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On Scientific Racism

A review of The Science and Politics of Racial Research by William H. Tucker (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
by A. C. Higgins


Below is my review of William H. Tucker's social history of racial research. Tucker provides a detailed history of the movement from its 19th century origins through contemporary Jansenism. Tucker's book appeared at nearly the same time as The Bell Curve and that book is not included in his review. However, the splendid thing about Tucker's exposition is that the Herrnstein/Murray kind of science fits right in; one can see its context.

My review is over long. Yet, I have omitted here detailing the telling descriptions of the battles over school desegregation in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and the reemergence of biological explanations of social behaviors in the 1970s and 1980s. The reader can savor those detailed tellings for himself or herself. Rather, here I would like to emphasize a major contribution made by Tucker to the major interests of this board: fraud in science. Tucker has exposed the mental gymnastics of the social scientist who abuses science in the name of ideology. That is precisely what Tucker sees scientific racists as doing: abusing science by using it as a mechanism of ideology.

The reasoning of scientific racists goes like this: science can tell us the facts and, once we know the facts, we will know what to do. However, science cannot provide a basis for human judgment precisely because science can never provide all the facts. Science is, at best, a statement of probabilities, an approximation, a contingency statement. The judgment that all men are created equal is not a scientific fact but a political and moral judgment about which science has nothing to say.

Attempts to use science as if to say something about the moral order are misunderstandings or worse. Science says nothing about the ought-to-be and science can say nothing about the moral order. If African Americans are short or tall, young or old, male or female, or whatever else, the knowledge says nothing about their rights under the Constitution.

But let me paraphrase and quote Tucker for he makes his points very well:

Scientists claim to be impartial, neutral, "value-free" investigators of the world around them; science is supposedly a procedure for arriving at truth. However, scientists have done wicked things down through history and done them in the name of science. One major example of what has been done in the name of science is racial research and in this book, Tucker provides an overview of racial research from Condorcet (1795) to the present. Briefly, he finds that for two centuries "there have been scientists obsessed with proving that minorities, poor people, foreigners, and women are innately inferior to upper-class white males of northern European extraction." (p. 4) This has been an attempt, quoting Condorcet, "'to make nature herself an accomplice to political inequality.'" (p. 5)

There is implied here a notion that science can, somehow, explain and justify political inequality. This, of course, appears to makes scientific authority a powerful strategy for influencing public policy. If political inequality is seen as a natural consequence of biological inferiority, and biological inferiority can be demonstrated scientifically, it seems that rulers rule according to the laws of nature, not of man. Thus, rulers gave scientists the political task of demonstrating that biology determined their superiority and their subjects' inferiority. More, rulers want it clear there is "no injustice" in their rule. (p. 7) What this book shows is that the "effort to prove the innate intellectual inferiority of some groups has led only to oppressive and antisocial proposals; it has no other use. Indeed, there is no 'legitimate' application for such a finding." (p. 8)

Science is not and cannot be a source of moral authority but the pretense that science can be represents a politically appealing proposition that has become, over the years, a basis for an ongoing campaign to establish a scientific rationale for political and racial oppression. And it is worth reiterating Tucker's thesis: such scientific demonstrations have no other reason for existence than "proving inequality's moral basis." This might well be called the creation of an ideology by means of science but, please note, the ideology existed before the "science" got done and what got done was demanded by the ideology.

Thomas Jefferson put the matter this way concerning blacks: "whatever be their degree of talents, it is no measure of thei rights." (quoted here, p. 11) But, in fact, in the name of science various scientists have eschewed that morality and political judgment preferring that their science prove the worthiness of citizens.

Scientists curry the favor of bigots by providing apparently useful data to them. Take one example: by the 1840s, the challenge to slavery had begun in earnest and so had the defenses of that peculiar institution. In the early part of the decade, the flawed data of the census of 1840 came to be used as a political weapon against the abolitionists. Data of the 1840 census seemed to indicate that blacks living in the North tended to suffer from mental illness at a rate far higher than slaves living in the South. Indeed, free blacks in the North had lunacy rates ten times the rates of slaves in the South. The conclusion was drawn by Southerners that the Negro suffered unduly from "mental activity and where there is the greatest mental torpor, we find the least insanity." (p. 15) Slavery, it would appear to those who looked at these data, was the appropriate social state of the Negro.

Well, the data were wrong. The inexperienced enumerators had erred. And the champions of the South knew well the data's flaws but, like politicians now, they used the data of incipient demography to their own advantage. Then, as now, ideologues used facts which suited their special perspectives. Science served perspective -- not the other way around.

The special perspective of racial researchers is the subject of Tucker's book. The special perspective of these researchers, from the beginnings of their "research" until the present, is their use of "science" to promote political goals. For this perspective was born of the enthusiasm of the 19th century European scientist who imagined, wrongly, that science could save human beings from the need to make political judgments. The 19th century English scientist most particularly, imagined that biological science (a la Darwin) and philosophy (a la Spencer) had provided a method for escaping a society of human making: surely, science could save us by showing us the right, the natural, the biologically correct method of surviving as the fittest. And here, Tucker begins the development of the scientific racist perspective with the work of Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin. Sir Francis' views are based on the idea that science and mathematics can together provide an alternative "religion" -- a belief system -- which, by virtue of its methods, can be ever so much more effective than the old superstitions. That new religion of science applied to justifying Victorian England's social system by demonstrating clearly (and scientifically, of course) its "inevitability" -- and therefore the rightness -- of the class system as it existed in England, Europe's most advanced, progressive and evolved nation. (It also justified Francis Galton's claim to superiority over the hated aristocracy.)

Galton was not interested in the details of his cousin's evolution so much as he was fascinated by the idea of "controlling" evolutionary development through the techniques of proper breeding. Just as dog fanciers could control the development of breeds, so too could right thinking scientists develop a "new science" which would promote the proper sort of human being through scientifically controlled matings. He developed the "science" of Eugenics whose goal was just such control and he promoted quantification and mathematical measurement of "desirable traits" so as to provide the necessary data on the basis of which "truly proper breeding" could occur. The search for measurements of desired traits led directly to the IQ test and the enthusiastic embrace of Eugenics by those interested in the measurement of that trait. It was a truly symbiotic relationship: psychologists got money while the Eugenicists got the science of trait psychology.

Galton's work was picked up in the U.S. by politically and socially elite groups at, among other places, Harvard University where good WASP's sought to protect and defend the country against the incursions of "undesirables." It was at Harvard, in 1895, that the infamous Immigration Restriction League was formed. And, desiring data to prove the inferiority of recent immigrants to our shores, various wealthy Americans endorsed and supported the IRL and the research facility built at Cold Springs Harbor, New York, with Harriman money (also Carnegie and Rockefeller support). There, Charles B. Davenport conducted research and political activity over the first thirty years of this century. And all of the science was designed to promote the idea of biological justification for the social order. By demonstrating the "inferiority" of those at the bottom of the social heap, the upper classes presumptively justified their being at the top of the social scale. They could "prove" their superiority with the IQ test. And, with the same instrument, prove the inferiority of the black. Of course, their proofs ignored "All men are created equal..."

...(S)cientific evidence was, or ought to be, the prerequisite for political and moral conclusions. For the social scientists, there were no self-evident truths; all men (and most certainly women) were not born equal, nor were they endowed with any inalienable rights unless science could establish their existence. All "social and political institutions," proclaimed James McKeen Cattell, the psychology professor who coined the term _mental test_, had to be "based on the truths determined by science," and "no social system, no political theory ... can be maintained when it is not in accord with science." The Declaration of Independence was therefore to be honored in the same manner as other outmoded scientific theories -- "as the dead bodies over which we have advanced." (p. 106)

And this kind of thinking was not limited to a few crackpots or protofascists. One had to submit to Nature and the natural order of things: George Barton Cutton, the president of Colgate, declared that "Democracy is just out of the question." The IQ test had:

...disclosed too many "mentally subnormal" for universal "manhood suffrage" to be realistic, and yet we were about to double "our greatest ... failure," wrote Cutten, contemplating imminent passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Though it might be "a wise course to treat the people like children and let them play at governing themselves," he observed, what the country really needed was not elected "leaders: but "rulers" -- intelligent autocrats who would "rule and rule well" ... He anticipated that mental tests would produce a "caste system as rigid as that of India," on the one hand depriving "at least 25 percent" of citizens of the ballot while, on the other, returning "the burden and responsibility of government where it belongs ... to the rule of ... the real and total aristocracy." This caste system, Cutten emphasized, would not depend on any accident of birth, wealth, or favor, however; it would have a "rational and just basis." (p. 105)

And be clear on this: education was NOT viewed as an opportunity for the development of the individual's potential but rather as a mechanism for matching persons to the role for which they had been "conditioned by...nature." (p. 108) "A scientifically structured educational system was to be the servant of a scientifically structured society... giving to each "a fitting place in the state" while insuring social harmony, especially among those whose place would not be enviable." (p. 109)

The obsession with mental tests, however, left a scientific legacy that would continue to exert substantial influence on the field of education -- the belief that "intelligence" was biologically innate and hence unchangeable, that is growth ended at biological maturity, that it could be directly assessed by performance on a series of tricky little problems that must be solved as rapidly as possible, and that this assessment determined not only what one did know but also what one could know. This reluctance to explore the modifiability and diverseness of intellectual accomplishment has been partly responsible for the quasi- eugenic role that education still plays, channeling individuals, often from an early age, toward futures determined appropriate for them by the results of an IQ test. (p. 110)

The logical extension of the scientific assessment of differential ability occurred in Nazi Germany. Serving science meant excluding (exterminating) those "unfit" or "unworthy" of life. "The Nazis ... merely designed and implemented the mechanisms to attain the goals proclaimed scientifically necessary by the geneticists and anthropologists." (p. 129)

The Holocaust has commonly been conceived of as a revolt against reason, the ultimate example of the "irrational," designed and executed by the pathologically insane. But if reason was the object of the revolt, it was also the chief ally, a dialectic so monstrously rational that it could override all the traditional bounds of morality. The Holocaust was not so much the overthrow of reason as its triumph over morality. It allowed a scientific ultrarationality -- what Hitler called "ice cold logic" - - to provide murder with rational justification. (p. 133)

Whether murder or simple social inequity, the aim of this "scientific racism" is forever the same: the explanation of political inequality with reference to biological inequality. To these thinkers, it is idiotic or paradoxical to think that all individuals are created equal when biology clearly indicates that "equality" ain't so.

Because eugenics had so often been intertwined with pseudoscientific assertions about race and nationality, the inaccuracy -- indeed, the plain foolishness -- of many of these claims became the principal focus of criticism, leaving the underlying assumptions unchallenged. The real problem of eugenics was not the commission of scientific errors, though these were certainly committed in abundance. The attention given to empirical questions largely overshadowed consideration of the more important error, however, the conviction the sociomoral tenets could appropriately be derived from science. Concepts of liberty, justice and equal rights are neither determined nor justified by scientific results but flow from agreements among human beings based on constitutional, religious and moral principles. The intrusion of science into this domain only impeded the Enlightenment's promise to free individuals from the coercive power of church and superstition, moving them out of the religious frying pan and into the scientific fire. Of course, this does not suggest that science has no role in social policy, but it is not in defining goals or rights, it is in developing techniques and methods for achieving principles that have been defined elsewhere.

Tucker details the sorry history of Galton's legacy in this century: the battles over immigration in the 20s, the growth of Nazi ideology both in Germany and here in the U.S., the battles over school integration and the Civil Rights Movement, and the apparently scientific contributions of Arthur Jensen.

This review is already far too long. Suffice it to say that Tucker does a thorough job of applying the insight revealed by his exposure of the racist assumption -- science can prove moral/political inferiority. Science cannot prove anything of the sort and attempts to use science in this way are, as is appropriate for this board, fraudulent.

Tucker touches on some fascinating characters in the history of scientific racism: Frank C. McGurk, Henry Garrett, Carleton Putnam, Wesley C. George, Robert E. Kuttner, Ernst van den Haag, William B. Shockley, Hans Eysenck, Raymond B. Cattell, Roger Pearson, and, of course, Arthur Jensen. These are men whose names and works should be identified.

The quote from Jefferson regarding the distinction between science and morality for blacks or the poor or anyone else is elegant: "whatever be their degree of talents, it is no measure of their rights." Amen.
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