“Scientific” Racism Essay

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“Scientific” racism arose in the eighteenth century during the expansion of mercantilism and the rise of imperialism. Theorizing and inquiry associated with slavery and conquest in part fueled the new studies. As Darwinism brought new interest in biological study, the scientific revolution demanded measurement and attention to method. Natural scientists, anatomists, biologists, physicians, neophyte anthropologists, ethnologists, social theorists, and even an occasional president of the United States turned their attention to race study and finding “scientific” evidence rendering dark people inferior. So-called proof of White superiority could justify social hierarchy. This entry looks at the development and eventual discrediting of these ideas.

Early Thinking

In 1735, acclaimed biological taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus was among the first to classify human beings by race. His essay “Systema Naturae” claimed that races exhibited different mental and moral traits. In 1781, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, physiologist and founder of modern anthropology, added aesthetic judgments to race. He introduced the term Caucasian because he considered White people to be as beautiful as the southern slopes of Mount Caucasus.

In 1799, British surgeon Charles White added that Blacks were a separate species, intermediate between Whites and apes. His book An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man and in Different Animals and Vegetables and From the Former to the Latter (1799) argued that the feet, fingers, toes, legs, hair, cheekbones, skin, arm length, skull size, size of sex organs, and body odor placed Blacks closer to the animal kingdom.

French intellectual and journalist Arthur de Gobineau is often called the father of racism. Gobineau’s theoretical racism was articulated in Essai sur l’Inegalite des Races Humaines (1854). He wrote that the racial question overshadowed all other issues in history. It was the inequality of races that explained all destiny. He further argued that all civilizations derived from the White race, especially the superior Aryan stock. Mankind is thus divided into races of unequal worth, and superior races are in a fight to maintain their position. He offered a hierarchy of race that would influence the next century and a half. The top group was the Caucasian, Semitic, or Japhetic people. The second or yellow group was the Altaic, Mongol, Finnish, and Tartar people. The lowest group was the Hamites or Blacks.

German zoologist and physician Ernst Haeckel wrote in the mid to late 1800s, situating Blacks on an evolutionary tree below gorillas and chimpanzees. He put forward a hypothesis that each individual, in the course of his or her development, relives evolutionary history; that is, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.”

A Justification For Slavery

As world hegemony and power shifted in the nineteenth century, America, with its virulent brand of slavery, became the main locus of White supremacy. Building its economy and social order on slave labor, the United States shaped a modern sociology of race.

Dr. Edward Jarvis, a specialist in mental disorders and president of the American Statistical Association, wrote in 1840 that insanity for Blacks in the North was ten times greater than for Blacks in the South. He concluded that slavery had a salutary effect on Blacks, sparing them the problems that free, self-acting individuals faced.

Physician John H. van Evrie authored Negroes and Negro Slavery: The First an Inferior Race, the Latter Its Normal Condition (1853), which offered a scientific justification of slavery. Van Evrie wrote that dark-skinned people were diseased and unnatural, and that they possessed impeded locomotion; weakened vocal organs; coarse hands; hypersensitive skin; narrow, longitudinal heads; narrow foreheads; and underdeveloped brains and nervous systems. Van Evrie concluded that the aggregation of these straits translated to human inferiority.

In the 1850s, Dr. Samuel Cartwright chaired a committee to inform the Medical Association of Louisiana about the Black race. He, too, wrote of the diseased Negro. His “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” (1851) gained attention for its scholarly approach. He wrote of the insufficient supply of red blood, smaller brain, and excessive nervous matter found in the Negro. This combination of problems, wrote Cartwright, led to the “debasement of minds” in Blacks. He felt that the physical exercise provided by slavery would help increase lung and blood functions. Slaves, he argued, were sometimes afflicted with “drapetomania,” a disease of the mind making them want to run away.

American scientific racists included monogenists, who believed that there was but a single species of people originating from a single source. The creationist story of Adam and Eve shaped their view. Monogenists believed that the human races had degenerated since earliest mankind. This degeneration led to differences in people likely caused by climate and environment. Polygenists, on the other hand, argued that human races were separate species. Both monogenists and polygenists developed views of racial inferiority. The emerging field of anthropology drew from the race literature, and renowned scientists contributed to the field.

Academic Thought

Harvard professor Louis Agassiz (1801–1893), a respected natural biologist, wrote “The Diversity of Origin of the Human Races,” published in the Christian Examiner in 1850. He argued that all men shared some commonalities, but the races were created as separate species occupying different parts of the earth. Races had different characteristics manifested in culture, habit, intelligence, and ability. Intermarriage and miscegenation were an offense and a sin against nature, and they created feebleminded offspring with physical disability.

The libidinous Black, Agassiz believed, would lure the White race to degradation. White people must maintain their natural inhibitions, which were absent in the Blacks. He added charged adjectives and adverbs—such as submissive, cunning, trickery, cowardice, and apathetic—to his discussion of various race groups. His views became coupled with the empiricism of others.

Samuel George Morton of Philadelphia, physician and scientist, also believed in separately created human species. Morton advanced the study of cranial capacity thesis—that is, bigger skulls, more brains. Measuring the cubic inches of skulls from around the world, he reported his findings in Crania Americana (1839), Crania Aegyptiaca (1844), and “Observations on the Size of the Brain in Various Races and Families of Man” (1849). Morton’s work was highly acclaimed for its quantification of data and especially its attention to detail. Colleagues urged that he broaden the interpretation of his findings to read mental and moral worth from his data.

Paul Broca, an internationally renowned professor of clinical surgery and founder of the Anthropological Society of Paris in 1859, upheld the cranial capacity thesis. His exhaustive studies and meticulous statistics defended those ideas against a variety of European theorists and scientists.

The Eugenics Movement

The eugenics movement advanced by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) was built on the platform of scientific racism. His influential works, including “Hereditary Talent and Character” (1865), Hereditary Genius (1869), and Natural Inheritance (1889), asserted that man’s character and capacities were primarily shaped by heredity and that the current generation could shape the future by how they breed.

Eugenicists attributed poverty, ignorance, infirmities, intemperance, incompetence, feeblemindedness, and criminality to genetic explanations. Nascent American eugenicists (1870–1905) labeled the dependent, insane, ill, and criminal as genetically inferior. They proposed restricting propagation. Organized eugenicists (1905–1930) later advocated custodial care and sterilization as solutions for “defective” types. Immigrants became targets of eugenic discourse. Notions of human intelligence, IQ, and development were profoundly influenced by the field.

Early in the twentieth century, a retreat from scientific racism occurred. The field was critiqued as politically motivated. A new wave of scientists, and especially cultural anthropologists, argued that biological determinism could not be proven. Biological explanations of race and behavior gave way to cultural explanations. The concept of race and difference became more complicated. Later critics of scientific racism, such as Stephen Jay Gould, demonstrated outright deceit and falsification of data by earlier researchers in the field.

As Taylorist scientific management was embraced by school leaders, the call for efficiency in schooling was increasingly heard. Behaviorist psychology, testing, and notions of intelligence quotient became joined. IQ designations and testing became central organizing foci in the schools. Ability grouping, tracking, and access to honors and advanced curricula all were outgrowths of testing and IQ.

Scientific racism contributed to a permanent field of study, which continues to this day. The dialogue takes place at the level of scientific research as well as public policy. In the twentieth century, the writings of Arthur Jensen and William Shockley on race and genetics and of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (The Bell Curve) illustrated that the pursuit of a scientific basis for racist thinking undergoes refinements but continues.


  1. Ehrlich, P. R., & Feldman, S. S. (1977). The race bomb: Skin color, prejudice, and intelligence. New York: Quadrangle.
  2. Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: Norton.
  3. Tucker, W. H. (1994). The science and politics of racial research. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  4. Watkins, W. H. (2001). The White architects of Black education: Ideology and power in America, 1865–1954. New York: Teachers College Press.
  5. Winfield, A. G. (2007). Eugenics and education in America: Institutional racism and the implications of history, ideology, and memory. New York: Peter Lang.

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