The Never-Ending Allure of Scientific Racism

Who in their right mind would argue with a Harvard geneticist?

I mean Harvard. And geneticist.

And then, who in their right mind would argue with a Harvard geneticist published in the New York Times.

I mean New York Times.

And therein lies the essential problem with the NYT publishing David Reich’s How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race,’ followed up, of course, by the eager “Hey, look! A Harvard geneticist said this thing we have been saying! A Harvard geneticist!” (The short version of Andrew Sullivan’s Denying Genetics Isn’t Shutting Down Racism, It’s Fueling It.)

Not to belabor, but to make a case, possibly that most people can grasp in a way that isn’t oversimplified and misleading (see Reich’s mess as I will detail below), I want to focus on the argument at the core of Reich’s piece that both misrepresents and conveniently ignores how we should best understand race and then racism.

Here’s the key part from Reich:

It is true that race is a social construct. It is also true, as Dr. Lewontin wrote, that human populations “are remarkably similar to each other” from a genetic point of view.

But over the years this consensus has morphed, seemingly without questioning, into an orthodoxy. The orthodoxy maintains that the average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial when it comes to any meaningful biological traits that those differences can be ignored.

Reich suffers from what many so-called elite experts struggle to resist; he feels quite qualified to hold forth on everything just because some people look to him as an expert in one thing.

That he has framed this “orthodoxy” as “average genetic differences among people grouped according to today’s racial terms are so trivial” and “those differences can be ignored” serves two disturbing purposes: first, it sets him up to explain that science argues these differences are, in fact, not trivial, and second, it provides him cover for never confronting the actual orthodoxy about race (how it becomes a blunt tool of racism) in the U.S. and much of the Western world.

So let me now offer a counter-argument, although I am but a lowly education professor.

To be frank, I don’t know a damned person of any intelligence who thinks there are not easily identifiable differences among humans along a wide spectrum of characteristics to classify people. There is no blasphemy to stating that men and women are different, that our social identification of people by skin color (most common use of “race”) also can be used to recognize differences.

But Reich completely misses the boat on the consequences of identifiable differences among humans, and here is the most important point, how identifiable differences become substantial in the hands of the powerful.

You see, the thing Reich and scientific racism refuse to confront is the issue of power.

Here is how human structures have mostly worked: Any group that gains power becomes to some degree insular (tribal) and then idealizes those distinct qualities of the tribe in order to create structures that honor those features while using identifiable differences in the weak to keep them subjugated.

In other words, while Reich seems to think there is some sort of “I don’t see race” orthodoxy in the U.S. and West, he fails to see himself that this isn’t the case, and that “not seeing race [or differences]” isn’t even the goal.

The problem, then, is not if we can isolate, quantify, and thus emphasize something called “intelligence,” and it isn’t even that when we have done and do that now, that we can then also identify differences.

The problem is two-fold: The markers for intelligence are determined by those in power (thus, they are arbitrary) and tend to represent well those in power while marginalizing those who are powerless, and then, that process invariably uses the allure of “scientific” to entrench power deeper for the powerful and disadvantage further the weak.

The reading of “scientific” as “objective” in the pursuit of highlighting and labeling differences is where Reich and others completely fail this debate; this, in fact, is the primary province of scientific racism.

So humans are confronted with the ever-growing body of knowledge about our genetics, what makes us human as well as what makes us unique among and even within our tribes, and we cannot simply take off our socially constructed races like we are discarding an old suit.

The pursuit of quantifying intelligence, the purview of scientific racism, is at its core about proving that the winners deserved to win, about proving that the losers deserved to lose, about denying the power of privilege and inequity.

I am deeply skeptical of Reich’s hand wringing since it remains trapped in the codes of “scientific” and absent any real confrontation of not that humans have differences but how power shapes what happens to those differences.

I am skeptical because that track record on science and racism is quite ugly, and it isn’t one that is tucked away in our dark past.

The daily use of measurement in education and how that makes differences fatalistic (the wealthy are nearly guaranteed their privileges and the disadvantaged are bound to their lives of inequity) is how we do the science of intelligence now.

That is an orthodoxy that should be exposed, unpacked, and dismembered.


Populations are not races