The return of scientific racism

In the era of Donald Trump, it is hardly a surprise that there has been a resurgence of so-called “scientific racism.” The resurgence predates Trump’s campaign for the presidency, but his election has given it a boost at the same time as it has given new confidence to white supremacists and the far right.1 In a recent article, the political scientist Edward Burmila argues, “Scientific Racism Isn’t ‘Back’—It Never Went Away.”2 But while it is certainly true that these ideas have never disappeared entirely, even Burmila concedes that Trump’s election has “emboldened” their proponents.

Attempts to use science (rather than religion or mere prejudice) to justify the claim that some groups are racially superior to others have existed since the eighteenth century. These ideas were discredited long ago, but because racial inequality has not disappeared, they regularly reappear in new variants and have to be refuted again . . . and again.3 Some hoped that the final death knell for scientific racism had been sounded with the completion of the Human Genome Project in June 2000, which showed that humans share 99.9 percent of their genes in common. Craig Venter, whose work on gene sequencing played a crucial role in mapping the human genome, announced at that time, “Race has no genetic or scientific basis.”4 But because scientific racism is driven not by scientific evidence but by the racial animus of some and the unexamined assumptions of others, those hopes have not yet come to fruition.

The United States was founded on slavery and genocide, so racism and racist ideas were woven into the country’s fabric from its beginning. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” but he was also a slave owner, and within a few years was justifying the institution as based on natural inequalities between the races. In Notes on the State of Virginia, written in the early 1780s, Jefferson describes Blacks as having “a very strong and disagreeable odor,” claims that “they require less sleep,” that “their griefs are transient,” and that they are “in reason much inferior.” With respect to the latter, Jefferson concludes that “it is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.” But Jefferson conducted  no systematic research of his own. He noted that “further observation” and scientific investigation (including making use of the “anatomical knife”) was needed to confirm his hypothesis and “to achieve certainty” in the matter.5

In the nineteenth century, leading American scientists eagerly undertook the investigation that Jefferson had proposed. Samuel George Morton, a physician and professor of anatomy in Philadelphia, spent years collecting and measuring skulls and claimed on the basis of his research that Caucasians had significantly larger brains—and hence were more intelligent— than Negroes, with Indians in the middle. After Morton’s death in 1851, his work was continued by Josiah Nott and George Gliddon, who argued that the supposed differences showed that each race was in fact a distinct species (a view known as polygenism), created separately by God. After Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, the argument was reframed in evolutionary terms. The Harvard paleontologist Nathaniel Shaler, for example, argued that each race had evolved separately from different primates.

IQ

By the early twentieth century, polygenism was no longer a scientifically tenable position, but the view that the races were biologically distinct and that whites had superior characteristics, nevertheless persisted. With the invention of IQ tests at the turn of the century, the argument now took the form that the tests were a satisfactory measure of innate general intelligence, that some racial groups performed better on the tests than others, and that the best explanation for the differences was that the higher-scoring groups were genetically superior. Versions of this argument have been around ever since, even though it fails at nearly every step. The only thing that is true is that there are statistically significant differences between the average IQ scores of different racial groups. But there is no good reason to believe that IQ measures an innate, unchangeable intellectual capacity, or that differences between groups have a genetic explanation.

IQ tests were originally designed in 1904 by the French psychologist Alfred Binet, with the goal of identifying school children who were struggling and who could then be provided with special educational support to perform better. Binet designed a series of tasks that an average child of a certain age could be expected to perform. The mental age and chronological age of the children could then be compared, with the ratio of the two being their “intelligence quotient” or IQ. It became standard to multiply the ration by 100, so that a child whose mental age and chronological age were the same would have an IQ of 100. A child whose mental age was ahead of their chronological age would have an IQ of more than 100, and one whose chronological age was ahead of their mental age would have an IQ of less than 100. But Binet did not believe that the tests measured a characteristic that could not be changed—in fact the whole point of the tests was to provide appropriate assistance to children with below-average IQs in order to raise them. Nor did Binet believe that the tests should be taken as the definitive measure of a child’s intelligence. “Intellectual qualities,” he warned, “cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured,” and that inflating the importance of the tests “may give place to illusions.”6

As soon as IQ tests crossed the Atlantic to the United States, the illusions became rampant. IQ was taken by American psychologists such as H. H. Goddard and Lewis Terman, who believed that intelligence was an inherited characteristic that could be little changed, and that the tests were an accurate measure of general intelligence. Both Goddard and Terman were supporters of the eugenics movement, which encouraged individuals with supposedly desirable characteristics to have children, while discouraging those with supposedly undesirable characteristics from reproducing, and their views on IQ tests were in line with this movement. Since intelligence was claimed to be fixed by a person’s genetic inheritance, the goal of the tests was no longer to provide remedial support for improved academic performance, but to direct those with lower than average IQs into menial employment. According to Terman, an IQ of 75 or below fitted someone for unskilled labor, whereas 75–85 was appropriate for semi-skilled work. However, he warned that without appropriate vocational training, individuals in the 75–85 range would drop out of school “and drift easily into the ranks of the anti-social or join the army of Bolshevik discontents.”7

But do IQ tests really measure general intelligence? One problem is that intelligence itself is not a well-defined concept. Many of the original tests were hopelessly culturally biased, but even if the most obvious biases are removed, Binet was surely right that the tests at best measure one aspect of what might reasonably be identified as intellectual ability. The contemporary Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner agrees with Binet and argues that intelligence has multiple dimensions. Gardner identifies nine kinds of intelligence, but one does not have to agree with the details of his theory to agree with his general point.8

Just as importantly, whatever IQ measures, it is not an immutable characteristic. In the 1980s, James R. Flynn called attention to the fact that in every country for which there are detailed records, IQ scores have been steadily rising since the early twentieth century—the so-called Flynn Effect.9 For instance, between 1942 and 2008, the average IQ of British children rose by 14 points. The increases were obscured because the tests are recalibrated every few years to keep the average at 100, but they indicate that the intellectual capacities being measured can be improved with changes in educational support and other aspects of the social environment. This conclusion is further supported by studies that show that individual IQ scores can be significantly increased with the right kind of practice, such as computer games that improve memory.

Scientific racists, from Goddard and Terman in the early twentieth century to Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, authors of The Bell Curve in the 1990s, to former New York Times science journalist Nicholas Wade more recently, compound the fallacious reasoning about intelligence with fallacious reasoning about race.10 They argue that differences in average IQ scores between different racial groups are largely due to genetic differences. No one can identify any specific genetic differences, so there is an appeal to indirect evidence, such as studies of identical twins raised separately since birth that supposedly show that there is a higher correlation between the IQ scores of the twins than between children who are not related. But even the best of these studies are methodologically dubious, because although the twins were raised separately, they were still generally raised in similar social environments. When identical twins were raised in households that differed in terms of educational background and social class, large differences in IQ scores were observed.11

Whatever the findings of twin studies, there is no reason to think that racial differences in IQ scores have a genetic explanation—in fact, quite the contrary.12 Even if the heritability of a characteristic is high, and even if there is a measurable difference in that characteristic between groups, it is fallacious to conclude that the difference is due to genetic differences between the groups. For example, height has a high degree of heritability—you are more likely to be tall if you have tall parents, and short if you have short parents. But if one group of individuals is on average taller than another, the difference may nevertheless be due entirely to environmental factors. Average height in many countries has increased over the past century. Norwegians born in 1900 were, on average, shorter than Norwegians born in 2000. But the explanation is not that there was a change in the gene pool. The increase is due to improved nutrition and health care.

IQ correlates highly with performance on academic achievement tests, and there is a Black-white gap between achievement test results for reading and for math in the United States, with Blacks on average scoring significantly lower than whites. But that gap has decreased significantly over the past several decades. In 1963 it was about one standard deviation, but by 2003 it had closed to half a standard deviation.13 What happened for most of that time was that the gap between educational resources and opportunities for Blacks and whites also narrowed. Of course, the disparities still remain enormous, so there is no reason to think that the achievement gap would persist if they were eliminated entirely.14 Attempts to explain the gap by appeal to unknown genetic differences serve only as a cover for conservative attacks on programs (from Head Start to affirmative action) aimed at reducing educational inequalities.

The social construction of race

There is an even more fundamental reason for rejecting genetic explanations of achievement gaps between racial groups: race itself is not a biological category. Despite the widespread belief that racism has existed for all human history, the concept of race is a relatively new one. The term is not found in ancient texts, nor even in the fourteenth-century travel writings of Marco Polo. Its first-known use in English dates from the early sixteenth century, coinciding with the birth of modern colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In North America, racial codification began to be imposed in the seventeenth century as a response to armed uprisings, such as Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676, which united poor whites and Blacks against colonial elites. In response, ruling classes resorted to a policy of divide and rule, enacting slave codes to discipline Blacks, while conferring small privileges on poor whites. Before the end of the century, the Virginia Assembly proclaimed that all white men were superior to Blacks, who by this time had become chattel slaves, and passed a law requiring masters to provide white servants with money, supplies, and land when they had completed their period of indenture.15 The historian Theodore Allen describes this development as “the invention of the white race.” Allen conducted a survey of seventeenth-century colonial records and “found no instance of the official use of the word ‘white’ as a token of social status before its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691.”16

The point of sketching this history is to illustrate that race is a sociopolitical category, not a biological one. At different times and in different places, racial boundaries have been drawn in very different ways. Moreover, while the boundaries may correspond to superficial differences (skin color, physical appearance, etc.), they have no deeper biological significance. As Dorothy Roberts puts it:

Like citizenship, race is a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations. Race is not only interpreted according to invented rules, but, more important, race itself is an invented political grouping. Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.17

According to a 1997 statement by the American Anthropological Association, “genetic data . . . show that, no matter how racial groups are defined, two people from the same racial group are about as different from each other as two people from any two different racial groups.”18

The myth of biological races

Despite this, the notion of race as a biological category persists. Much medical research, for instance, categorizes people by self-identified race. Until the 1960s, almost all the subjects in medical studies in the United States were white men. The civil rights movement and the women’s movement demanded that subjects be selected from a wider and more diverse pool, in part because people who participate in the research are more likely to receive the benefits if it results in a medical advance. Today it is a requirement of most federally-funded studies that they include participants from more than one racial background and that they analyze the results by race. Including more nonwhite subjects in medical research is a good thing, but it has had the effect of reinforcing the idea that there are biologically significant differences between the various racial groups. The myth that whites and African Americans differ in their response to the same medical treatment, or experience different degrees of pain, is widespread in the medical profession. For example, a 2016 study of medical students and residents, conducted by a team of psychologists at the University of Virginia, found that “a substantial number of white medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biological differences between Black and white people (e.g., Black people’s skin is thicker; Black people’s blood coagulates more quickly) that could affect how they assess and treat the pain experienced by black patients.” The researchers found that half of their sample held one or more of these false beliefs, making it more likely that they would report lower pain ratings for Black patients and prescribe lower doses of pain medication.19

Because we live in a racist society, there are indeed significant differences in health outcomes between whites and members of racially oppressed groups, even when there are controls for socioeconomic factors. But these differences are rooted in systematic oppression, not in biology. Nevertheless, because the myth that race has biological significance remains widespread, research is sometimes diverted into looking for genetic causes for the disparities, rather than unearthing their social roots and attempting to address them. Even when there are clear environmental causes for ill health, as there are in the case of childhood asthma, for example, money still flows into research looking for genetic explanations to explain why Black and Brown children suffer from the disease at higher rates than their white counterparts. As Roberts notes:

A chief reason why genetic explanations are emphasized over social ones is that genetic causes can be treated with a pharmaceutical product. The automatic response to disease-causing genes is to develop a drug to target them. You are just as likely to find a gene discovery reported in the business section of a newspaper as its science section.20

The influence of corporate profits on what is researched and how the results are interpreted is further accentuated by the interest of pharmaceutical companies marketing “race-specific” medications. In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration approved the heart drug BiDil for use specifically by African Americans, even though there was no serious evidence that it had any racially disparate effects. The drug was a commercial failure, but the door was opened for more drugs to be marketed on the basis of race.21

The idea that race is biological has also been promoted by people who confuse ancestry with race, including by those who should know better. Earlier this year, for instance, the Harvard geneticist David Reich published an article in the New York Times titled “How Genetics is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race.’”22 Reich is one of the world’s leading experts on ancient DNA. According to a lengthy profile of him published in the Times a few days before his own article, “Reich’s laboratory has published DNA from the genomes of 938 ancient humans—more than all other research teams working in this field combined. The work in his lab has reshaped our understanding of human prehistory.”23 Analyzing the DNA of our ancestors provides invaluable insight into their likely migratory patterns and evolution. Reich’s work related to paleoanthropology is path-breaking and invaluable, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of his views about race.

Reich (who is also the son of the first director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum) concedes that “race is a social construct” and accepts that in terms of genetics, human populations are extremely similar. He also expresses “deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism.” But he rejects the view 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,” which he claims has become a new orthodoxy. So, having first agreed that race is socially constructed, Reich immediately takes it back by claiming that there are significant biological differences between different racial groups.

In fact, the evidence from genetics confirms what we know from anthropology and paleontology: we are all African.24 Modern humans evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago. Around 65,000 to 70,000 years ago, groups of humans began to migrate out of Africa in successive waves, first to what  is now the Middle East, then to Asia and Europe, and eventually reaching North and South America. Since the migrating groups were subpopulations of the whole, they contained less genetic diversity than the original population. New genetic variants have arisen in the populations that left Africa, but since our species lived only in Africa for the first two-thirds of its existence and since humans spread slowly across the globe, the genetic changes that have evolved in different populations do not correspond to anything like traditional races. In addition, there has always been considerable interbreeding between the different human subpopulations. As the psychologist Paige Harden notes: “Ancestry . . . allows for more continuous and granular distinctions than our relatively crude categories of race. The ancestry components that geneticists are most commonly including in their analyses are making fine-grained distinctions between people who would all be lumped together as ‘white’ in the US today.”25

David Reich is correct that genetic differences between human subpopulations may explain other differences between them (as he says, “We now know that genetic factors help explain why northern Europeans are taller  on average than southern Europeans.”), but the subpopulations in question are not races. In a response to Reich, a group of sixty-seven scientists and researchers noted that people of West African ancestry “may have a higher frequency of a version of a particular gene that is linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer. But lots of people not from West Africa also have this same gene. We don’t call these other people a ‘race’ or say their ‘race’ is relevant to their condition. Finding a high prevalence of a particular genetic variant in a group does not make that group a ‘race.’”26

Despite expressing “deep sympathy for the concern that genetic discoveries could be misused to justify racism,” Reich’s sloppy use of the term “race,” did just that. Within a few days of his article’s publication, Michael Barone of the American Enterprise Institute—which also employs Charles Murray—had penned an op-ed arguing that Reich’s work supports the argument that “racial quotas and preferences” should be abandoned.27 Similarly, Murray himself, and author Sam Harris who shares Murray’s view that IQ differences have a genetic basis, both tweeted the link to Reich’s article, claiming it as refuting their critics. Harris, who originally made a name for himself as a leader of the “new atheist” movement, has now—along with other prominent “new atheists”—moved close to the alt-right.28

This article has examined some of the key arguments made by scientific racists and what is wrong with them. But as noted at the outset, refuting the arguments is not enough. Defeating the latest revival of scientific racism will require not just good arguments but defeating the right-wing movements with which it is associated. And defeating scientific racism at its roots will require radically changing a society that generates and depends on racial inequality.


  1. Nicole Hemmer, “‘Scientific Racism’ Is on the Rise on the Right. But It’s Been Lurking There for Years.” Vox, March 28, 29017. https://www.vox.com/the-big- idea/2017/3/28/15078400/scientific-racism-murray-alt-right-black-muslim-culturetrump. Gavin Evans, “The Unwelcome Revival of ‘Race Science’,” Guardian, March 2, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/02/the-unwelcome-revival- of-race-science.
  2. Edward Burmila, “Scientific Racism Isn’t ‘Back’: It Never Went Away,” Nation, April 6, 2018, https://www.thenation.com/article/scientific-racism-isnt-back-it-never-went-away/.
  3. See, for instance, Allen Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism (Knopf, 1977); Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, revised ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1996); and Michael Yudell, Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).
  4. Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century (New York: The New Press, 2011), 50.
  5. Sean Braswell, “Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father . . . White Supremacist?” OZY, August 15, 2007, https://www.ozy.com/flashback/thomas-jefferson-founding-father- white-supremacist/79574.
  6. Quoted in Evans, “The Unwelcome Revival of ‘Race Science.’” For more on Binet’s work, see Theta H. Wolf, Alfred Binet (University of Chicago Press, 1973).
  7. Quoted in Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 212.
  8. Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1983) and Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice (New York: Basic Books, 2006).
  9. James R. Flynn, What Is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect, Expanded edition (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  10. Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994). Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (New York: Penguin Press, 2014). For a critique of Herrnstein and Murray, see Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. For a critique of Wade, see Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall, Troublesome Science: The Misuse of Genetics and Genomics in Understanding Race (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
  11. Evans, “The Unwelcome Revival of ‘Race Science.’”
  12. Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett, “There’s Still No Good Reason to Believe Black-White IQ Differences Are Due to Genes,” Vox, June 15, 2017. https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/6/15/15797120/race-black-white- iq-response-critics.
  13. Turkheimer, et al.
  14. Lindsey Cook, “US Education: Still Separate and Unequal,” US News & World Report, January 25, 2015. https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/01/28/ us-education-still-separate-and-unequal.
  15. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003), chapter 2, “Drawing the Color Line.”
  16. “Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race,” Cultural Logic 1, no. 2 (Spring 1998), https://clogic.eserver.org/1-2/allen. For more on the social construction of race, see George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); Roberts, Fatal Invention; and Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso, 2012).
  17. Roberts, Fatal Invention, 4.
  18. Quoted in Roberts, Fatal Invention, 53.
  19. Fariss Samarrai, “Study Links Disparities in Pain Management to Racial Bias,” UVAToday, April 4, 2016, https://news.virginia.edu/content/study-....
  20. Roberts, Fatal Invention, 146.
  21. Jonathan Kahn, Race in a Bottle: The Story of BiDil and Racialized Medicine in a PostGenomic Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
  22. David Reich, “How Genetics is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’,” New York Times, March 25, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/23/opinion/sunday/ genetics-race.html.
  23. Carl Zimmer, “David Reich Unearths Human History Etched in Bone,” New York Times, March 20, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/20/science/david-reich- human-migrations.html.
  24. Daniel J. Fairbanks, Everyone is African: How Science Explodes the Myth of Race (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2015).
  25. Turkheimer, et al.
  26. “How Not to Talk About Race and Genetics,” Buzzfeed, March 30, 2018, https://www. buzzfeed.com/bfopinion/race-genetics-david-reich. The authors are “scholars from disciplines ranging across the natural sciences, medical and population health sciences, social sciences, law, and humanities.”
  27. “How Genetic Science Is Undercutting the Case for Racial Quotas,” Washington Examiner, April 4, 2018, https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/ michael-barone-how-genetic-science-is-undercutting-the-case-for-racial-quotas.
  28. Phil Torres, “From the Enlightenment to the Dark Ages: How ‘New Atheism’ Slid into the Alt-right,” Salon, July 29, 2017, https://www.salon.com/2017/07/29/from-the- enlightenment-to-the-dark-ages-how-new-atheism-slid-into-the-alt-right/.

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