Scientific racism is sort of like pornography in that as hard as it can be to define sometimes, people know it when they see it.
Scientific racism is any use of science to create and perpetuate racist claims about the superiority of one race (let’s be frank ““ it’s pretty much always used to reinforce white superiority), and advocates for the implementation of racist public policies. It relies on a biological definition of race and a truly warped understanding of evolution.
A recent (and fantastic) article at Racialious by the awesome Latoya Peterson explained how to debunk pseudo-science articles and briefly mentioned the specter of scientific racism, but what gives scientific racism away? I’m going to start by quoting the same text from Wikipedia as Latoya Peterson because it provides a succinct description of common scientific errors often found in scientific racism:
Evolutionary biologist Joseph L. Graves described the Bell Curve as an example of racist science, containing all the types of errors in the application of scientific method that have characterized the history of scientific racism:
- claims that are not supported by the data given
- errors in calculation that invariably support the hypothesis
- no mention of data that contradicts the hypothesis
- no mention of theories and data that conflict with core assumptions
- bold policy recommendations that are consistent with those advocated by racists.
Each of these, one by one, point out errors that come through bad science. While no scientist is completely unbiased (for example, I’m biased towards environmental conservation, among other things), a good scientist will recognize their biases, and work to minimize the impact of those biases on the science. Someone who is driven by their biases will inevitably create “science” that conforms to their beliefs.
When an article claims as absolute, objective truths that white people are smarter or more attractive than people from other racial backgrounds, that’s scientific racism. There is no data that can objectively support these assertions, especially not when intelligence tests have been created by the dominant, white culture and beauty standards are predicated on the idealization of white features (error type 1). And to make these far-reaching statements without taking into account a huge array of socio-economic factors, as well as the effects of growing up as a person of color in a racist society, is beyond irresponsible ““ it’s racist (4).
When an article claims that those differences are not just real, but a result of genetic differences, that’s scientific racism. First, race is a social construct and who is considered a person of color and which racial categories exist is constantly changing (1,4). Second, even when people find differences between races, they find that the differences within races are much, much, much larger. Basically, there’s a greater difference in test score between any two white people than there is between any white person and black person. So, if people do want to cite genetic differences, they need to explain why those genetic differences seem to be larger within races rather than between races (2,3).
When an article cites these differences are evidence that some races are “more evolved,” that’s scientific racism. There is no such thing as “more evolved.” Not only is it entirely context-specific (a fish is way “more evolved” for swimming underwater than I am), but it is completely irrelevant to discuss groups WITHIN a species. We are all one species. We are all humans. We have all been evolving for the same length of time. What the hell is “more evolved” supposed to mean in this context?
When an article uses those differences to advocate for cutting funding to schools with large populations of people of color, or uses those differences to explain disparities in pay and education level, that’s scientific racism. Not only is the science behind those differences bad science, but there is absolutely no reason to advocate for racist policies (5). None whatsoever.
Scientific racism is anything but scientific. It is bias dressed up in data, and presented as the Cold Hard Truth. Science is just as fallible as anything ““ while I believe it the best way to go about learning and understanding the real truths of the world we live in, it is still a process performed by humans and therefore subject to error, bias, and misapplication. When dealing with scientific racism, just remember that the use of statistics doesn’t make something the truth and it certainly doesn’t magically make it not racist.