Racecraft: Political Correctness & Free Marketplace of Ideas

Here is a passage that is absolutely brilliant. The authors cut to the heart of the issue like a surgeon with a scalpel.

Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life
by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Fields
pp. 40-44

Sometimes the fog of racecraft rolls in at the last minute, as a derailing non sequitur to an otherwise logical argument. A few years ago, the New York Times reported that scientists who conducted an epidemiological study of asthma among schoolchildren in South Bronx produced damning evidence about environmental pollution caused by heavy truck traffic. Their study identified the particle emissions, cited the location of major highways, and, through resourceful data collection, drew conclusions about the children’s exposure, in specific neighborhoods, at different hours of the day, to “very high fine particle concentrations on a fairly regular basis.” The correlations emerged: “Symptoms, like wheezing, doubled on days when pollution from truck traffic was highest .” It would seem as clear as noonday that class inequality had imposed sickness on these American schoolchildren. Yet the article’s summary tails off into confused pseudo-genetics. To a list of contributors to high asthma rates that includes heavy traffic, dense population, poorly maintained housing, and lack of access to medical care, the article adds “a large population of blacks and Hispanics, two groups with high rates of asthma.” Racecraft has permitted the consequence under investigation to masquerade among the causes. Susceptibility to filthy air does not depend on the census category to which the asthma sufferer belongs. And even if that susceptibility is (to whatever degree) genetically determined, Dr. Venter’s account of his own asthma stands as a reminder that “genetic” is not equivalent to “racial” or “ethnic.”

Some of the oddest racecraft moments come when scientists yoke modern genetics to folk notions. In the controversy over Dr. James D. Watson’s remarks in London, some of his defenders charged his critics with a “politically correct” retreat from science, insisting that good science requires a free marketplace of ideas . Researchers must be free, they implied, to salvage the old bio-racist ranking of superior and inferior races, regardless of the collapse as science of its core concept, race. But it is doubtful that those foes of political correctness would wish to rehabilitate that part of bio-racism that once identified inferior white races.

If they took their own position seriously, they would applaud the writings of such eminent American scientists of the late nineteenth century as Edward Drinker Cope and Nathaniel Southgate Shaler (dean of Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School during the 1890s) on the inequality of races, not simply their work on dinosaurs and the earth’s history. Cope advocated both “the return of the African to Africa” and restrictions on immigration by “the half-civilized hordes of Europe.” Shaler agreed, characterizing those hordes as inferior “by birthright ,” “essentially in the same state as the Southern Negro,” and distinct from “the Aryan variety of mankind.” Popularizers hustled bio-racist “science” into public policy. Madison Grant, who advocated “Nordic” superiority in his 1916 best-seller, The Passing of the Great Race: The Racial Basis of European History, purported to map class inequality onto physical traits, such as height:

The Nordic race is everywhere distinguished by great stature. Almost the tallest stature in the world is found among the pure Nordic populations of the Scottish and English borders, while the native British of Pre-Nordic brunet blood are, for the most part, relatively short; and no one can question the race value of stature who observes on the streets of London the contrast between the Piccadilly gentleman of Nordic race and the cockney costermonger [street vendor] of the old Neolithic type.

In 1924, the lay and scientific streams of bio-racism converged in the Immigration Act of 1924 (which excluded European races deemed undesirable) and the Virginia Racial Integrity Act (which prohibited “miscegenation”). In the same year, Virginia adopted a law (upheld by the US Supreme Court three years later) providing for compulsory sterilization of persons held to be “defective and degenerate,” a group that included “the shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.” The Nazis followed these developments closely. When they decided to weed out the “unfit,” they had American models of how to proceed, from administrative searching of family trees to sterilization. They became “the dark apotheosis of eugenics.”

In 1946, Leslie C. Dunn, a distinguished geneticist and part of a group intent on severing genetics from eugenics, wrote that the field “had developed … out of the racial problems presented so vividly to the United States by the great immigration of the early part of the century.” Consistent application of the “free marketplace of ideas” principle today would restore to bio-racism and eugenics the respectability they once enjoyed. Instead, “inferior white races ” vanished from the lexicon of bio-racism, to rematerialize outside its purview as “ethnic” groups. The “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless” white people vanished altogether. No one attributes to political correctness the demise of bio-racism as applied to white persons. So, the free-marketplace-of-ideas apologia for Watson’s bio-racism as applied to black persons turns out to be a familiar interloper, the practice of a double standard.

One of the present authors some years ago tested the limits of the free market in racist ideas. A crotchety yet likable right-wing colleague approached, looking disquieted and in need of moral support. He was “having trouble” with a certain black student in his bio-psychology class. What was wrong, he wondered, with saying that “black people may, or (mind you) may not, prove to be intellectually inferior to white people? In science, you frame a hypothesis, devise an experiment, find out.” The student raised her hand and, when recognized, blasted him. “Do you know So-and -So (the student in question)?” asked the bio-psychologist. (The author did happen to know the student in question, an eighteen-year-old single mother of twins who was as bright as they come and not one to brook insult.) “Why can’t she grasp that there’s a scientific approach to things , blah , blah?” Finally, the author put a question. “If, as you say, there is no hypothesis that science excludes, why not try this assignment ? Let your students pick any white ethnic group and any stereotype commonly applied to it, greedy, mendacious, dumb, drunken, gangsterish, and so on, then formulate a hypothesis, design the experiment, find out.” The colleague’s face froze.

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