Science & Technology

In black and white: Why racism and ‘race science’ needs to be debunked

Every myth propagated by race science has been debunked over decades. But today, the rise of the Far-right parties is giving race scientists a new tonic to fuel hatred, writes 

By S S Jeevan
Published: Saturday 04 July 2020
In black and white

The changing colour of skin is part of an evolutionary process. But that’s not the most important discovery a recent landmark study revealed on skin colour diversity. Tracing the evolution of genes and how they travelled around the world, a team of international scientists found that a large proportion of African origin people had gene mutations that are responsible for lighter skin.

Two genes, HERC2 and OCA2 — associated with light skin, eyes and hair in Europeans — arose in Africa, says the study published in the Science journal. In fact, people in Africa have almost every skin colour on the planet — from the deepest black in South Sudan to beige in South Africa.

Developing skin colour is also a biological process. This evidence should have come as the last nail in the coffin, especially for those practising and propagating the science of race and spreading race in the name of colour.

But it did not. The chain of brutal killings of black people by the white United States police officers — including George Floyd who was choked under the knee of the white police officer — has shocked the world and ignited an unprecedented wave of anti-racist demonstrations.

In the US, protesters clashed with the police in many states and the National Guard was called in; many states declared “police-free” zones in public areas; and, now police reform bills are being debated in the US Senate.

As he began his campaign for re-election this month, US President Donald Trump called the black protesters “anarchists, looters and other lowlifes” triggering racial tensions. Similar statements during his 2016 election campaign had set in motion an avalanche of racial conflicts that helped him to consolidate his core “white” vote-bank.

Not just USA, these incidents have triggered protests worldwide. In Germany, Spain and the Netherlands, people flouted lockdown rules and flooded the streets demanding justice for people of colour who died in police custody in their own countries.

In Paris, police repeatedly clashed with angry anti-racism protesters. In the United Kingdom, activists pulled down the statue of a 17th century slave trader and this had a ripple-effect across nations of pulling down the statues of their own “luminaries” who defended slavery / racism.

In Belgium, around 10,000 people shouted in one voice: “Black Lives Matter”. Importantly, in most places, protesters did not leave the streets for four weeks in a row.

At the same time, protests against anti-race demonstrations are also gaining ground, in the US and elsewhere.

“I fear a racist backlash to the current anti-racism movements,” says Angela Saini, a British science journalist and author of Superior: the Return of Race Science.

And this has always been a ticking bomb since time immemorial. But each time a turning point was in the making — as it is this time — it was pushed back not just by policymakers, but also by the scientific establishment.

That’s because the science of race is as old as slavery and colonialism.

Even today, news entirely based on false science is being spread in the name of truth. And this has become the hallmark of the growth of Far-rights across the world.

The only difference is that the Far-rights are now more vocal — than they have been in the past — and taking decisions based on bogus science.

In other words, race may be a social construct in the scientific world, but for the Far-right, it has become a political ideology, which is spreading fast and hedging its bets on hate politics.

Across Europe and in the US, anti-immigrant groups have become more visible and more powerful. Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, addressing Far-right nationalists in 2018, said: “Let them call you racist, let them call you xenophobes, let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honour.”

According to whistleblower, Chris Wylie, Bannon is closely linked to Cambridge Analytica, which used racial differences to target African-Americans and decipher how to stir up support among whites during the 2014 mid-term elections.

He once even said that black people shot by the police “might have deserved it”.

Far-right, far and wide 

It’s the Far-right season across Europe too. In Poland, nationalists are surging ahead with a slogan: Pure Poland, White Poland. Italian politicians are promising to deport “illegal” immigrants to win popularity ratings.

Germany’s Far-right, Alternative für Deutschland, got more than 12 per cent of the vote in the federal elections in 2017.

Little wonder then that black people and other disadvantaged communities are bearing the brunt of the Far-right majoritarian onslaught.

“We exist in parallel universes. As a black person, you internalise not making white people uncomfortable. But living in the white suburban bubble of San Francisco made me realise how oblivious America is to the trauma of its black citizens.

“Or, to put it another way, how systemically racist it is. Monoculture in the US is suffocating; the social rejection painful; and, the isolation crushing,” says Mark Karake, head of Impact Africa Network, a non-profit.

Even during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, more people belonging to ethnic minorities in the US and Europe contracted the disease and died in larger numbers.

“There are also structural issues around discrimination and racism,” says Devi Sridhar, a professor of Global Public Health at Edinburgh University, the UK.

“In hospitals, ethnic health workers were put onto longer shifts, and in riskier positions. These positions don’t have much access to PPE (personal protective equipment),” she adds.

Moreover, ethnic minorities generally live in housing conditions — which are in poor and more crowded areas — that expose them to more risks daily.

Racial discrimination, in fact, comes in various forms in different countries. On the one hand, there are reports how people from the northeastern states are regularly targeted in northern Indian states, and one the other hand, we constantly hear news about how people belonging to scheduled caste communities suffer each day, and more so during a crisis.

During the world’s longest lockdown, the Far-right Indian government boasted of carrying out the largest-ever evacuation of Indians stuck abroad in the world — they were affluent and who could pay.

Yet the government shamelessly watched millions of migrants from marginalised communities literally walk thousands of kilometers from cities — where they had lost their livelihoods — to their villages. Once back in their villages, they were put under quarantine for endless days and had to experience untouchability, caste and race bias, once again.

This social discrimination persists even though BR Ambedkar — who drafted the Constitution of India after Independence — rejected the idea that “untouchable’s place in society was determined by their supposed racial inferiority”.

Instead, Ambedkar argued that untouchability was a cultural problem that could be fought and eradicated.

“Race is a state of mind,” he said, adding that the people of the Indian subcontinent were “a mixture of Aryans, Dravidians, Mongolians and Scythians”, and this made racial differences irrelevant as “ethnically all people are heterogeneous”.

“Rather than relying on language and customs, Ambedkar emphasised on the mental and psychological aspects in the construction of identities such as race and caste,” says a paper, BR Ambedkar, Franz Boas and the rejection of racial theories of untouchability, published in 2018.

Yet political analysts will tell you that those parties promoting the Far-right agenda will continue to rule the roost in times to come. This will once again resurrect the long history of battles between humanism and racism, backed by race science.

Now, the Far-rightists are stalking people everywhere, including in the social media, with the conjectural question: “who’s superior?”

‘Who’s superior?’

Science based on race was always scripted into public discourse and public policy by the class hierarchies, as it enabled them to discriminate against non-whites.

As early as in the 1700s and early 1800s, European and US scientists had begun to study “race science” with a premise that humans can be divided into separate and unequal races.

In the 18th century, Swedish naturalist Corolus Linnaeus categorised humans into four groups—European, American, Asiatic and African.

In the mid-1800s, US anthropologist Samuel George Morton measured skulls from across the world and surmised that intelligence is linked to the size of the brain — whites have larger skulls than other races, and, therefore “superior”. 

Scientists who disagreed were either ignored or marginalised, and this “popular” science became fashionable to the “whites” who had built their empires with the labour of slaves.

Worse, race was even used to justify heinous crimes. For instance, in 1869, the Australian government enacted a law, wherein children born with a mixed heritage were forcibly taken away from their parents and raised in dormitories only to be used as cheap labour after the age of 14.

Here, the story of Sarah Baartman is bone-chilling. She spent most of her life in “freak shows” because she had enormous buttocks and elongated genitals. Even when she died in 1815, her body parts were dissected and presented to the French Academy of Sciences.

It was kept on display at the Museum of Man in Paris for another 150 years. Only after the intervention of Nelson Mandela, her remains were finally returned to South Africa for burial. 

Astonishingly, renowned thinkers and writers over the ages have drawn conclusions between black African primates theorising that they are the “missing links” in the evolutionary chain. Charles Darwin, who gave us the concept of evolution, said that no one could agree on how many races there actually were — the range being between 1 and 63.

Other major proponents of the ideology of race inequality were German philosopher Immanuel Kant, French philosopher Voltaire, Scottish philosopher, historian David Hume and the influential American political philosopher Thomas Jefferson. 

The belief that differences between races are “genetic” began to decline, albeit very slowly, only after World War II, when the atrocities of the holocaust united many. Moreover, the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 1960s further enabled black Americans to get civil rights. 

The findings of the Human Genome Project should have given a quiet burial for the proponents of race science. The DNA research study — conducted between 1990 and 2003 — to decode human ancestry with genetics found how extraordinarily identical all human beings are: 99.9 per cent.

Of course, there exists that 0.1 per cent, but then it only reflects the differences in our environments and other external factors, but not our core biology.

Further research also proved that the Neanderthals were not necessarily more intelligent just because they had larger skulls, debunking myths that persisted.

Systematic campaign 

The response was lukewarm among race scientists to these breakthrough findings. A new series of campaigns were launched to set parameters to propagate racial differences.

One of them was that of intelligence — black people fare worse than white people because they are naturally less intelligent. But scientific excavations point to the contrary, and those studying this evidence, like South African archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood, say modern intelligence and creativity existed even in pre-historic sub-Saharan Africa.

Around 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, biologically modern humans were blending paint by mixing ochre with bone-marrow fat and charcoal, fashioning beads for self-adornment and making fish hooks, arrows and other sophisticated tools.

“We’re pushing back the date of symbolic thinking in modern humans — far, far back,” says Henshilwood.

It is important to understand that physical changes involve only a single gene mutation, but can spread throughout a populace within a brief evolutionary timeline.

Intelligence, on the other hand, involves a complex interaction of thousands of genes, and which can take at least 100 millennia to evolve.

Yet, there is little scientific research on the cognitive growth of humans even today, and importantly, on whether there is a specific gene for intelligence.

There is also little evidence that there are genetic differences in intelligence among populations. 

So the next strategy for Far-right scientists was to claim that different intelligence quotients (IQ) in populations have a genetic link. This claim was riding on an essay written in 2005 by three anthropologists from the University of Utah, USA, who said high IQ scores among Ashkenazi Jews — including other groups of Jews — was because they evolved faster than any other community.

The researchers were banking their theory on the perception that IQ tests are a measure for “unchanging” intelligence.

This theory too is embedded with flaws. IQ scores can increase with learning and by other forms of practice. For instance, a study by Swiss researchers in 2008 found students who practised a memory-based computer game increased their IQ levels than those who did not practice.

New Zealand-based IQ researcher, Jim Flynn, says that different averages between populations are entirely to do with environmental factors, not genetic.

Moreover, a study of Kenyan children between 1984 and 1998 found that increase in IQ levels was due to improved nutrition, health and parental literacy. So nurture, and not nature, holds the key to increasing IQ levels.

“Intellectual qualities… cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured... and giving IQ too much significance may give place to illusions,” said Alfred Binet, who invented IQ testing in 1904.

Yet our understanding of race science will always be trumped by vested interests. During the anti-race protests in the US, tech giant IBM Corp announced it would stop supplying facial recognition software “mass surveillance and racial profiling”.

The software might have been used by the rich and powerful Far-right, whose useless banter today occupies every space of our lives, including our news and social space.

For instance, Fox News aired a feature in June this year that compared the death of black men to gains made in the stock market.

Subsequently after protests, it apologised and said the story “should not have been aired on television”. The National Geographic seemed more honest about how it has historically reported on race issues.

“For decades, National Geographic’s coverage was racist. It’s time we acknowledged it,” says Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, who is planning a series of articles, including a special issue, to undo the damage.

There is no scientific basis for race, it said. It’s largely a made-up label.

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