Scientifc Racism

This post contains encyclopedia entries on the American eugenics movement, biological determinism, Johann Blumenbach and Carols Linnaeus, Francis Galton, genocide, and racial taxonomy.

American Eugenics Movement

The popularity of scientific discourses on race led some in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to hypothesize the perfection of race through self-directed evolution, or eugenics. As an ideology eugenics was extraordinarily useful in maintaining structural inequality. Disparities between rich and poor could be explained by the biological superiority or inferiority of particular groups. It became not just morally but scientifically necessary to protect against interracial marriage by passing anti-miscegenation laws. Protection of the gene pool became a subject of national interest and efforts to halt immigration from undesirable countries were enacted. Finally, as it was the case that the poorer classes of society were reproducing at a faster rate than the upper class, forced sterilization was seen as a legitimate means to curb population growth among groups deemed undesirable.

Eugenics was a popular movement in the United States from Reconstruction until World War II when it became associated with the Nazi. American eugenic programs, however, predate similar programs in Nazi Germany and Nazi defendants cited American precedent in their defense at the Nuremberg trials. There were approximately 64,000 forced sterilizations carried out under eugenics legislation in the U.S. The vast majority of these were women, lower-class, and non-white. Some prison populations were also affected too, men were more likely to be sterilized as the result of criminal activity under so-called “punitive sterilizations.” By comparison the Nazi may have sterilized as many as 450,000. Forced sterilization is now considered to be a violation of human rights.

Laws prohibiting interracial marriage had existed since colonial times, but eugenics brought the patina of science to such legislation. According to the eugenicists, persons of mixed racial heritage were inherited the worst qualities of both races and suffered from chronic health problems and poor morality. Their concern to limit miscegenation was codified through state laws preventing marriages between blacks and whites. A few states broadened this to include marriages between whites and Indians or Chinese, while others prevented blacks from marrying other non-white races. The majority of states have had some version of anti-miscegenation legislation at one point in time as this was by no means limited to the U.S. South. Several failed attempts were made to introduce an anti-miscegenation amendment to the Constitution. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia (1967).

Another major component of the eugenics movement in the U.S. was advocating for strict immigration policies. Persons from Northern Europe were believed to be of superior racial stock, particularly if they were upper class whereas those who hailed from Southern Europe such as the Italians, or Eastern Europe such as the Slavs, posed a biological threat. At this time the cultural definition of whiteness was exclusive of Jews and the Irish as well. After the Immigration Act of 1924 it became more difficult for anyone without Anglo-Saxon or Nordic backgrounds to enter the U.S.

Perhaps the key element in eugenicist thinking was the supposed correlation between race and intelligence. The modern IQ test grew out of research conducted by Francis Galton and through the efforts of his student James McKeen Cattell such testing became popular in the U.S. in the 1890s. In some cases test performance was used to determine whether or not one was fit for reproduction and poor performance could lead to compulsory sterilization. It was further argued that good test scores by upper and middle class white women was an indication that they should bear more children, hence why they should be denied birth control.

At the height of its popularity between the years 1910-1930 eugenics commanded the advocacy of prominent and well respected scientists, doctors, and politicians, receiving funding through leading corporations and philanthropic organizations. There were even feminist advocates of eugenics who called for the improvement of society’s gene pool by providing access to free birth control for those living in poverty, who were disabled, suffered from mental illness, or were “feeble minded.”

The Supreme Court of the United States, in Buck v. Bell (1927), upheld forced sterilization as in the best interest of the nation as a whole. The case concerned a Virginia law for the sterilization of the mentally retarded. An eighteen year old woman named Carrie Buck was an institutionalized resident of a state mental hospital. As evidence of her “promiscuous” behavior and “feeble mindedness” the state alleged that not only had she become pregnant out of wedlock but her mother was a prostitute as well. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “three generations of imbeciles are enough,” referring to Buck, her mother, and her illegitimate offspring. Historians now consider Buck’s pregnancy to be the result of rape and her institutionalization to represent her family’s shame that the rapist was her cousin.

Sterilization for undesirable populations still holds an allure for some. Funded by anonymous donors, the non-profit organization Project Prevention pays a lump sum to drug addicts and alcoholics if they agree to be sterilized or accept long-term birth control such as an IUD. Founded in 1997, the group has paid for the sterilization of more than 3,800 individuals.


Biological Determinism

The idea that race is a biologically fixed category is a pervasive one around the world. Biological determinism holds that stemming from the apparently embodied nature of race it follows that moral and intellectual capacities are also inherited. Hence, different races are believed to have different aptitudes and inclinations, making them more or less suited to particular occupations, for instance. As different occupations are differently compensated social stratification is believed to result from and provide evidence for a natural racial hierarchy. This has also played a major role in criminological explanations which argue that some races are more apt to break the law than others as well as in medicine where it has been argued that different races respond differently to disease and treatment.

Generally speaking, biological determinism is the result of a transformation of authority in Western culture occurring between the seventeenth and twentieth century in which religious definitions of savagery gave way to scientific definitions of race. During the European Enlightenment science and reason were ascendant but still circumscribed by dominant Christian theology. The fact that most non-Europeans were also non-Christian was perceived to be a deficit of their character. To be ignorant of Christianity was synonymous with savagery whereas to be saved was to be civilized. In contrast to religious and folk beliefs about race, science saw itself as eminently rational, immune to emotion, and unfettered by superstition. The “fact” of race was established by such continental scholars as Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon, and Johann Blumenbach. The institution of slavery was a crucial economic force driving this transformation, particularly in the Americas where legislators used law and policy to reduce Africans to chattel slavery with religion and science providing the justification.

By the mid-nineteenth century, around the time the social sciences of anthropology, psychology, and sociology were coming into being as formalized academic disciplines, biological determinism was prevalent. In the United States science was deployed to attack the claims of the Abolitionists who claimed that slavery was immoral through studies that proved that blacks and Indians were inferior. For example, the earliest physical anthropologists such as Samuel Morton and Louis Agassiz claimed there was a connection between cranial capacity and intelligence. They felt that culture was biologically determined and physical measurements of skulls could be used to devise a ranking of cultures. Josiah Nott, Morton’s student, carried this line of thinking a step further by arguing that blacks and whites were of separate species. Still others argued that non-white races were morally and intellectually like children, with whites taking up the role of parent by guiding and disciplining their wards. Africans were thus better off under slavery than freed. All of this scientific debate was especially useful to proslavery forces in their efforts to lobby against the Abolitionists. The longstanding belief in a hierarchy of races was echoed by science and codified in law by the Supreme Court of the United States in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). Writing for the majority Chief Justice Roger Taney framed his argument by noting that blacks were “far below” whites in the “scale of created beings.”

After the Civil War science and biological determinism were used to justify Jim Crow legislation, segregation, and American imperialism in the Pacific, particularly through Social Darwinism, which became an increasingly dominant ideology as legislators and business moguls poured money into university studies and magazine features to convince a public ready to believe in the powers of science. Returning to Thomas Hobbes’ notion of man in the state of nature as a war of all against all, the Social Darwinists argued that those with the most privilege in life were at the top because they deserved to be. Since structural inequality was natural, stemming from the biological inferiority of the lower classes, government intervention to provide public services like education and health care or to provide for a minimum wage was morally wrong because it prevented the weak from being weeded out. This illustrates how arguments for superior and inferior races coincided with American cultural beliefs about personal responsibility and individualism.

The most vocal proponent of Social Darwinism was Herbert Spencer, an Englishman and acquaintance of Charles Darwin, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” The principal tenet of Spencer’s argument was that society was like a living organism. Social institutions like families and government could be made to fit into an evolutionary framework. It was possible then for the social sciences to dispassionately compare human cultures to one another and accurately measure the relative degrees of superiority between them. Biologically deterministic theories were not only useful in maintaining racist structural inequalities they also helped to uphold patriarchy by explaining the inherent inferiority of women to men. Additionally, as the American economy shifted from one based on agriculture to industrial capitalism, Social Darwinism explained class differences and how the fittest individuals became the wealthiest while the poor were to remain laborers because of their natural inferiority.

Biological determinism in science was not only a response to cultural norms it served to intensify them and the significance of a belief in races. The rather weak science behind biological determinism appears as more substantial than it really is because it echoed the cultural beliefs of its audience.


Blumenbach and Linneaus

Carolus Linnaeus is the pen name of the great Sweedish botanist Carol von Linne (1707-1778). Since his writings were in Latin he is commonly known by his Latin name. He is best known for establishing binomial nomenclature, or the genus and species system of naming, as the standard means of organizing the biological world into a scientific taxonomy. Linnaeus’s major work Systema Naturae (1758) offered a simple method for ordering plants and animals into a nested hierarchy based on observable characteristics. In Linnaean taxonomy different species are recognized as being in relation to one another to a greater or lesser degree based shared features. This is the same basic principal used by modern biologists in classifying the living world, only today the focus is on genetics rather than observable physical characteristics. At the time of his death he was one of the most highly regarded scientists in the world.

Linnaeus is also known as the first person to offer a scientific explanation for the human races. In a move that shocked his contemporaries, Linnaeus placed humans in his taxonomy of the natural world, coining the name Homo sapiens for our genus and species. This was especially challenging to eighteenth century Europeans because of the widely held belief that humans, having been made in God’s image, were superior to everything in the natural world. Based on anatomical similarities, Linnaeus argued that humans ought to be classified with monkeys and apes in an order of mammals he called Primates. In Linnaeus’s taxonomical description of Homo sapiens there were four races, which were defined by geography and skin color. These four races were: white European, red American, yellow Asian, and black African. Included with these physical descriptions were supposedly natural racial differences of temperament and intelligence. For example the white race was inventive and the black race was lazy, while the red race was stubborn and the yellow race was greedy.

Although Linnaeus departed from convention by placing humans within the natural world, he conformed in others. According to the dominant theological doctrine his day, all living things were created by God in their modern form. This “fixity of species,” as it was known, precluded the possibility of change among populations over time. Therefore racial differences were seen as immutable because those differences were set down by God at the moment of creation. In anticipation of forthcoming theories of evolution, Linnaeus came to abandon the fixity of species later in life although he himself was not an evolutionist.

The German physiologist Johann Blumenbach (1752-1840) greatly expanded upon the study of humanity’s place in natural history. He is known as one of the first to bring a scientific method to anthropology, a discipline that had hitherto been mostly a speculative pursuit of philosophers and humanists. As one of the preeminent professors at Gottingen University in Germany, Blumenbach can be seen as a transitional figure in the professionalization of anthropology and its establishment as an academic discipline. In his first major work on human variation, On the Natural Variety of Mankind (1776), Blumenbach used comparative anatomy to document what he labeled as the five races of the human species. Blumenbach’s five races were also defined by geography and skin color: white Caucasian, yellow Mongolian, brown Malayan, black Ethiopian, and red American. While there have been many other definitions of race, Blumenbach’s five races would dominate racial thinking for generations. Like Linnaeus, Blumenbach’s thinking challenged religious convention but was also circumscribed by it.

According to the theological doctrine of the day God had created Adam and Eve as white, a view that was challenged as Europeans encountered human physical diversity during their exploration of the world in the eighteenth century. One theory for the presence of human diversity, known as polygenism, argued that racial differences were so great that they must have been created by God. This departed from strict Biblical accounts by arguing that the different races must have been created at the same time, but in different parts of the world. Thus the polygenists proceeded from the assumption that whites must be set apart from all other races by definition. Blumenbach belonged to a different camp. The monogenists argued that there had been one act of creation and that original race was white, however all other races derived from that one over time. This departed from the doctrine of the fixity of species.

Blumenbach argued that the different races’ skin colors were the result of environmental conditions and diet. The black skin of Africans is the result of exposure to tropical sun, for example. This is known as degeneration theory: racialized difference is understood as stemming from a fall from grace because God’s original creation was the white race. If racial differences were the result of environmental conditions like Blumenbach thought, then race must be mutable and could change over time. Therefore behavioral characteristics could not be linked to biological race as Linnaeus agued. There was a racial hierarchy, but it had slowly emerged over time as natural environmental forces had worked upon human populations.

Linnaeus and Blumenbach are foundational to our understanding of scientific racism. Their research set precedents that were long lasting and far reaching. Both scientists proceeded under the assumption that race is an objectively existing, naturally occurring property of human populations and it could therefore be documented and analyzed with biology. As authors both men published renowned texts that were translated into many languages, disseminating their knowledge around the world. They established race as a valid scientific category, lending the authority of science to racial classifications and reinforcing the notion that racial difference is real and natural.

Galton, Francis

Born into a successful English family that included men of industry, finance, science and medicine, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was well known in his day as a public spokesman for the sciences and pioneer in applied statistics. His talents, privilege, and hard work made him very popular in scientific societies and he made a number of remarkable contributions to numerous fields including geography, meteorology, statistics, psychology, and anthropology. This made his advocacy for eugenics, the cause which consumed all his energy late in life, all the more authoritative and influential.

As a young man Galton spent a considerable amount of time traveling through Egypt and Sudan before embarking on an expedition into far southwest Africa, an area almost completely unknown to Europeans at the time. While on his expedition Galton encountered “savage races,” by which he meant African tribal peoples, and the experience was profoundly important for how he would come to write about race. He believed Africans to be far inferior to Europeans and documented this in his ethnographic notes, although his major African publications focused on geography and natural history.

As a statistician Galton made many important contributions to psychology, particularly in differential psychology or the measuring of differences between individuals. He was the first to use correlation and regression in quantitative methods, techniques he would also apply to the study of kinship. In his groundbreaking twin studies, Galton laid the foundations for what was to become behavioral genetics. He sought to measure general intelligence by devising the first tests of mental ability to be administrated at a specialized testing center, another of his innovations. With his statistical work Galton was the first to apply normal distribution patterns to human intelligence. All of this exemplifies his research agenda which was to identify and measure human variation.

Galton was profoundly influenced by his cousin, Charles Darwin, and his On the Origin of the Species (1859). Upon returning to England after sailing around the world on the HMS Beagle, Darwin went to study animal husbandry where he learned that farmers selectively bread their animals so as to conserve desirable traits like fecundity and eliminate undesirable ones such as aggression. In his theory of evolution by natural selection Darwin was essentially arguing for a similar process in which nature, rather than human agents, was the selective force. Galton was especially keen to extend this research to human populations and the two enjoyed a lively correspondence. Darwin, out of concern that he would antagonize the religious community, intentionally avoided detailed discussion of evolution and humanity, saving this topic for his later work, “The Descent of Man” (1871). Though Galton was also shy around controversy he felt passionately that racial degeneration threatened everything that was great about England and his nation’s place in the world. This passion motivated him to push back on the topic of human evolution in a way that Darwin refused.

What vexed biologists of the nineteenth century most was the absence of any understanding of the mechanism of heredity. Genetics as we know it today was completely nonexistent and Gregor Mendel, who inferred the existence of genes at about the same time, still labored in obscurity. Although hampered by an inaccurate theory of heredity, Galton wanted to learn if the inheritance of physical characteristics extended to personality, intelligence, and talent. To test this possibility, Galton conducted several studies on upper-class Brits such as himself. In one of his best known eugenic studies, Galton demonstrated that successful men were more likely to have other successful people in their family. He was able to document that this was the case by using a methodology wholly new to the social sciences, the questionnaire. Galton concluded that the clustering of successful men in select families such as his own proved that talent and ability must be heritable. Their privileged standing in society was therefore due to superior genetic make-up.

The social situation Galton and his contemporaries witnessed in late nineteenth century England concerned them greatly. As England industrialized and the cities boomed so too did the lower classes grow as peasants, dispossessed of their land, streamed into the urban ghettos. How could it be that the manifestly inferior poor were reproducing a greater rate than the upper class? Combined with the threat of inferior races outside of Europe this was indeed alarming. In order to preserve and protect English society, which Galton referred to as “civilization,” it would be necessary to carry out an “improvement of the race.” Eugenics was the term he gave to this task. For Galton an ideal society would be one in which individuals were allowed to succeed according to their own abilities with the most talented and successful being helped on their way up with monetary incentives to encourage the most beneficial marriage pairings. The weak and unfit of society were to be humanely cared for, but kept celibate. Through selective parenthood Galton hoped to improve the very biological make-up of the human species itself. Galton spent many years campaigning for the cause of eugenics and his efforts paid off as its popularity continued to rise well after his death.



Genocide may be defined two ways. It can be a crime as defined under international law or it can serve as a politicized label to affix to certain historical events in which a population or group, whether they are identified in terms of race, nation, or religion, is subjected to a highly organized form of violence that systematically seeks to destroy the group itself. This contrasts sharply to other objects of war, which are typically fought over the control of natural resources or to wrest some political concession, and as such genocide is a highly symbolic form of violence. Genocide may be carried out through the large scale murder group members, inducing famine or otherwise destroying the conditions necessary to life, preventing births within the group, and forcibly transferring children out of the group to non-group members.

In sum genocide refers to coordinated efforts to destroy an entire human population by erasing its very existence. This usually requires considerable bureaucratic organization and is usually codified in various governmental policies. The systematic implementation of very specific kinds of attacks is what makes genocide unique. Targets might include political or social institutions, outlawing language and cultural practices, undermining economic and subsistence activities, and bringing about the wide-spread ruin of the group’s health and well being. In addition to the killing of a group of people, genocide often coincides with the deliberate destruction of culturally significant objects, landmarks, sacred sites, or neighborhoods.

The various perpetrators of historical genocides show very different motivations for carrying out their plans. For example, the Nazi undertook to exterminate the Jews in the Holocaust in 1933-1945 because they perceived the Jews as the central problem of world history. From the Nazi point of view the future of humanity itself depended on carrying out this objective which they termed the Final Solution. By contrast the Armenian people became the victims of genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire in a fit of nationalist fervor between the years 1915-1923. The Ottomans undertook to exterminate the Armenians within Turkey, but they were not concerned about the lives of Armenians outside their border. In Indonesia from 1965-1966 a mass extermination of communist party members was carried out by the ruling political party in order to consolidate power. The Indonesian Communist Party was destroyed as a result. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was more like an elaborate revenge scheme and arose from long-standing animosity between the minority Tutsi who ruled over the majority Hutu people, exasperated by decades of Belgian colonialism.

Genocide is a crime under international law and sometimes results in accused parties being prosecuted in national or international courts. This legal definition was formulated in part through one of the best known of these trails, the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-1946, during which members of the German Nazi leadership were prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The United States signed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948 however it is immune from prosecution before the International Court of Justice.

Genocide may be covered up or denied. In Turkey, for example, it is illegal to speak of the Armenian genocide as such or to imply that the Turkish government is culpable for it. There still exist people who believe that the Holocaust is an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Jews to illicit sympathy for Israel. Few people in the United States today perceive the colonization of North America as a genocide of native peoples even though from the point of first contact until the close of the Western Indian Wars at the end of the nineteenth century the native population of the continent declined about 90-95 percent. The primary difference between early American policy towards natives and the genocides of the twentieth century is industrialization. Innovations in science and technology as well as the growth of complex state bureaucracies and industrial economies expedited the rapid mass murder of populations. This is why genocide is principally associated with the modern world. Industrialization and the nation-state allowed for death and destruction to be carried out on a greater scale and with greater efficiency than was previously possible.

Related to genocide is so-called ethnic cleansing, which can include mass deportation, mass arrest, or the forced displacement and confinement of a people. The Roma people, also known as the Gypsy, are often subject to this in France, for example.


Racial Taxonomy

The centuries old scientific quest to create a consistent system of racial taxonomy is best understood as a manifestation of the widely held cultural assumption that human diversity can be described in terms of biologically distinct races. Taxonomy is a necessary condition for science because in order to understand nature it must first be named and organized so that it may be discussed and studied. During the sixteenth century, as some European powers explored and colonized the world, they encountered the tremendous diversity of humanity. Race was one way to account for the physical differences they saw and arranging the races into a hierarchy was a way to reconcile that diversity with their own sense of cultural superiority. Despite the best efforts of some of the brightest minds in science, there is still no universally agreed upon system of racial classification.

The scientific world view perceives racial taxonomy as standing in contrast to cultural or folkloric models of understanding race. Taking a cross-cultural view of race reveals its socially constructed nature. The existence of racial categories is present even in written documents from Ancient Egypt and Greece. Colonial Spain had a veritable pantheon of more than 15 races and race mixtures, even constructing racial distinction between white Europeans born in Europe from white Europeans born in the Americas. By contrast, in contemporary Brazil, a person’s race is defined by skin color but not heritage. Thus siblings of the same parents can be of different races if they exhibit different complexions. In the United States the emphasis is on a person’s “blood,” so that a person is the same race of their parents regardless of their complexion. While in Japan there exists a race known as the Burakumin that has endured stigmatization since the feudal era. Membership in the group is inherited at birth, but there are no physical characteristics that distinguish it from the larger population – it is an “invisible race.” All systems of racial categorization include the belief that social differences reflect biological difference, which is seen as natural, inherited, and fixed. But as the Burakumin example shows, the lack of observable physical differences does not prohibit the implementation of racial categories.

In opposition to cultural beliefs in races, scientific taxonomies offer the authority and certainty of fact. Starting with Linnaeus in the eighteenth century biologists, doctors, and anthropologists have all offered definitions of race that they claim is based on evidence. Scientific discourses about race must be looked at critically, but this does not mean that science has nothing to say about human diversity particularly since the modern synthesis was formed from the merger of genetics and the theory of evolution by natural selection. From an evolutionary standpoint, no human population has ever been isolated long enough for it to become substantially different from the rest of the species. Because of gene flow, the constant interbreeding among populations, humans have remained a single species despite having dispersed to even the most remote corners of the globe. There are three main reasons why biological definitions of race have failed historically and in the present.

First, racial distinctions based on physically observable characteristics such as skin color are arbitrarily defined. The human body can be described in myriad ways and both genetic and environmental factors influence the development of these physical characteristics. However, race gives disproportional importance to a small set of rather insignificant traits. There is no basis behind the weight given to these traits or why others should be considered less significant. Skin color is obvious, so people consider it important. If different traits were given emphasis then a different set of races would result.

Second, race does not provide an adequate description of real genetic variation. All racially defined groups exhibit variation within the group and, in fact, these variations can be quite dramatic. However a racialized world view allows one to flatten these differences by lumping them into the same category. For instance, Congolese pygmies are some of the shortest humans in stature, while the Nilotic peoples of Sudan are some of the tallest, yet these biological differences are ignored by racial classifications that label both groups as “black.” Contemporary scientists do study biological differences between populations by looking at the geographic distributions of gene frequencies known as clines. Some well documented clinal distributions include ABO blood type, lactose intolerance, and the sickle-cell trait.

Third, race taxonomy is confounded by the fact that identical physical traits can be observed among unrelated populations. The traits that have been used to define racial categories are not exclusive to any one race. Nor do people who share similar racial characteristics necessarily share similar origins. For instance, not everyone with black skin comes from Africa. People with similar complexions live in New Guinea. But from a genetic perspective Europeans are more closely related to Africans than they are to Melanesians.


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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