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Angela Saini on the Evils of Race Science

Posted on 10th August 2020 by Mark Skinner

Having deconstructed the pernicious myths surrounding female 'inadequacy' in Inferior, science journalist and author Angela Saini tackles the vile theories of race science in her blistering latest volume, Superior. In this exclusive piece, Saini discusses the historical basis of these theories and reiterates why Superior is such a vitally necessary book in the era of Black Lives Matter.

I recall that when my previous book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong came out in 2017, women would often say to me that men needed to read this book. If equality was going to happen, then all men needed to engage with their role in perpetuating sexism. So, I was surprised that when Superior: The Return of Race Science was published in hardback two years later, one ardent fan of Inferior told me that she didn’t think my new book would be quite as relevant to her, as a white woman. 

That encounter was a disheartening reminder that bias is felt most keenly when it’s happening against you, and easier to ignore when it’s happening by you. In an age in which we have at least legal equality, including legislation to protect us from discrimination and hate speech, the barriers can nevertheless feel as large as ever. What we are fighting for now is not so much legal change as deeper structural and institutional change – a shift in attitudes, in people’s hearts and minds. 

With the horrific death of George Floyd does appear to have come a collective realisation that racism is not just a problem for black and brown people, but for white people. Racism isn’t just bigots shouting in the street, it exists at every level of society, including government, academia and science. It is part of the fabric of how we live, how we relate to each other, and how we feel. We may imagine that we are outside the problem, but the truth is that every one of us is inside it. We all, of course, have biases of which we’re not aware, shaping our interactions and beliefs. 

For me, one of the keys to understanding structural racism lies in comprehending the ways in which intellectuals and those in power through the centuries have woven racism into our institutions and ways of thinking. European science, for example, played a seminal role in creating and hardening the racial categories we use today. Before the Enlightenment, race simply wasn’t thought about in the way we do know. At most, the word ‘race’ was used to refer to a family or tribe. 

Western scientists invented the crude, arbitrary categories of black, white, yellow, brown, red, which we retain today. This wasn’t just an exercise in trying to group enormous populations in the same way that naturalists drew up taxonomies of flora and fauna, they were also reaffirming the politics of the age in their work. European scientists saw themselves as representing the peak of human civilisation, and built a science of human difference around that belief. Their work was both informed by and served slavery and colonialism. 

We live with the effects to this day. From eugenics to modern-day genetic determinism, how we think about being human has been deeply influenced by those old and outdated ideas about human difference. There are still those on the far-right who see white British people as somehow exceptional, a superior breed of human able to naturally achieve things that others can’t. In shadowy forums online, ethnic nationalists and white supremacists share graphs and charts full of bogus data, claiming to prove that white Europeans are naturally more intelligent than other populations. 

The editor of one racist journal who I interviewed for Superior told me that immigration from these ‘less intelligent’ countries should be limited because a brain drain would only make them weaker. Racism, for those who intellectualise race in this way, is a means of rationalising inequality. They place blame at the feet of biology rather than at the feet of historical and political factors where it belongs. 

In an age of rising populism, nationalism and political extremism all over the world, it’s important to recognise the ways in which this brand of racism, dressed up as science, is as profound as the thuggish kinds seen on the street. It is this kind of racism that seeps through into corners of academia and politics, and which ultimately undermines efforts to combat structural inequality. 

In Superior, it is this intellectual racism, both in its subtle and more overt forms that I’ve tried to document – sometimes by having to interview those who deny my equal humanity because my skin is brown. But I see it also in well-meaning folk – including scientists – who think they have no bias at all, and are oblivious to their own prejudices. I have experienced overt racism in the street, but it is this form that I find the most insidious. It is delivered not with a punch, but with a smile.

 

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