The Lion’s Den | The science of racism



The topic over the last two weeks has focused on racial tensions that have long been woven in the fabric of America. Many are not surprised while some cannot recognize this America. Many believe that we live in a colorblind society where racism, sexism and divisions on all fronts simply cannot exist. The notion that one group of people would declare their superiority over another group of people is simply a conspiracy theory. But what if a plan was developed to not only justify these beliefs but maintain them as well. We will define this plan as a deficit-based construct, and the group of people as African American.

Central to the development of the deficit-based construct was the creation of racist ideology designed to maintain and perpetuate racial stereotypes about African Americans’ capacity to learn and function intelligently. This movement, known as “scientific” or “intellectual racism” (Watkins, 2001), was used as a rationale and justification for the continued oppression of African Americans. According to Poress and Plan (2007):

Scientific racism is the act of justifying inequalities between natural groups of people by recourse to science. It is the result of a conjunction of two cultural values or ideologies: (1) that natural categories of the human species exist and are of different overall worth; and (2) that science provides a source of authoritative knowledge. These ideas arose separately, but at about the same time in the late seventeenth century. (p. 1)

And according to Watkins (2001): Scientific racism was a key component in the justification of social stratification. In addition to explaining racial differences, “it was the basis for segregation and was utilized as a rationale for inequality, and it provided the rationale for what Black colonial education would entail.” (p. 24)

The false premise of scientific racism is that African Americans are inherently inferior to Whites regarding intellectual capacity. Intellectual racists, such as Arthur de Gobineau, were instrumental in perpetuating this ideology through the development of the racial determination theory, which suggested that all races derived from the White race, and that establish “Whiteness,” the standard by which all other races would be compared and judged. Gobineau’s theory was not only used to maintain social, economic and educational hierarchies, but it also gave academic respectability to widespread racist convictions (Watkins, 2001). Others, such as Benjamin Rush, an original founding father of this country, believed that the African American was inferior at the biological level (anatomically, physiologically, and psychologically). In this regard, Rush believed African Americans to be “pathologically infected” (Watkins, 2001), providing some of the first examples of the blaming-the-victim discourse, later defined by Ryan (1971).

Scientific racism was used to provide an unjust explanation for racial differences and as a false justification for segregation and inequality. But more importantly, it planted the seeds for what Black education would look like in the coming years, something Watkins refers to as the architects of Black education.

Eventually, the racist vitriol of scientific racism would be bolstered by the equally disturbing theories of eugenics, which expanded deficit-based ideologies by introducing intelligence testing and statistics as a means to rationalize the perpetuation of the false notion of African American cognitive inferiority (Watkins, 2001). Eugenicists argued that the use of large databases validated their conclusions regarding the intellectual inferiority of African Americans (Watkins, 2001). In contradicting the eugenicists’ theories, Wooldridge (1994) argued that the men who developed these intelligence tests based them on their life experiences and structured the test to favor those individuals who were like them in thinking and personalities. According to Wooldridge (1994): “[M]en tend to admire qualities that they exemplify; [it’s] possible that these psychologists loaded their tests, albeit unconsciously, for children with personalities like their own” (p. 216).

According to Miller and Lynes (2012), “intelligence tests were normed on individuals who reflected upper middle class, White Eurocentric values, attended elite schools, and frequently received personal tutoring” (p. 167). Critical to this line of thought is the fact that the primary focus and rationale for any outcomes from these assessments were inappropriately based on the genetics of the individual and groups, rather than the differences in their backgrounds. The results were the perpetuation of the stereotypes that the lower classes and racial minorities, particularly African Americans, were limited in their intelligence (Marks, 1980). Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the eugenic view was its use as a rationale for continued containment and segregation. Eugenics, as part of the overall scientific racism movement, served as justification for “the hierarchal order of races as historically evolved, divinely ordained, and socially expeditious” (p. 40).

The most detrimental aspect of scientific racism is that it provided a lasting framework of both institutional and attitudinal racism, from which to rationalize all forms of social privilege in the 20th century (Marks, 1980, p. 40).

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