Unpacking the Notion of Race Science

Race Science

In a genetic sense, we are all Africans. 

It might sound like a politically charged statement, but it’s not — it’s a factually sound one, and it contradicts everything that prominent race scientists have been trying to prove over the past two centuries with divisive, faulty science. But we’ll get to the bottom of our collective African heritage later to explain in what ways this revelation does and doesn’t matter in the context of race science. 

Race science is not science at all, but rather a system of belief that perpetuates racism through supposedly objective criteria. It’s been used to describe why Asian people excel in academic settings, why white people tend to have more refined notions of civilization, why Latinx people are hard workers, why black people are athletically superior to their non-black peers. 

White supremacists use race science in blatant ways to describe why their race is superior to all other races on earth. This tradition of thought exists despite the fact that what it means to embody whiteness has changed in the past century. For example, Italian immigrants in the early 20th century were not always considered white but rather a different race altogether and, hence, were deserving of derision and exploitation. 

But even people who today do not consider themselves to be white supremacists use race science to argue against the implementation of anti-racist political policies, to justify their own privilege, and to reinforce harmful stereotypes that suggest that someone is racially predestined to have a certain future. Because race science can help someone convince themselves of all of the above, it’s a concept that has unfortunately had a lot of staying power over the centuries, and over the past few decades despite the advancement of science.

Let’s take the time to unpack the notion of race science, starting from the beginning. 

The Origins of Race Science

In a nutshell, race science originated in colonial mentalities as a way to justify the extermination or enslavement of people who appeared to be savages. By finding ways to explain that one group of people was more or less intelligent, physically capable of manual labor, or subservient, even the most religiously pious colonizers sought to absolve themselves of any responsibility they may have had over the suffering of other humans.

Samuel George Morton is the most well known figure in the history of race science, an American scholar of the early 19th century who had a keen interest in skulls. Using pseudo-scientific measurements of skulls of different people representing what he determined to be the five different races of the globe — Caucasians, Mongolians, Malayans, Native Americans, and black Africans — Morton developed his ideas of race science to establish a divine hierarchy in which Caucasians were designed to exist at the top, supposedly having been endowed with the biggest brains by the Almighty. With these supposedly superior brains, they were suited to pursue intellectual tasks and civilization. (By the way, brain size in humans has no correlation to intelligence; Neanderthals had significantly larger brains than we do.) Using science to explain race is not unlike the way that Christians used passages from the Bible to explain why the enslavement of Africans was God’s will. 

As the skull volumes shrank in Morton’s impeccable records, so did the humanity of the race, ultimately supporting the racist belief that slaves in America were performing work that they were predisposed to perform. If you want to feel totally skeeved out by the father of race science, you can visit Morton’s collection of skulls at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia.

Fortunately, Morton’s scientific method did not stand the test of time, but his approach in using objective measures to try and differentiate the races of the world, considered to be the beginning of race science, was groundbreaking and consequently set the stage for generations of “experts” to try proving that racial disparities are a result of genetics, rather than racism.

Using Race Science to Justify Racism

In 1994, Charles Murray published “The Bell Curve,” a divisive and racist work of thinly veiled scholarship that was championed by people who held racist ideas. For instance, Murray concluded that poor black people in America were poor because they were not as capable or intelligent as whites and Asians. His theories were used to explain why policies like affirmative action were ineffective at addressing racial disparities in the country. Obviously, Murray’s findings were debunked by experts far and wide, but his book still has fans in high places. 

Andrew Sullivan, a former editor of The New Republic, is who the Guardian has described as a “cheerleader” for “The Bell Curve.” He once explained in his own words, “We remain the same species, just as a poodle and a beagle are of the same species. But poodles, in general, are smarter than beagles, and beagles have a much better sense of smell.” With this analogy, he insisted that race science is simply a colorblind and potentially unfortunate series of genetic coincidences that predispose some humans to be smarter or better suited for society than others. It was less a scientific conclusion and more a way to deny the inherent racism of race science. 

Sullivan is just one of many modern day proponents of race science who might not consider themselves white supremacists, and yet are touting ideas rooted in white supremacy. The Guardian also quoted Steve Bannon as writing in a Breitbart piece, “There are, after all, in this world, some people who are naturally aggressive and violent.” He wrote this piece to explain the prevalence of shoot-to-kill police tactics that have taken the lives of innocent black Americans, or even ones guilty of non-violent crimes. It’s not that police are doing anything wrong, felt Bannon, but that the inherent aggression of their victims has led to the unfortunate, non-racist end of their lives. 

Race Science’s Appearance in American Institutions 

This race science and its denial of racism are woven into even the most innocuous of American institutions. For instance, the SAT test was created by Carl C. Brigham, who only a few years prior had touted racial disparities in IQ test scores as evidence of genetic differences; today, we’re still trying to debunk the idea that these standardized tests are an accurate measure of merit or achievement, since they are more likely to reflect a student’s access to an adequate education and end up perpetuating socially-constructed hierarchies of race in America.

Angela Saini, author of “Superior: The Return of Race Science,” pointed out to NPR that, of all places for racist science to thrive, it goes practically unnoticed in the context of medicine. Take sickle cell anemia, for instance, which can affect people who trace their lineage back to regions where malaria is prevalent — including, but not limited to, parts of Africa. “The reason it looks racialized in the U.S. is that in the U.S., many white people are of European ancestry, and many black people, because of the history of slavery, are of West African ancestry,” she explained. “That means that in the U.S., you see far higher rates of sickle cell in the black population than the white population.” In other words, black people in the US are more likely to have it because of how their ancestors were displaced, rather than because of their racial identity. 

Faulty race science can reinforce racial bias in medicine, putting all patients in harm’s way. Author Ibram X. Kendi spoke at Bates University a few years ago about this myth of sickle cell being a “black disease,” sharing that he had to convince his wife, who is a doctor, that one of her white patients was suffering from sickle cell.

The Indisputable Facts

Nearly 200 years after Samuel Morton used science in his attempt to prove the qualities of race in different peoples around the globe — placing Black Africans at the bottom of his racial designations — the Human Genome Project determined that the modern human race shares a genetic makeup that is 99.9 percent similar. “We all evolved in the last 100,000 years from the same small number of tribes that migrated out of Africa and colonized the world,” said Dr. J. Craig Venter, who led the project, upon announcing the findings in 2000 to the New York Times. His findings supported the fact that from an evolutionary standpoint, 100,000 years is not long enough for humans to have mutated into genetically distinct races. This is the point of discovery that revealed that in a genetic context — the one that has interested race scientists from the beginning — we are all African.

Following the publication of the project’s conclusions, there were of course still people who looked to that final .1 percent to account for perceived racial differences. However, this .1 percent is simply the part of the Human Genome Project that researchers do not fully understand, not the .1 percent of genes that might describe our racial inheritance. “Race is a social concept, not a scientific one,” Venter explained. 

Because we’ve been so conditioned to understanding our ancestry along racial lines, it can be hard for us to accept that pigmentation doesn’t accurately reflect how genetically similar one person is to the next. But the reality is that it’s a terribly inaccurate way to stratify the global population into different races. “We often have this idea that if I know your skin color, I know X, Y, and Z about you,” a molecular anthropologist explained to National Geographic. Even without sorting through the findings of the Human Genome Project, though it’s easy enough to understand how race is simply a tool that we use to interpret the appearance of someone by their skin color, rather than describing any underlying genetic material. 

We can immediately dispel this genetic conception of race by considering how race manifests in some of our friends. Let’s say you know a pair of siblings who were born to an interracial set of parents. One fair-skinned, red-headed parent might be considered white, while the other brown-skinned, dark-haired parent might be considered Latino. Naturally, the siblings are genetically similar — but different genes may express themselves at the superficial level, leaving one sibling to appear white and the other to appear Latinx. The siblings’ physical features — skin tone, hair texture, eye color, all of the defining characteristics that go into our constructed conceptions of race — say absolutely nothing about their genetic similarity to one another, nor to how similar they are to both parents. 

Thinking about the fallacy of race this way at the global level, using skin tone to define someone’s race or even their perceived region of origin, can be equally inaccurate. For example, genetically speaking, East Africans are more closely related to Western Europeans than they are to their West African neighbors. Classifying people from the two regions as black simply describes their skin tone, which is ultimately a limited reflection of our genomic expression, describing more accurately their proximity to the equator than their DNA. 

Race Has Real Implications

So, the science is indisputable: We are all one race, and it’s a race that happens to originate from our collective ancestors in Africa, the cradle of modern humanity.

But, while we need to continue to debunk race science, we can’t yet uncouple ourselves from our ideas about race because the reality is that we are far from living in a post-racial society. We’re at least a generation or two away from being able to say “All Lives Matter” without dismissing the reality that our nation functions along racial lines at its foundational level. We are all one human race, yet walking away from the Human Genome project with this conclusion will only serve to perpetuate the racial disparities that exist within societies. 

Saini emphasized to NPR that while race is a social construct that varies from country to country — consider how someone characterized as Hispanic in the US could be classified as White in Mexico —we can’t dismiss the idea of race simply because it isn’t rooted in elementary science. I’ve read genetics textbooks on race that say race is all silly — we should all let it go and live in this kind of colorblind world. Well, no, because that’s not the world that we live in,” she said, recalling how she had been targeted by a racist bully as a child because of the tone of her skin rather than her underlying genetics. “[The bully] threw rocks at me because I looked brown and that he took exception to that. And that’s not going to stop.” 

In other words, the impact of constructed racial identity is real because it has real implications on individuals’ lives, the existence of hate groups, and policymaking at this point in history. Race doesn’t describe our origins in any accurate way, but it does accurately describe how we are organized within society, by society. For the time being, we’re stuck with our faulty conception of race, but we can help to redefine it by reckoning with what race does and doesn’t mean. 

Beyond that, using science and history to call race science out as a racist idea is the only way to debunk race science — though if history is any indication, it’s going to take a while to get everyone on board.