.


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