As a scientist and a black man, I cannot describe to you how weary I am of having people throw “scientific racism” in my face. I don’t mean that people try to prove to me that black people are scientifically inferior; we’ve pretty much debunked that already. No, the thing I resent is when people say stupid things like “science used to say that black people were inferior – therefore everything that science says is suspect.” It is a wearying argument, because not only is it inaccurate, it is actually self-refuting.
First off, science never said that black people were inferior, at least not science in any way that I have described it in the past. Science is a process involving explanation based on observed data, controlling for alternative explanations. Scientists are people who purport to use that method. However, like all people, scientists are subject to human failings, and have been known to say some bullshit-stupid things. Luckily, we have a process for evaluating bullshit-stupid claims – it’s called science. The reason that we know that racial differences are largely sociologically-constructed (as opposed to genetic) is because of science. We didn’t use meditation or divine revelation or any of these “different ways of knowing” to figure that out – we used science.
As I said, the claim is both inaccurate and self-refuting. Scientists did, at one point, make claims about the inferiority of The Negro. They did not, however, base those claims on science. They made the claims, then looked for evidence to support their conclusions. That is not the scientific method; that is the religious method. The doctrine of white supremacy was not based on evidence, but on a supernatural belief in the manifest will of the Creator, who endowed white people with superior qualities. The doctrine absolutely did co-opt the scientific establishment into supporting its assertions, but when the shine was off the apple and real investigation was done, no differences were found. It didn’t have to be so – we could have found a great deal of genetic differences between different ethnic groups. The evidence, however, does not support any doctrine of supremacy (and yes, I have met actual black supremacists – they’re just as bereft of science as their white counterparts).
However, we cannot simply ignore the history that the scientific establishment played in the legitimization and mainstreaming of racism, as Ghana is teaching us:
The Council For Afrika, a UK-based think-tank has commemorated the third global campaign to combat scientific racism, reiterating its commitment to counter the marginalisation and dehumanisation of Africans. The council used the anniversary, which coincided with the first decade of the 21st Century, to draw attention to the escalation of afrophobia, attributed to the global recession. A statement issued to the Ghana News Agency in Accra, by Dr Koku Adomdza, President of the council, said: “Afrophobia has escalated based on discrimination against name, ascent, physical appearance, ethnicity and African ancestry in all spheres of life in the Global North.”
“Scientific” racism (I feel obligated to use quotations here, because it’s not scientific) is not a spectre of the past that we’ve thankfully moved beyond. The campaign started in response to bizarre comments made by James Watson (yes, that James Watson):
“[I am] 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.”
Dr. Watson said he hoped everyone was equal, but added: “People who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”
Stay classy, Dr. Watson.
Dr. Watson was making those claims based on “scientific” research that had been done into intelligence among different racial groups. Of course, like the phrenology studies of the early 19th century, this research was based on faulty assumptions and poor methodology. It has since been largely discredited. It becomes problematic when preeminent scientists start making recommendations about policy based on bad science, which is what happened here.
It is for reasons like this that I am a skeptic. Whenever someone tells me “well X and Y are true”, my first thought is “how do you know that?” Most of the time I ask out of genuine interest, particularly when it’s a topic I’m unfamiliar with. However, other times it comes out of a deep suspicion that the claim being presented is bolstered by nothing other than confirmation bias and anecdote. “Scientific” racism definitely falls under this category.
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