The racist science behind white supremacy.
“The cancerous surge in nationalism and racism around the world has taken many of us by surprise,” writes British science writer Saini (Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story, 2017). Sadly, as the author shows in this superb study, it should not be so surprising. There have always been scientists prepared to argue that skin color, or brain structure, or our genes, or whatever, indicates the “innate superiority” of whites. This deeply researched and unsettling book blends history, interviews, and the author’s personal experiences growing up as an Indian girl in a white working-class section of London. Saini traces the history of modern ideas regarding race since the era of European colonialism, when white Europeans were deemed “better” than others. As she notes, it is “perfectly possible for prominent scientists to be racist….Science is always shaped by the time and the place it is carried out in.” The author recounts the racist thinking of crackpot and respectable scientists—past and present—going back to Enlightenment practitioners who argued that nonwhites were inferior. She describes the popular human zoos that displayed people in cages at world’s fairs, beginning in the 1800s, and the “well-to-do, gentlemanly race scientists” like Reginald Ruggles Gates (1882-1962), who have held forth over the years. After World War II, race science fell out of favor but soon resurfaced in genetics and other fields that studied human differences. Funding from the Pioneer Fund and others made possible the blatantly racist Mankind Quarterly (1961-present) and the research in Charles Murray’s controversial book The Bell Curve (1994). Saini also covers ancestry testing, American exceptionalism, and “black” genes and health. The “virulent racism” of today’s social media, right-wing websites, and in mainstream discourse prompted a 2017 Nature editorial against the use of science to justify prejudice.
An important and timely reminder that race is “a social construct” with “no basis in biology.”