In this important article, Eliza Wood reminds us of the deep roots that the myths of white racial superiority have in western society, legitimized over centuries by a self-serving science seeking to justify slavery and colonialism. While these ideas have been completely rejected by modern science, they continue to resonate today, and it seems lately with renewed boldness. Our ethical duty is for those who have benefited from systematic racism to loudly denounce these old myths, and recognize the advantages that they have accrued as a result of systematic systems of racism; as the author concludes, “racism is degrading for both oppressor and the oppressed.”
There is no scientific basis for the belief that humans can be divided into separate biological races. In today’s world of exponential scientific discovery and technological growth we have the means to learn more about humankind than ever before. Over the course of fifteen years, scientists meticulously mapped and analyzed human DNA as part of the Human Genome Project. On June 26th, 2000, geneticists Francis Collins and Craig Venter announced the findings of this project: Humans are 99.9% genetically identical. There are no scientific races (“June 2000 White House Event”).
This discovery should have been the death knell of a long-standing and destructive strain of prejudice known as scientific racism: the belief that racial inequalities are rooted in scientific fact.
Scientific racism is “racism as supposedly justified by scientific evidence” (“Scientific Racism”). It is also related to the concept of biological determinism. Biological determinists believe that “behavioral norms, and the social and economic differences between human groups—primarily races, classes, and sexes—arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society, in this sense, is an accurate reflection of biology” (Gould 52). These ideas took root because of the “research” of assorted white supremacists of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. They used dubious methods and often fell prey to confirmation bias as they were searching for justification for atrocities committed by the white race (Dennis 245-6; Menand 110-111; Washington). Both European and North American states were engaged in violent colonialism and slavery and those who profited from these bloody systems attempted to convince themselves that what they were doing was not due to their own barbarity—it was nature and providence that mandated oppression (Dennis 245-6; Rattansi 31-3).
While many racial scientists disagreed about the details (including the number of human races) they generally agreed on the following premises:
- It is possible to divide humanity into racial categories and race is “the key concept for understanding human variation.” (Rattansi 31)
- Physical markers distinguish the races. (i.e. “skin colour, facial features, texture of hair,” etc.) (31)
- “Each race was innately associated with distinct social, cultural, and moral traits.” (31)
- “The races could be graded in a coherent hierarchy of talent and beauty, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom.” (31)
These premises are all false. But they carried power because they served power (Rattansi 71-2; Bethancourt 269-70).
Colonial powers oppressed the so-called “inferior races” to amass wealth, period. Empire builders understood their own race to be superior to all others and their actions were fueled by the unwavering belief in their own scientifically “proven” racial superiority. For example, from 1876-1878 the British allowed 5.5 million Indians to starve to death in a famine while at the same time the Viceroy of India was celebrating the coronation of Queen Victoria as Empress of India. More than 60,000 dignitaries feasted for a week while millions of Indians starved to death. Parents sold their children, thousands killed themselves, and some became cannibals. The British had the ability to save lives but instead their economists spoke of “survival of the fittest.” The British considered the Indians who starved to be unfit and any attempt to intervene and save their lives would work against natural laws (BBC).
Scientific racism also helped slaveholders attempt to justify their behavior. If they could be convinced that the people they brutalized were racially inferior or racially predisposed to servility or hard labor, then slave owners were not to blame for their behavior—it had been justified by “science.”
Scientific racism continued to infect government policy in the 20th century. Those who subscribed to its false premises asked themselves how they could maintain the “purity” of the white race. This gave rise to the eugenics movement which worked to improve and preserve the “bloodlines” of a nation and select for desirable characteristics. One eugenicist, Madison Grant stated his opinion on “race mixing” in his 1916 work The Passing of the Great Race.
Whether we like to admit it or not, the result of the mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting to the more ancient, generalized and lower type. The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian . . . and the cross between any of the three European races and Jew is a Jew (Quoted in Jackson and Weidman 72-3).
Most modernizing societies between 1900 and 1945 had eugenics movements and they passed laws limiting immigration from non-white countries, separating the races, criminalizing inter-racial sexual relationships, and forcibly sterilizing those who were considered unfit to reproduce. Between 60 and 90 thousand people were sterilized in the United States in the 20th century (Jackson and Weidman 72-77). Canada also possessed its own eugenics movement. In Alberta and British Columbia, lawmakers approved involuntary sterilization laws in 1928 and 1933 (Moran et al. 179). Alberta’s sterilization movement was especially aggressive and until the law was repealed in 1972, over 2,800 people had been sterilized—most without consent (Horton).
It is important to note that many scientists, like Dr. Franz Boas, realized that the conclusions drawn by scientific racism were false. He was a cultural anthropologist who argued that there was no connection between race, language, and culture (Rattansi 70). The problem was that these critiques went against the grain of social policy and public opinion. It was only after the Holocaust that scientific racism began to decline.
Scientific racism had provided “proof” of the racial superiority of the white population and it had already been influencing political and social policy. It allowed slavery and colonialism to continue. It justified the oppression of the so-called “inferior races” all over the world. It gave the white population permission to do almost anything because their bloodlines were purest, and their race was superior. When nationalism and an abandonment of human decency fused with racial science, humanity took scientific racism to its logical conclusion: the destruction of inferior races. The Holocaust, the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people in Europe, was not an aberration. It was a continuation of scientific racism, albeit in the uniquely grim context of total war (Jackson and Weidman 78-9).
After the Second World War, science shifted its orientation away from justifying racism and toward disproving it. In 1950 the newly formed United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a statement from an international panel of experts in many scientific disciplines, renouncing scientific racism and stating that humans all belong to the same species and that scientific race is a myth (Rattansi 69; Jackson and Weidman 79).
Now, scientific racism has been disproven. The conclusions are based on false premises. However, there are still those who embrace this understanding of racial superiority and inferiority. There are those who wear their racism proudly, like the Ku Klux Klan, the “alt-right,” and other white nationalist organizations. The belief in separate races is the precondition for groups like these. Others hold aloft flawed IQ tests to “prove” that there is an intelligence gap determined by race (Dennis 246-9).
Stating that there is no such thing as scientific race can come perilously close to ignoring the very real effects that the perceived differences between people have on everyday lives. Race has a real impact on a person’s ability to succeed in this world but not because of biology, but rather because of society. Charles Darwin wrote “if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.” (Quoted in Gould 19). Today scientists raise their voices in unison to declare that there are no biological races which means the misery of our poor is not caused by the laws of nature. The laws of nature did not compel the white race to colonize, enslave, or lynch. Nature did not mandate the creation of residential schools, it did not authorize American segregation or South African Apartheid. Great is our sin because we chose oppression.
Old prejudices about the differences between the races have survived largely because the myth continues to serve a purpose. The typical response of white Americans about their involvement in continuing the race myth and their own complicity and advantages gained from the systematic oppression of others tends to be defensiveness. Many still cling to these old scientific racist notions to absolve them of guilt (Dennis 249-50). To truly come to terms with the culpability of white behavior will require not just an apology but also a reckoning. Resources will need to be allocated, policies changed, and worldviews shattered. It would be easier to cling to the rotten myth—but this would be wrong. Racism is degrading for both oppressor and the oppressed. Societies that oppress people tend to care less about the suffering of others and this erodes democracy and gives space for authoritarianism and brutality to encroach (Dennis 249-50). The path we have taken for centuries is bloody, broken, and immoral. We need to wholeheartedly reject the myth of scientific race, atone for our sin, and choose to be better.
BBC. “Racism: A History. Part 2: Fatal Impacts.” Youtube, uploaded by lordmemnochthedevil 25 February 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hNiuzX2u3E.
Bethencourt, Francisco. Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century. Princeton University Press, 2014.
Dennis, Rutledge M. “Social Darwinism, Scientific Racism, and the Metaphysics of Race.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 64, no. 3, 1995, pp. 243–252. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2967206.
Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Horton, Shaun. “Alberta Government Sterilizes Thousands Deemed Genetically and Mentally Unfit.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2013. EBSCOhost,ezproxy.dawsoncollege.qc.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ers&AN=89475930&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Jackson, John P., and Nadine M. Weidman. “The Origins of Scientific Racism.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 50, 2005, pp. 66–79. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25073379.
“June 2000 White House Event.” National Human Genome Research Institute, June 26, 2000, https://www.genome.gov/10001356/june-2000-white-house-event/.
Menand, Louis. “Morton, Agassiz, and the Origins of Scientific Racism in the United States.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 34, 2001, pp. 110–113. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3134139.
Moran, James E., et al. Mental Health and Canadian Society: Historical Perspectives. MQUP, 2006. McGill-Queen’s/Associated Medical Services Studies in the History of Medicine, Health, and Society. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.dawsoncollege.qc.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=404578&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Rattansi, Ali. Racism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2007. Very Short Introductions. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.dawsoncollege.qc.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=191535&site=eds-live&scope=site.
“Scientific Racism.” Oxford English Dictionaries, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/scientific_racism.
Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008. Google Books, https://books.google.ca/books?id=apGhwRt6A7QC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
Eliza Wood is a teacher in the Dawson College Humanities Department. Raised in the United States, she came to Montreal to obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees from McGill University in history and political science with focuses on 20th-century international relations, the Second World War, and early American history. She currently teaches courses on equality and race, communist world views, and the ethics of resistance.