Scientific racism

From Academic Kids

Scientific racism is a term used to describe scientific work which has allegedly forgone the ideals of objectivity in science and been "distorted" by an ideology of racism. It has been applied backwards to work relating to race from the 18th century through the early 20th century, and a number of controversial works from the present period have been accused of being "scientific racism" and pseudoscience.


Controversial category

Often when works purporting to be scientific examinations of racial questions are put forth, there is debate over whether or not they are works of legitimate science or are simply scientific racism. Their advocates insist the work is objective, non-politically motivated research while detractors suggest it is simply racist dogma dressed up in scientific terms. Advocates will often respond by arguing that detractors are anti-science, opposing any research on racial questions because they fear answers that might conflict with their political support for racial equality. Detractors will sometimes respond by insisting they do support honest research, pointing to other studies which have found no serious innate racial differences. Advocates will claim that these studies are supported only because they agree with existing prejudices; detractors argue that there are substantive differences. Such battles are frequently quite heated and often the line between scientific racism and legitimate science can be exceptionally blurry at the time of initial controversy.


Early scientific studies of race and racial differences

Missing image
Image from a 19th century scientific text which implied that the "Negro" race ranked even below a chimpanzee.

Regular scientific examinations of race and other differences between people of different geographical locations began at least as early as the 18th century. It was especially during the end of the 19th century, though, when works specifically ranking different groups of people became extremely popular. The attention focused on race leading up to, during, and after the American Civil War led to a proliferation of works looking at the physiological differences between "Caucasians" and "Negros", with a large amount of attention paid to the question of "miscegenation", or breeding between different races. Work by early anthropologists such as Josiah Clark Nott, George Robins Gliddon, Robert Knox, and Samuel George Morton attempted to prove scientifically that "Negros" were not the same species as "Caucasians", that the rulers of Ancient Egypt were not actually Africans, and that "racial mixture" provided infertile or weak offspring. In the years after the Civil War, Southern physicians wrote text after text outlining different "scientific" studies which sought to prove that the "Negro" was dying out as a race under the conditions of freedom, implying that the system of slavery had been beneficial.

This sort of work continued through the early 20th century, and soon intelligence testing became a new source for such comparisons. Study after study appeared to confirm that "Negros", as well as Eastern Europeans and Jews, were physically and mentally "inferior" to whites from Northern Europe. In the United States, eugenicists such as Harry H. Laughlin and Madison Grant sought to justify policies such as compulsory sterilization and immigration restriction by using "scientific research" to show that certain populations of people were physically inadequate to reproduce or enter the country.

Challenges from within the scientific community

Much of the actual "science" used in these projects has been presently discarded as highly flawed, usually from methodological standpoints. The early IQ tests used during intelligence testing of soldiers during World War I, for example, were found later to have measured acculturation to the USA more than they did any latent intelligence. Multiple-choice questions included such highly context-based questions as: "Crisco is a: patent medicine, disinfectant, toothpaste, food product" and "Christy Mathewson is famous as a: writer, artist, baseball player, comedian." Not surprisingly, recent immigrants to the USA did poorly on such questions, and the "intelligence" scores correlated most significantly with the number of years spent immersed in American culture.

Until the 1920s, however, such work was not regarded as being anything other than a form of science. It was criticisms and new work by the anthropologist Franz Boas that began, slowly, to point out methodological errors and to allege that political and ideological bias was affecting the conclusions more so than the observations made. Through the 1920s and 1930s, the Boasian school of cultural anthropology began to replace the eugenic school of physical anthropology, in a bitter institutional battle.

In the early 1930s, the government of Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler utilized highly racialized "scientific" rhetoric for pushing its restrictive and discriminatory social policies. When World War II broke out, the Nazi approach to race became a propaganda piece for the United States, and Boasians such as Ruth Benedict were able to consolidate their institutional power. In the years after the war, the discovery of the Holocaust and the Nazi abuses of scientific research (such as the ethical violations of Josef Mengele and other war crimes which were revealed at the Nuremberg Trials) led to a widespread repudiation of the use of science to support racist causes within the scientific community.

Paradigmatic of this change in conditions was a the UNESCO Statement on Race from 1950, influenced largely by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who had previously authored a book declaring the concept of "race" to be "mankind's most dangerous myth." The UNESCO Statement proclaimed that science had shown that no race was superior to any other, and that there were no essentialist racial categories. Even in its day, though, the UNESCO Statement was highly controversial among scientists both in its message (some, such as R. A. Fisher, vehemently disagreed with it) and its purpose (many objected to making political declarations about what science did or did not "say").


In the decades after the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, increased attention was paid to those who attempted to use "science" to justify purportly racist viewpoints. Many scientists who had previously published works relating to racial differences moved into other fields. Robert Yerkes, for example, had previously worked on the World War I Army intelligence testing, and but in the years that followed moved instead into the field of primatology.

By 1969, when Arthur Jensen published a study which implied that "Blacks" were on average many IQ points lower than "Whites," it was met with large amounts of popular and scientific protest and denunciation. The powerful reaction against Jensen's study was fueled by the belief that his work was a continuation of the earlier work of "scientific racism" from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. To be labeled as a "scientific racist" was a pejorative of the highest degree within the scientific and political community. But while many scientists and commentators denounced Jensen, others questioned whether this politically-motivated "anti-racism" was not itself as much of an affront to the scientific method as were the accusations against Jensen.

Modern usage

The labeling of a work today as being "scientific racism" is generally meant to imply that the research has been politically motivated and is attempting to justify racist ideology through the use of a veneer of science. As can be expected, this labeling is challenged by those who have conducted said research, who claim that their work was indeed objective and that the attempts to decry it are acts of "political correctness" or censorship. Some have compared the attacks on their work as akin to Lysenkoism.

Among those most prominently attacked as "scientific racists" in the late 20th century have been Arthur Jensen, J. Philippe Rushton (Race, Evolution, and Behavior), Richard Lynn (IQ and the Wealth of Nations), and Richard Herrnstein (The Bell Curve), among others. Many critics of these authors, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, claimed that their refusal to renounce their work in the face of later evidence against it indicates racist motivations.

In any event, the question of who is being more "political"—either those to whom the term is applied or those who apply the term—is itself a source of much dispute. Some critics have argued that the entire attempt to compare races using science is impossibly fraught with methodological problems, and that even if it wasn't, nothing good could come from the research. Those who support such work generally appeal to the more idealistic goals of scientific knowledge, and many have implied that social policy should be tailored around accurate scientific knowledge of such differences, if they exist (Jensen's initial 1969 paper, for example, argued that government-funded "head start" programs for school children were ineffective and should be cancelled).

In applying the term to works completed in the past, however, runs the risk of ahistoricism. Some of the work of Charles Darwin, for example, contains many statements which would be considered racist (or "scientific racism") in the current scientific and cultural context, but in their time were either typical for their Victorian context or even less racist than many contemporary scientific views.

See also


  • Elazar Barkan, The retreat of scientific racism: Changing concepts of race in Britain and the United States between the world wars (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • Stephen J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981).
  • Robert Proctor, Racial hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

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