Friday, October 19, 2007

The Pervasive Nature of Scientific Racism




Today the TimesOnline is stating that the 79-year-old scientist James Watson who won the Nobel prize for his part in discovering the structure of DNA, is back-pedaling from an interview in which he asserted that black African and Caribbean workers were inferior in ability and intelligence to whites. Watson, who has offered his apology, claims he is "mortified by the public response," and that the Sunday Times who performed the interview somehow misconstrued his words. The newspaper however says the interview was recorded, and is sticking by their story. While outrage and apologies now fill the air, what the Watson controversey has brought to the surface is the sometimes forgotten and neglected stepchild of white supremacy: "scientific racism."



The Pervasive Nature of Scientific Racism

by Morpheus

This week the London's Science Museum canceled a lecture by Nobel Prize-winning geneticist James Watson—part of the two-man team that first constructed the model of the DNA double helix—after the scientist told a newspaper that Africans and Europeans had different levels of intelligence. Watson provoked widespread outrage when his comments were released in a Sunday Times interview, which quoted the 79-year-old American as saying 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." Watson would add, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."

This isn't the first time Watson's comments have stirred controversey. As the UK Independent catalogued, the Nobel prize-winner has had a series of controversial statements. In one instance, he suggested women should have the right to abortions if tests could determine their children would be homosexual. In 2000 at a speech at the University of California, Berkeley, he claimed a link between skin color and sex drive, showing slides of bikini-clad women and asserting that higher doses of melanin was responsible for the stereotype of the "Latin Lover."

Most news reports state that people are "shocked" by Watson's comments. Outrage comes next, along with his dismissal as a "crazed." More often than not, he is described as "controversial." Even with a repeated history of such rhetoric however, Watson's historical standing assures that he is invited to speak to large audiences, and still sought out for interviews. As a 1990 article in the journal Science noted: "To many in the scientific community, Watson has long been something of a wild man, and his colleagues tend to hold their collective breath whenever he veers from the script." Translated: Many fear that Watson may dredge up the often closeted stain on the discipline of "rationality and reason"—scientific racism.

Today mostly thought of as debunked, "race science" was once taken as a normal part of academic and scientific discourse. One of its early progenitors in the modern era was probably none other than American founding father Thomas Jefferson, who in his Notes on the State of Virginia deduced from his "observations" that blacks exhibited a childlike simplicity, a wild imagination, an incapacity to reason and an inability to create artistry comparable to whites—for which he would single out black poet Phyllis Wheatley for particular criticism. Jefferson would go on to make reference to the "disagreeable odour" of blacks and claim that "the Oran-ootan (Orangutan)" had a preference "for the black women over those of his own species." Around the same time the naturalist Edward Long in his work A History of Jamaica, would compare black Africans to "dogs" and make the claim that black women sought out monkeys and baboons to "embrace" to gratify their raging sexual passions. Racism was not out of ordinary in the era of Jefferson and Long, during which time the slave trade in African bodies was booming and building up the wealth of the Western world. Yet both men were some of the early few who were beginning to assert that black inferiority was a "natural" state, that could be backed up by scientific observation. In a methodology fraught with irony, the same naturalism that would allow Jefferson to deduce the "natural rights" of man, was used to assert that some men, and women, were "naturally" inferior. Blacks were no longer simply "barbarous" due to a degradation of civilization in a jungle climate, or because they had not been introduced to the "light of Christianity." Rather blacks were inferior to whites and distinctly different on a "natural" biological level that could not be overcome, and that could be backed up by what Long would assert was "matter endued with thought and reason!"

Modern scientific racism was being given birth.

Nurtured within the developing scientific disciplines of its day, it would come to typify European notions towards blacks and those deemed as inferior "others." By the late 19th century it had ascended to the top of the white supremacy rationale ladder, churning out myriad theories that claimed a scientific basis as to the inferiority of non-whites, and blacks in particular. As far back as the early 1800s, black bodies would be cut open and studied as exotic specimens, to be passed around and examined for scientific inquiry by the likes of George Cuvier—regarded as the founder of modern day comparative anatomy. Such was the fate of 'Sara' Baartman—the Khoi woman dubbed the “Hottentot Venus” who was paraded through London and Paris on a leash. Upon her death—following a descent into prostitution through which she contracted syphillis—Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body, dissected her and preserved her organs, including her genitals and brain, in bottles of formaldehyde. Her skeleton and bottled remains were displayed at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris until 1974, until public pressure sent them to a back room away from sight. The museum did not return her remains until 2002.

And Baartman's case was hardly unique.

From 1845 to 1849, scientific racism allowed Dr. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, to carry out horrific medical experiments on the genitals of unwilling and un-anesthetized slave women. Scientific racism would allow numerous such ethical violations in the name of medicine upon black bodies—from the U.S. government’s Tuskegee experiment to other notorious acts carried out by slave owners, the armed forces, the CIA, prisons, and private institutions. The sheer scope of these atrocities is only now becoming understood, through groundbreaking studies such as Dr. Harriet A. Washington's work, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.

And scientific racism was not confined to medicine. It seemed to find a place in any field dedicated to the study of humanity. Proto-anthropologist and naturalist Samuel G. Morton would create an entire field by which human skulls were measured for racial markers of intelligence, ushering what many see as the definitive modern age of scientific racism. In none other than the pages of the now well-respected Scientific American, was an article in the early 1900s on "Congo pygmies," who were described as "small, apelike, elfish creatures, furtive and mischievous." It went on to state that these smallish Africans "closely parallel the brownies and goblins of our fairy tales.." and "live in the dense tangled forests in absolute savagery while they exhibit many ape-like features in their bodies...." Little surprise then that in 1906 Ota Benga, a so-called "pygmie" duped into leaving his African homeland with claims of payment and fortune, would be locked into a cage at the Bronx zoo, to be displayed as a type of ape.

Scientific racism would eventually merge with the related and now rogue—but at one time en vogue—branch of biology known as eugenics. Postulated by Sir Francis Galton in 1865, eugenics proposed that human behavioral traits—and talents—could be discerned through hereditary analysis. Eugenics would assert that certain undesirable traits could be eliminated from the human species. At times seemingly concerned with general matters as height and illness, eugenics also had a more sinister side—asserting that some humans needed to be eliminated (or sterilized) in order to better the species. The targets for sterilization included the mentally challenged, the physically deformed, the poor, the ill and—naturally—the more "undesirable races." In the U.S. this would result in everything from stricter immigration laws to limit more "inferior whites" (normally the Irish or Eastern Europeans), and the tightening of anti-miscegnation laws that became tied to black lynching. Some 60,000 people in the U.S. alone may have been coercively sterilized in a campaign author Edwin Black termed, the War Against the Weak.

While not all scientists were hardcore eugenecists who believed in mass sterilization or extermination, for many race science and the belief in "weaker humans" was taken as a matter of fact. Scientific racism, even in its least malign form, thus permeated the discipline not as a fringe element but as part of the mainstream discourse. From President Woodrow Wilson to women's reproductive activist Margaret Sanger, all stratum of society embraced elements of eugenics (to varying degrees) as a way to strengthen the human race—most especially, the white Nordic variant. Sanger for instance may have believed that some humans were "the defective progeny resulting from irresponsible and unintelligent breeding," but strongly condemned any attempts at forced sterilization. Ironically the pinnacle of eugenecist theory and scientific racism coincided with its demise. One of its biggest admirers was none other than Adolf Hitler, who endorsed the theories and applications of eugenecists in Europe and America for his Nazi ideology. After the world witnessed the use of scientific racism in the Third Reich to create an Aryan master race and to justify the extermination of millions, race science and eugenics saw a precipitous decline. Sanger herself was so horrified by the Nazi excesses she backed away from earlier endorsements of eugenics, but would still advocate it as an individual and voluntary decision.

But, as Dr. Watson reminds us, race science and eugenics never truly died out. Nobel Prize winner Hank Shockley in the 1970s, converting to eugenics later in life, became a staunch advocate for the belief that the less intelligent (which in his mind, by default, included blacks) should be given incentives to not breed with other humans. Mimicking scientific racism and eugenics, 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney in 1990 would assert that, "blacks have watered down genes because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have the most children." In 1995 scientific racism's boldest modern public salvo was launched with Richard J. Hernstein and Charles Murray'sThe Bell Curve,which linked IQ to race with blacks being deemed as naturally inferior. Though sparking controversy and condemnation, the book was also widely touted in the mainstream media as at the least a legitimate topic of discussion. Malcolm Browne of the New York Times would be so deferential in his review of the book, many took it as an endorsement. Today foundations like the well-monied Pioneer Fund openly advocate for race science, and advocate for changes in public policy based on scientific understandings of race.

What Dr. Watson and the history of scientific racism does is put a lie to the myth that racism is the domain of the uneducated, the ignorant and misinformed. The sad but hard reality is that racism is bigger than a disgruntled white underclass in hoods and sheets or nooses that proliferate as warnings and "pranks." Racism has a much more permeable, lasting and influential presence in the institutions, structures and culture of our society—where true power resides. And it has a long history of infecting even those among us who 'claim' to have the biggest and best of brains.

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