Charles Darwin: Did He Help Create Scientific Racism?

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.

An hommage to Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday
Creative Commons License photo credit: Serge K. Keller, FCD

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?

Farm Racism: More Data Destroying the “Post-Racial” Myth

Colorlines has a story by Jessica Hoffmann that demolishes the “post-racial America” mythology. Systemic racism is central to the 21st United States, no matter how much the white apologists, moderates or far-right supremacists, rattle on about an end to racism. Look at extreme racial inequality and continuing racial discrimination in allocation of farm supports. The U.S. government spends many billions yearly subsidizing farming. According to a recent GAO report, these government “welfare” recipients are overwhelmingly white, including

three thousand multimillionaires who derive most of their income from activities other than farming. The U.S. government spends billions each year subsidizing farm operations.

Haggard Farm Sunset
Creative Commons License photo credit: Schlüsselbein2007

The small farmers, justifiably celebrated as providing us with food and prosperity over centuries, mostly get stiffed by the government support system:

Crop-subsidy programs systematically fail to support small farmers—and this disproportionately impacts farmers of color. . . . Black farmers receive only one-third to one-sixth of the benefits that other farmers receive, according to the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based nonprofit research organization…. The Southern Rural Development Initiative found that less than 1 percent of agriculture subsidy payments between 2001 and 2003 went to Blacks, Native Americans and Asian Americans. [Note: Latinos are often counted as white in government accounting, so often not in these data.] …. Even in counties where people of color are the majority, researchers estimate that at a minimum, almost 95 percent of agriculture subsidies “are going to farms with white operators.”

How’s that for extreme racial inequality in the 21st century? Adding in Latino farmers still probably means that somewhere near 98 percent of government subsides go to white farmers. And even in counties with a majority of farmers who are people of color, the latter get a very small portion of the supports. This certainly looks like another white welfare system to me.

One reason for this is that whites control almost all the bigger farms:

Less than one percent of subsidies go Federal crop subsidies go to commodity crops like corn, cotton and rice, which require large farms, and most large farms in the U.S. are white-owned. …. USDA spokespeople maintain that disparities in subsidies payments are not a matter of race, but simply of “large farms and small farms.”

They, like many other whites, cannot see structures and systems of oppression. However, fairies did not generate a system where whites control most of the farm land. This took centuries of extreme racial segregation and discrimination:

Yet a history of systemic racism in the U.S. (including at the USDA) means that farmers of color disproportionately own small farms where they raise livestock or grow fruits and vegetables—crops that are ineligible for USDA crop subsidies. USDA crop payments are based not only on type of crop but also on historical acreage and per-acre yields. Given the long and documented history of discriminatory lending practices and foreclosures against farmers of color by the USDA, Black farmers today have fewer land holdings to make them eligible for the subsidies.

Significantly, there have been major efforts by farmers of color (not whites) in recent years to end the discrimination against farmers of color, and to get compensation for the large-scale past discrimination. For example, to stop the discrimination against African American farmers in government farm lending and benefit programs, thousands of black farmers brought a class action suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1997. Federal government denial of legal redress to the aggrieved black farmers who were protesting discrimination in Farm Service Agency (FSA) programs led to this lawsuit. Black farmers gave evidence about widespread discrimination in many aspects of the process of getting FSA loans and benefits. This discrimination took the form of FSA officials misinforming black farmers that there were no loan applications or benefits available in particular local FSA offices. (For references, see chapter six in White Racism: The Basics)

Eventually, the black farmers had their day in court and won a major settlement, approved by a U.S. District Court. The black farmers involved could choose among three options: reject the settlement, get $50,000 if they could show injury, or petition for more in binding arbitration. However, for many the compensation offered was quite insufficient as a response to years of racial discrimination–for many had lost homes, equipment, and land, some of which had been in the family for generations.

Today, the situation of African American farmers (and other farmers of color) is particularly bleak. Over the last 80 years, denial of fair access to capital (bank loans) and many product markets, often because of racial discrimination, has gradually reduced the number of black farmers by more than 97 percent—from 890,000 in 1910 to fewer than 29,145 in 2002. (For details, see chapter 2 here)

According to Hoffman, one sad part of this is that now small farming is coming back in as an ideal that allows for more sustainable agriculture:

Although farmers of color have much to offer in a world that increasingly sees small-scale, biodiverse farming as essential to food security and environmental sustainability, they are locked out of major USDA funding streams.

And recent farm bills in Congress keep this extreme “post- post-racial” inequality going along much like is has for centuries.

Legal Racism: The System Kills Another Black Man

CNN reports on an important hearing in Austin, Texas, one that sought the

Creative Commons License photo credit: Biggunben

first posthumous exoneration of a wrongly convicted man in Texas history: a black Texas Tech student named Timothy Cole. Cole died in prison a decade ago after serving a long term for a rape, it has now been proven by DNA and other evidence, he did not commit. Numerous black Texans have been released in recent years because they were wrongfully convicted by the criminal injustice system.

His family successfuly sought to clear Timothy Cole’s name. Today they won that exoneration. Here is today’s report on the judge’s decision:

State District Judge Charlie Baird closed an extraordinary hearing today by finding that Timothy Cole, who died in prison in 1999, did not rape fellow Texas Tech student Michele Mallin in 1985. “I find to a 100 percent moral, factual and legal certainty that Timothy Cole did not sexually assault Michele Murray Mallin.” Baird, who took the case after a Lubbock case denied a joint request by Malin and Cole’s family to consider it, further stated that Timothy Cole’s reputation was wrongly injured, that his reputation must be restored and that his good name must be vindicated.”

CNN reports the very troubling story of likely institutional racism thus:

Cole was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for the 1985 rape of 20-year-old Michele Mallin. He maintained his innocence, but it was not confirmed by DNA until years after his 1999 death, when another inmate confessed to the rape.

Mallin was a young student when raped and, to her great credit, once she found out the truth, has joined Cole’s family in this unprecedented exoneration effort, assisted by the Innocence Project of Texas, which has helped in several wrongful conviction cases. The actual rapist has confessed and is also expected to testify at the hearing. The Innocence Project has raised serious questions about the role of the criminal justice system is this wrongful conviction. CNN continues:

The next day, police investigators showed Mallin pictures of possible suspects. She chose a picture of Cole and said he was her attacker. She later identified him in a physical lineup, according to the Innocence Project of Texas…. But there was one detail: Mallin told police her attacker was a smoker. “He was smoking the entire time.” And Cole, who suffered from severe asthma, “was never a smoker,” Session [Cole’s Brother] said. “He took daily medications (for asthma) when he was younger.” “He was the sacrificial lamb. To them, my brother was the Tech rapist, there was no backtracking. It was the trial of the decade for Lubbock.”

The Austin American-Statesmen legal blog has a piece by Steven Kreytak that adds this point about witness misidentification and numerous exonerations in the Texas criminal justice system:

Cole’s case is not isolated. About 80 percent of the Texas cases where people were exonerated by DNA testing since 1994 involved some kind of witness misidentification, according to the Innocence Project of Texas. Gary Wells, an Iowa State University professor who is a leading authority on witness identification has written that their accuracy is frequently imperfect and often depends on the methods employed to obtain the identifications.

The Innocence Project became involved and DNA tests showed that Cole was not the rapist. But this should have been obvious to the police and prosecutor in Lubbock. Cole could not have been the smoking rapist, yet for some reason this very white criminal justice system could not see that reality. Do white officials often “see black” in many such cases? What role did the white racist framing of young “black man as rapist” play in this event? The conviction of course ruined Cole’s life, for he was a student at Texas Tech. CNN continues thus:

But his dreams of getting married and having children never materialized. He was arrested and charged with Mallin’s rape, declining a plea bargain offer that would have put him on probation. A jury convicted him and imposed a 25-year sentence. That night, “he hugged my mother, and he said, ‘Mother, why these people lie on me? Why they do this to me?’

He died in prison of heart complications linked to his bad asthma. Because of this wrongful conviction, he was “murdered” in effect by the criminal justice system, one of many black men in US history.

Indeed, the number of men of color who have been exonerated in recent years shows just how unjust our criminal justice system really is. In recent years there have been many exonerations of people in prison for felonies. The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School reports that their 232 exoneration cases reveal that well over half (138) have been African Americans (my thanks to Kim Cook for these data links). For just death row exonerations (wrongful capital convictions) from DNA evidence and other evidence, 130 death row inmates have been exonerated: 50 are white, 66 African American, 12 Latino, 2 other (Native American and Asian). All but one are male. In these cases Some 16 were exonerated by means of DNA evidence. Well over half (62 percent) were men of color.

So much for the nonsense about a “post-racial America.”

Nativistic Racism Rears Its Ugly Head

The New York Times oped page finally had the guts to call it like it is, to accent how much of the anti-immigration debate and activity by Republicans—and, to be fair, many other whites–has a strong “streak of racialist extremism” and openly nativistic threats.

The Times are Changing
Creative Commons License photo credit: Edgar Zuniga Jr.

In this age of Obama, which many call “post racial,” the Times oped begins by describing a group, American Cause, that a few days at the National Press Club in Washington sought to “speak for the future of the Republican Party” by declaring the losses in November 2008 were because of the Party’s immigration stance. The group put out such a nice little report modestly entitled, “State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America.” Nice racist framing of the issue–one that, among other things, misses in its language the irony of how this nation was actually founded. It plays into white racial frame’s old fear of “invasion” by “you know who.” The Times notes:

The group, the American Cause, released a report arguing that anti-immigration absolutism was still the solution for the party’s deep electoral woes, actual voting results notwithstanding. Rather than “pander to pro-amnesty Hispanics and swing voters,” … Marcus Epstein, urged Republicans to double down on their efforts to run on schemes to seal the border and drive immigrants out.

Yet the Times points out that immigrant-bashing has mostly lost the Republicans elections and public support:

For years Americans have rejected the cruelty of enforcement-only regimes and Latino-bashing, in opinion surveys and at the polls. In House and Senate races in 2008 and 2006, “anti- amnesty” hard-liners consistently lost to candidates who proposed comprehensive reform solutions. . Nor did it help any of the Republican presidential candidates trying to defeat the party’s best-known voice of immigration moderation, John McCain, for the nomination.

This approach is indeed politically dangerous for Republicans, with the great growth in Latino voters, two thirds of whom voted in November 2008 for the Democratic Party candidate. The nativistic American Cause group includes James Pinkerton, a Fox News contributor who was responsible for the infamous Willie Horton ads of the George H. W. Bush racist campaign against Michael Dukakis. Peter Brimelow is one of its members. In his book, Alien Nation, he asserts that “the American nation has always had a specific ethnic core. And that core has been white.” Some decades back, most Americans, he asserts

looked like me. That is, they were of European stock. And in those days, they had another name for this thing dismissed so contemptuously as ‘the racial hegemony of white Americans.’ They called it ‘America.’

Brimelow, himself an immigrant from Great Britain, argues that new immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean constitute a major threat, the threat of a future “alien nation.” His work seems to be a major inspiration for this nativistic group.

Somewhat surprisingly the Times then strongly calls out the white supremacist views:

It is easy to mock white-supremacist views as pathetic and to assume that nativism in the age of Obama is on the way out…. But racism has a nasty habit of never going away…. and thus the perpetual need for vigilance. It is all around us. Much was made of the Republican mailing of the parody song “Barack the Magic Negro,” but the same notorious CD included “The Star Spanglish Banner,” a puerile bit of Latino-baiting.

The Times concludes the editorial by noting the role of Fox News pundits in spreading the anti-immigrant nativism, and the ominous increase in violent hate crimes against Latino immigrants. Violent nativism seems to be on the increase.

Is White Racism Skin Deep?

Blue nevus (3 of 4)
Creative Commons License photo credit: euthman

NPR just did an interesting story on research on melanin and skin color shifts over relatively short evolutionary time, just a few thousand years. Those of us with darker skins may well have had ancestors just 2500 or so years ago who were much lighter in skin color, and those of us with lighter skin may have had much darker recent ancestors. The new research suggests that human evolution does not need thousands of years to change something as superficial as skin color. Given that reality, it is amazing and sad that we humans make so much of our thinking and social organization hinge on something as superficial as melanin variation and dark/light skin color.

Here is an interesting map (NPR, George Chaplin) of where darker-skinned people now live on the planet. Notice how skin color generally follows the levels of ultraviolet radiation (sun intensity) on the planet.

The NPR story quotes Anthropology Professor Nina Jablonski at Penn State, who argues that your current skin color

is very probably not the color your ancient ancestors had — even if you think your family has been the same color for a long, long time. … Skin has changed color in human lineages much faster than scientists had previously supposed, even without intermarriage, Jablonski says. …By creating genetic “clocks,” scientists can make fairly careful guesses about when particular groups became the color they are today. And with the help of paleontologists and anthropologists, scientists can go further: They can wind the clock back and see what colors these populations were going back tens of thousands of years, says Jablonski. She says that for many families on the planet, if we look back only 100 or 200 generations (that’s as few as 2,500 years), “almost all of us were in a different place and we had a different color.” … “People living now in southern parts of India [and Sri Lanka] are extremely darkly pigmented,” Jablonski says. But their great, great ancestors lived much farther north, and when they migrated south, their pigmentation redarkened.

Of course, we are all Africans if we go back about 100,000 years, and thus we all come from people who were once likely quite dark-skinned, given that we originated Africa
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hitchster

in equatorial Africa where the levels of ultraviolet light were, and are quite high. Melanin is a type of skin molecule that makes

skin lighter or darker. Kind of like a Venetian blind, it can let UV light in or keep it out. . .. .Humans have had it for a long, long time and what Jablonski and others have learned is that when early humans migrated from the equator, their melanin levels changed.

And skin color can change much faster than earlier estimates suggested:

“Our original estimates were that [skin color changes] occurred perhaps at a more stately pace,” Jablonski says. But now they’re finding that a population can be one color (light or dark) and 100 generations later — with no intermarriage — be a very different color. Figuring 25 years per generation (which is generous, since early humans walked naked through the world — clothes slow down the rate), that’s an astonishingly short interval.

One thing that the NPR story does not deal with is that there is some significant variation in the map, with some far-north peoples having darker skin color than those somewhat to their south. One reason for this, a science blogger suggests, is that of nutrition and agricultural development:

The deleterious consequences of switching many non-agricultural populations to the starch rich diet are well known (obesity, diabetes, etc.). Selection happens, and it seems likely that a genetic revolution was ushered in by the radically altered nutritional universe of the farmer. … Frank W. Sweet published an essay in 2002 which offered that the feasibility of a farming lifestyle at very high latitudes in Europe due to peculiar climatological conditions served to drive Europeans to develop light skins over the last 10,000 years. In short, Sweet argues that the diets of pre-farming peoples were richer in meats and fish which provided sufficient Vitamin D so that skin color was likely light brown as opposed to pink. But with the spread of agriculture Vitamin D disappeared from the diets of northern European peoples and so only by reducing their melanin levels could they produce sufficient amounts of this nutrient to keep at bay the deleterious consequences of deficiencies. This explains why the Sami, who [live far north on the planet] never adopted agriculture, remained darker.

So, sociological factors loom large as well, in this case shifts in agriculture and food eaten. There are other environmental and genetic diversity factors as well, such as timing in evolution and genetic diversity in the initial population. And one must be careful about arguing from biological research on melanin to broader sociological issues.

Still, it never ceases to amaze me that melanin variation is such a powerful factor in the social construction of “race” among human beings, so much so that young people like Mr. Grant are now deceased because of melanin variation’s perception in some white person’s mind. How irrational is that?
Continue reading…

Spreading Racialized Fear in “Post-racial” America

In an article in the January (2009) issue of The Progressive, political analyst Chip Berlet argues that the election of Barak Obama “has poked the racist beehive, and we can expect a lot of buzzing around in the months ahead,” (p. 27). Berlet notes the increase in racist incidents – e.g., cross burnings, arsons – in communities throughout the United States following the election, with the Southern Poverty Law Center noting that the rate has been far above “normal.” Berlet remarks that rightists of all kinds are “eager to reframe issues in ways that invoke racialized fears” among white citizens (p. 27). Interestingly, as I read this, I thought of the recent exchange on this blog regarding Jessie Daniels’ post on the Grant police brutality case. I think some of the reaction to Jessie’s analysis reflects the success of the previous political administration and various right-wing groups in convincing many of us that we have much of which to be afraid and from which we need protection. The law-and-order, lock-em-up approach to criminal offending in this country – so much a part of the “War on Drugs,” as well as the “War on Terrorism” – has garnered widespread mainstream support and resulted in a dramatic rise in incarceration rates such that the United States now has more citizens in prison than any other country in the world. Many people are convinced that the police must be aggressive in combating crime and catching “bad guys,” and in doing so, they may make some mistakes, but they’re “honest mistakes”; the police, after all, are “just doing their job” (image from here).

Ironically, crime in the United States has declined fairly steadily since the 1990s, and many criminologists attribute at least some of this decline to the prosperous economy during this period. Given the current economic crisis, we can be fairly confident that crime rates will be on the upswing, and we are likely to hear an outcry for more police intervention. I doubt, however, if many of those who demand such action will be expecting law enforcement to arrest the “white collar” offenders on Wall Street who precipitated this mess in the first place, or those in the previous administration whose gutting of regulatory legislation helped fuel Wall Street greed. Such offenders are rarely considered “criminals” and their offenses aren’t viewed as “real crimes.” Instead of “crime in the suites,” law enforcement will be focused on crime in the streets, and those most likely to be caught up in any new “crime crackdown” will be those who are always the first targets of law enforcement: the poor, and racial and ethnic minorities who are disproportionately represented among the poor. But this time, we have a liberal Democratic president in office, who also happens to be African American, which returns me to my opening concern. If crime increases during Obama’s first term in office – and it most certainly will – rightists will likely use it to invoke racialized fears.

No doubt some of the comments about Jessie’s original post on the Grant case were offered by members of rightist groups, who lurk on progressive blogs to try to disrupt the dialogue. I see this not infrequently on feminist sites when members of fathers’ rights groups post comments about women being as violent as men or claims that divorcing mothers falsely accuse their spouses of abuse. This, though, actually bothers me less than attempts to saturate the mainstream with racist fears. If rightists feel the need to infiltrate a progressive blog such as this one, we must be doing our work well; they’ve noticed us and we’re cause for them to be concerned. What is more important, then, is for progressives to be certain not to just talk among ourselves and to like-minded folks, but to discuss these critical issues more broadly and to debunk racist myths whenever and wherever we find them. In other words, we need to knock down the racist beehive.