Many of us consider science to be purely objective. So how should scientists take into account factors such as race, a social construct with no biological significance? Understanding the intersection of race and science, and related fields such as engineering, technology, and medicine, often require an understanding of some historical context.
Perhaps one of the most significant examples of this intersection in the United States is the rise of scientific racism during the 19th and 20th centuries. Race science was used as an objective justification for slavery, forced sterilization, and immigration quotas.
“So called scientific studies about race really began to take root in the 1830s and 1840s, right when the debates over slavery began to intensify in the United States,” Moon-Ho Jung, author and professor of history, said. “They began creating a distinct hierarchy that had already been there, but now they gave scientific credibility to those ideas.”
One prominent figure in race science was Samuel George Morton, a physician from Pennsylvania, who focused on craniometry, the measurement of skulls. Morton claimed that he could determine intelligence level based on skull size. In his first major work, Crania Americana, he used this logic to argue that Caucasians were more intelligent than “Ethiopians.”
In another work, Crania Aegyptiaca, Morton argued that as far back as ancient Egypt, Black people served the role of servants or slaves, suggesting it must be their natural role in society. Morton, and other race scientists at the time, supported polygenesis, the theory that each human race evolved from different origins. Polygenesis was used to explain that each race could have distinct, innate characteristics, such as intelligence or submissiveness.
“[Politicians] began incorporating those scientific ideas about race into their defense of the institution of slavery,” Jung said. “Many [scientists], definitely by the 1840s, knew that their ideas were being incorporated to defend slavery.”
Today, monogensis, the theory that all humans have a common origin, is the most widely accepted, but in the 19th century, polygenesis was used to justify slavery.
Because science claims to be objective, politicians could use race science to justify their actions.
Polygenesis was used to argue that Black people were naturally less intelligent or naturally more subservient, and thus naturally fit for slavery. With the existing social hierarchy being white supremacy, Morton and other scientists were swayed by their own prejudice, reinforcing the position of slaves at the bottom of the hierarchy. Because science claims to be objective, politicians could use race science to justify their actions.
Even after the abolition of slavery, science continued to discriminate against Black people, and then other people of color, through eugenics.
“You’ve got these eugenics folks emerging out of that, and really making race modern in the modern university,” Jung said. “They also become prominent in advocating for state intervention or government intervention.”
Developed by Francis Galton in 1880, eugenics is the study of how to improve heritable characteristics of a human population through reproduction. Again, because white people were viewed as superior to other races, they had the desired heritable traits.
As a result, the eugenics movement led to government intervention through the forced sterilization of many Black, Hispanic, and Native American women. In 1927, the US Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell that under the 14th amendment, it was legal to sterilize those “found to be inflicted with an hereditary form of insanity or imbecility.” In other words, the United States used eugenics arguments to allow involuntary sterilization on those deemed to be genetically unfit, a practice that ultimately disproportionately affected Black, Hispanic, and Native American people.
The eugenics movement also influenced immigration laws. In 1920, eugenicists argued that America’s gene pool was being ruined by immigration from southern and eastern Europeans, who they considered to be less intelligent and criminal. This influenced the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which enacted quotas on southern and eastern Europeans.
Around the same time period, “[social scientists] begin arguing that race is not biological, and they begin arguing that it’s cultural, it’s social,” Jung said. “They begin publishing studies that essentially preach what we would now call colorblindness.”
Colorblindness, in reference to race, is the idea that we should no longer see color, or no longer see race. Because race has been defined as social and not biological, it is easy and common for people today to accept colorblindness. The main criticism of colorblindness in today’s society is that we fail to see and fix any discriminatory systems that have been put into place.
“If you look at the broader history, you can begin to see that science cannot be removed from the historical context,” Jung said. “We need to be careful in thinking about how we think we are better or beyond race at our particular moment.”
All of this is not to invalidate science, because new technologies and medicines continue to help people every day; rather, many issues in STEM fields continue to disproportionately affect people of color, and some historical background is needed to better understand and improve on those issues.
Last updated 9/3/20
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