The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination recognizes and reminds us that injustice and prejudice fueled by racial discrimination continues to take place every day around the world. Observed annually on March 21, it commemorates one of many heinous crimes committed under the banner of racism – namely, the day police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960. Today, 62 years after, the apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled, racist laws and practices have been abolished in many other countries, and the nations of the world have built an international framework for fighting racism guided by the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Yet, even though The Convention is now nearing universal ratification, racism continues to operate on a systemic level, permeating many of our social institutions and justifying some of the worst forms of human conduct.
While The United Nations General Assembly has continuously emphasized that “any doctrine of racial superiority is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust, dangerous, and must be rejected, together with theories that attempt to determine the existence of separate human races”, 1 the unfortunate reality is that many scientific fields continue to operate using racial categories and there is even a small, but vocal minority of scientists from different disciplines who still draw connections between race and cognitive ability. In order for us to make sense as to where such theories come from and why they persist, let us take a look at the timeline below, which will trace the emergence of “race” as a scientific concept, discuss its various permutations throughout the decades, and zero in on the way in which scientific racism continues to operate in the 21st century.
French philosopher François Bernier anonymously publishes the “New Division of the Earth by the Different Species or ‘Races’ of Man that Inhabit It”, which proposes making anthropology a key for geography, by dividing the world according to “species or races of men.” This short article is considered the first attempt at racial classification of the world’s population. As its significance is debated, it signals the emergence of uniquely secular racism. Prior to the work of philosophers like Bernier, racism in Europe operated through the lens of Christianity – for instance, the belief that people from Africa are descendants of the cursed biblical personage Canaan, and that the darker shade of their skin is a result of the curse. With Bernier, however, “Race” becomes not so much a divine ordinance, but a scientific fact that can be verified through observation. Unsurprisingly, five years later, the French King Louis XIV will officially authorize the importation of enslaved Black people to New France.
French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon publishes the 10th volume of his “Natural History, General and Particular, with a Description of the King’s Cabinet” encyclopedia which suggests that the first humans (Adam and Eve) were Caucasian and that other races came about by degeneration from environmental factors, such as the sun and poor diet. Buffon is today celebrated as “the father of all thought in natural history in the second half of the 18th century”2 and is credited with being one of the first naturalists to recognize ecological succession. His statue can still be seen in the Parisian Botanical Gardens.
Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper gives two lectures on the topic of “Facial Angles”, stating that humans have facial angles between 70° and 80°, with African and Asian angles closer to 70°, and European angles closer to 80°. This was taken to indicate an “objective” racial hierarchy in nature, since chimpanzee facial angles vary between 50° and 60°. Although Camper’s theories would later be criticized for being pseudoscientific, the idea that there is an objective bodily measurement that can be used to categorize one’s belonging to a particular race, will continue to hold relevance, even in the 21st century.
German Naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach publishes “On the Natural Varieties of Mankind”, criticizing Petrus Camper for his “facial angle” theories and suggesting that instead of focusing on angles, scientists should examine skulls in order to infer racial differences between people. Based on his study of skull measurements, Blumenbach infamously separates humanity into three major races: Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid. Widely considered to be something of a key figure in the pseudoscientific field of racial science, Blumenbach’s skull measurements would continue to hold relevance up until the middle of the 20th century, when Nazi scientists used skull measurements to advance the perpetration of one of the worst genocides in modern history.
The French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau publishes an “Essay on the Inequality of Human Races” espousing a vision of the world where the White Race is seen as superior in beauty, force, and intelligence, the Yellow Race is mediocre and materialist, and the Black Race is ugly, voracious, bestial, and intellectually incapable. Gobineau’s writings were quickly translated into English by white supremacist, pro-slavery Americans and inspired a social movement in Germany called Gobinism, which one hundred years later, would influence numerous members of the Nazi party.
The renown Swiss botanist Emile Yung teaches an elementary course in zoological anthropology at the University of Geneva. In one of his heavily attended lectures, he proclaims the following: “From what we can gather from the imperfect documents we possess, the capacity of the skull in less civilized races is smaller than in that of the more civilized ones. Negroes from Australia appear to be at the bottom of the scale, followed by Negroes from Africa, the American races, the Asian races, and the European race (…) It is also important to note the sex of the skulls. Indeed, women’s skulls are consistently smaller than those of men to the extent that sexual difference is often considerably more pronounced than racial difference.”3 In this curious intersection between racism and patriarchy, skull measurements are once again taken to indicate an objective reality of human gender and racial inferiority.
The Nazi party in Germany uses Racial Science to justify their expansionist policies and introduces laws that would eventually become the basis for a full-fledged genocide, resulting in the violent deaths of millions of people. Skull and phenotypical measurements are used to not only infer the supposed superiority of the “Whita Aryan” race, but also to racialize people who have previously not been considered a part of any specific racial category – such as the “Gypsies”. After the end of the Second World War, the concept of “Race” falls out of fashion for a time amongst scholars, only to be later picked up again with renewed vigor.
The Red Cross begins a blood donor program which initially bars African Americans from donating blood. Two years into the program African Americans are allowed to donate blood, but their blood donations are stored separately from the blood of other groups. Despite the fact that scientists saw no relationship between race and blood and that one of the world’s leading authorities on blood banking at the time, and the director of the Red Cross’s pilot blood program, was an African-American scientist named Dr. Charles Drew, it would not be until 1950 that the Red Cross stopped requiring the effective segregation of so-called “Negro blood” and it was only in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Southern states such as Arkansas and Louisiana overturned similar requirements. While skull measurements have largely been discredited after the Second World War, it was now becoming popular for scientists to use other means to measure one’s belonging to a race – means that are hidden inside one’s body such as blood or, later, genetic code.
Canadian geneticist Reginald Ruggles Gates publishes “The Emergence of Racial Genetics”. In this article, Gates attempts to place the new genetics in the old framework of race, claiming that “everyone agrees that races or ethnic groups exist and that they are in fact the raw material by means of which human evolution has taken place”. Gates is a highly respectable scholar holding a PhD from the University of Chicago, where he also holds a Senior Fellowship. At the same time, he is also a staunch eugenicist and a believer in the idea of “conscious evolution” – the idea that humans can influence evolution by perpetuating the continuation of certain genetical traits at the expense of others.
Arthur Jensen, publishes “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” in the Harvard Educational Review, an article which concludes, among other things, that Head Start programs designed to boost African-American IQ scores had failed, and that this was likely never to be remedied, largely because, in Jensen’s estimation, 80% of the variance in IQ in the population studied was the result of genetic factors and the remainder was due to environmental influences.
Canadian Psychologist and University of Western Ontario professor John Philippe Rushton publishes the first of more than 150 articles claiming that compared to Whites, Africans evolved to have lower intelligence, have more children and care for them poorly, and have a greater tendency to commit crime.
Psychologist Arthur Jensen is invited as keynote speaker for the Society for General Psychology at the annual American Psychology Association (APA) convention. At this time, Jensen continues to assert the importance of heredity in explaining the social position of Black Americans and speaks out publicly of the dangers of compensatory social programs.
Political scientist Charles Murray and psychologist Richard Hernstein publish their best-selling book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.” The book discusses purported biological connections between race and intelligence (as measured by IQ tests) and suggests policy implications based on these connections. The authors argue that high birth rates among those with lower IQs may exert a downward pressure on the national distribution of cognitive ability and that the proliferation of people with lower IQ scores increases the frequency of social problems.
The American Psychological Association (APA) continues to provide a platform to scientists who espouse racist views. Psychologist Raymond Cattell is selected as the winner of the APA Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in Psychological Science upon which a small group of psychologists protest the award, charging that Cattell’s work is racist, promotes white supremacy, and supports eugenics and neo-Nazi activists. APA delayed the award in order to form a committee to investigate the charges and the following year, Cattell withdrew his name from consideration.
The English professor emeritus of psychology, Richard Lynn, publishes the article, “Skin color and intelligence in African Americans”, in the peer reviewed journal Population and Environment, concluding that lightness of skin color in African Americans is positively correlated with IQ, which he claims derives from the higher proportion of Caucasian admixture.
University of Chicago geneticist Bruce Lahn publishes a pair of studies in the prestigious journal Science, drawing a connection between a couple of genes and changes in human brain size. He and his colleagues state that as recently as 5,800 years ago, one genetic variant that was linked to the brain among other things had emerged and swept through populations because of evolution by natural selection. Their implication was that it bestowed some kind of survival advantage on our species, making our brains bigger and smarter. At the same time, he noted that this particular variant happened to be more common among people living in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of East Asia but was curiously rare in Africa and South America – implying that the brains of different population groups might have evolved in different directions for the past five millennia and that this may have caused the groups with this special genetic difference to become more sophisticated than others.
American born British evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa publishes a blog article in Psychology Today that explores why black women have been rated less attractive than those of other races in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. “Black women are on average much heavier than non-Black women,” he writes, “However, this is not the reason black women are less physically attractive than non-Black women. Black women have a lower average level of physical attractiveness net of BMI [body mass index]. Nor can the race difference in intelligence (and the positive association between intelligence and physical attractiveness) account for the race difference in physical attractiveness among women.”4 Although the article will be later retracted and Kanazawa will issue an apology, his other work continues to be widely available on the Psychology Today website, including an article that bears the title “Are All Women Essentially Prostitutes?”
Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist James Watson, who played an instrumental role in the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure, is finally stripped of honorary titles awarded to him by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL), following what the laboratory calls “the latest episode in Watson’s decades-long pattern of racist remarks”, where Watson expresses views supporting the supposed genetic intellectual inferiority of Africans.
Although the science of race has in the past provided, and continues to provide justification for policies and opinions based on bigotry, hatred, and ill-will towards people, remarkably we still use racial categories today. The fight against racial discrimination is far from over. At the eve of the 21st century, during the third World Conference against Racism, the United Nations adopted the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.5 The Durban Declaration, in addition to declaring that the people of Africa had been victimized by slavery and continued to suffer as a result, called for states to adopt specific steps to help combat racism and xenophobia and to protect its victims. This led to the launch of an International Decade for People of African Descent. The resolution established the following specific objectives for the International Decade:
- To strengthen national, regional and international action and cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent and their full and equal participation in all aspects of society;
- To promote a greater knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture and contribution of people of African descent to the development of societies;
- To adopt and strengthen national, regional and international legal frameworks in accordance with the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and to ensure their full and effective implementation.6
Eight years into the Decade for People of African Descent, it has become evident that the completion of the above objectives is far from accomplished. The onset of the global pandemic, and the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on people of African heritage in almost every aspect of life, including when it comes to instances of police brutality, has shown us that the road to a world free from racism, prejudice and stigma is yet to be travelled. Combating racial discrimination will continue to be a long-term effort and, require commitment and persistence. This year, on March 21st and every day, let us all reaffirm and act upon what we have always known all along – that the only race which exists is the human race.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Historical chronology. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/about/apa/addressing-racism/historical-chronology
Bancel, Nicolas, Thomas David, and Dominic Thomas, eds. (2014). The Invention of Race: Scientific and Popular Representations. New York, NY: Routledge
Belluz, J. (2019, January 15). DNA scientist James Watson has a remarkably long history of sexist, racist public comments. Vox. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/2019/1/15/18182530/james-watson-racist
Chang, D. C., Tawakalitu, O. O., Strong, B. L., Molina, G., Ortega, G., Chen, H., & Rogers, S. O. (2021). “The Other Global Pandemic: Scientific Racism and the Normality Bias.” Annals of Surgery: 274(6). Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://journals.lww.com/annalsofsurgery/Fulltext/2021/12000/The_Other_Global_Pandemic__Scientific_Racism_and.62.aspx
Guglielmo, T. A. (2018, February 4). Desegregating blood: A civil rights struggle to remember. PBS. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/desegregating-blood-a-civil-rights-struggle-to-remember
Kanazawa, S. (2011, March 7). Are all women essentially prostitutes? Psychology Today. Retrieved February 4, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201103/are-all-women-essentially-prostitutes
Mayr, Ernst. (1981). The Growth of Biological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard
Nations, U. (n.d.). International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/observances/end-racism-day
Nations, U. (2015, January 27) UN launches International Decade for people of African descent, 2015-2024: The Harriet Tubman Institute. International Justice Resource Center. Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://tubman.info.yorku.ca/2014/12/un-launches-international-decade-for-people-of-african-descent-2015-2024/
Saini, Angela. (2019). Superior: The Return of Race Science. Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada