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.  …. Continue reading…