EXPLORE RACE, SCIENCE AND SOCIAL POLICY
Throughout history, social ideas have influenced research and
discoveries related to race. Science emerged in the late 18th
century and helped rationalize social inequalities and justify
discriminatory policies and laws.
||Birth of "Caucasian"
||Johann Blumenbach, one of many classifiers
in the 18th century, lays out the scientific template for
contemporary race categories in On the Natural Varieties of
Mankind. Blumenbach strongly opposes slavery and believes
in the potential equality of all people. Nevertheless, he
maps a hierarchical pyramid of five human types, placing "Caucasians"
at the top because he believes a skull found in the Caucasus
Mountains is the "most beautiful form of the skull, from which...the
others diverge." This model is widely embraced, and Blumenbach
inadvertently paves the way for scientific claims about white
||Jefferson suggests innate Black inferiority
||With Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson
becomes the first prominent American to suggest innate Black
inferiority: "I advance it therefore, as a suspicion only,
that blacks ...are inferior to the whites in the endowments
of body and mind." Published in the U.S. after the American
Revolution, his writings help rationalize slavery in a nation
otherwise dedicated to liberty and equality, calling on emerging
science to provide proof. As historian Barbara Fields and
others note, the idea of Black inferiority makes it possible
to deny Africans the equal rights that others take for granted.
||skulls measured to "prove" racial
||Samuel Morton, the first famous American scientist,
possesses the largest skull collection in the world. He claims
to measure brain capacity through skull size, but makes systematic
errors in favor of his assumptions, concluding: "[Their larger
skulls gives Caucasians] decided and unquestioned superiority
over all the nations of the earth." Morton's findings are
later seized upon and popularized by pro-slavery scientists
like Josiah Nott and Louis Agassiz. In just 60-70 years, Jefferson's
tentative suggestion of racial difference becomes scientific
"fact": "Nations and races, like individuals, have each an
especial destiny: some are born to rule, and others to be
ruled....No two distinctly-marked races can dwell together
on equal terms." -Josiah Nott (1854)
||Evolution shapes debate
||When Darwin uncovers the mechanism for evolution,
it dramatically alters public debate. "Racial" differences,
previously explained by some as the result of separate, divine
origins, are now seen as the result of historical change and
divergence over time. Evolution provides a new paradigm for
comparing group "progress" but it also introduces the image
of competition and possible extinction. Herbert Spencer captures
the public's excitement and anxiety when he coins the phrase
"survival of the fittest" in applying Darwin's ideas to the
social realm. Advocates of Spencer's "social darwinism" view
the hierarchy of races as the product of "nature," not specific
institutions and policies. Consequently, social reform or
improvement is pointless.
Birth of eugenics
|Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin, coins
the term eugenics, meaning "good genes," to emphasize heredity
as the cause of all human behavioral and cultural differences.
Eugenicists advocate selective breeding to engineer the "ideal"
society. Theirwritings find a receptive audience among white
intellectuals in the early 20thcentury and profoundly influence
many aspects of American life, including immigration policy,
anti-miscegenation laws, involuntary sterilization, and schooling.
Although the American eugenics movement collapses by World
War II, its effect on institutions and social policy is longlasting,
finding its fruition in Nazi Germany.
||Race on parade at world's fair
||St. Louis, MO stages a World's Fair to showcase
American achievements and celebrate the 100th anniversary
of Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase. Nearly 20 million visitors
attend. The fair reflects the culmination of 19th-century
racial ideas in science, politics, and culture. Across from
the technology exhibits are groups of indigenous peoples from
around the world displayed in their "natural" habitats - a
"living illustration" of man's hierarchical development on
the earth. By the mid-19th century, race is invoked to explain
everything: individual character, the cause of criminality,
and the natural superiority of "higher" races.
||Universal Races Congress held
||A thousand people from 50 nations convene at
the University of London to counter the work of the budding
eugenics movement. Among the prominent scientists and scholars
in attendance are Americans W.E.B. DuBois and anthropologist
Franz Boas. Lead organizer Gustav Spiller sums up the group's
findings as follows: "We are then under the necessity of concluding
that an impartial investigator would be inclined to look upon
the various important peoples of the world as, to all intents
and purposes, essentially equal in intellect, enterprise,
morality and physique." However, their work falls on deaf
ears and has little impact.
||UNESCO issues statement on race
||Only when claims of inherent racial inferiority
are taken to a horrifying extreme by the Nazis is race science
finally discredited. After the Holocaust, the United Nations
issues an official statement declaring that "race" has no
scientific basis and calling for an end to racial thinking
in scientific and political thought. The statement's principal
author is Ashley Montagu, a student of Franz Boas. Although
important, this shift in scientific thinking has little impact
on social policy and ingrained public attitudes about race.
||Sickle cell proven not "racial"
||In the 1960s, several key scientific discoveries
pave the way for a new understanding of human variation. Among
them is the work of Frank Livingstone and A.C. Allison, who
unlock the origins of sickle cell, often considered a "racial"
disease afflicting Africans. Their research shows that the
sickling gene is linked to protection from malaria, not skin
color, and the trait is found in areas where malaria was once
common, such as the Mediterranean, Arabia, India, and central
and western (but not southern) Africa. Livingstone and many
others also show that most traits vary independently from
one another and don't come packaged together into what we
think of as races.
||Human diversity is mapped
||In the early 1970s, geneticist Richard Lewontin
decides to find out just how much genetic variation falls
within, versus between, the groups we call races. He discovers
that 85% of all human variation can be found within any local
population; about 94% within any continent. This means local
groups are much more diverse than they appear, and our species
as a whole is much more similar than we appear. Lewontin's
work, confirmed over and over again by others, remains an
important milestone in our understanding of race and biology