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Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist (and Some a Little More So)

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 15, 2011

The other day in The New York Times I wrote a piece about how scientific racism poisoned the career of an explorer named Paul Du Chaillu.  Some of the reader comments make it clear that we have not gotten over the urge to classify people by race, or the assumption among some white Europeans that they are innately superior.

Maybe that’s because we are built, as social primates, to see the world in terms of in-groups and out-groups, us and them.  It’s how we became so successful as a species.  As the song in “Avenue Q” puts it, we’re all a little bit racist, or sexist, or otherwise prone to put people in pigeon holes and treat them differently because of it.  But we also have an extraordinary ability to shift our in-group loyalties, to stop categorizing people as members of another race or gender or sexual orientation and align with them instead as fellow Giants fans, or IBM workers, or ballroom dancing nitwits (oop, sorry, out-group prejudice slipping in).

The problem comes when people in power persist in using categories to keep other people down.  I was once interviewing a professor at a prestigious university, who volunteered that he tries to hire only Mormons.  You could tell from the way he said it that he thought it was harmless.  He was a Mormon, and he had this idea that Mormons work harder.  In-group loyalty rather than out-group prejudice seemed to be his motive, the way a black musician or an Irish cop (double stereotype alert!) might hire fellow blacks or Irish for some equivalent reason.  But he was hiring them to work on a problem that disproportionately affects blacks and Hispanics.   So it was all around kind of dumb, not to mention illegal.

More recently, I ran into another university professor who tried to put an intellectual gloss on his bigotry.  He’d started reading my book The Species Seekers, and he wrote to tell me how much he was enjoying it.  I suggested that he put up a review on Amazon, and he did, calling it “a page-turner suitable for professionals as well as those with a more casual interest in biology and quirky biologists. It would make, with qualifications, fine supplemental reading for the history and philosophy of biology course that I teach.”  But then he got to the part in the book about nineteenth-century scientific racism and he added:

The greatest weakness of the book is the highly politically correct but genetically incorrect view that there is no scientific basis to race. Look at an NBA team, the running backs in the NFL, the defensive lineup (speed) as compared to the offense, and the list of Nobel Prize winners. There are none so blind as those who will not see. And the peer-reviewed literature reports differences in brain sizes and many other characteristics. On the other hand, who dares to attempt free speech in 2010?

Tell me if I am misreading this:  NBA players are mostly black, Nobel Prize winners mostly white.  And that’s the result of racial differences, not culture?  It’s because blacks have strong legs and whites have big brains?  And by blacks, he means stocky West Africans as well as stringy Ethiopians (sorry, more stereotypes), not to mention Bushmen, Bakola, and Bakonjo?

I can agree with him about at least one thing:  “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

Scientific racism lives.

3 Responses to “Everybody’s a Little Bit Racist (and Some a Little More So)”

  1. Shawn said

    If we are to say that evolution happened, and is continuing to happen, then, logically, one must conclude that the different clusters, or races as they are often called, tend to share certain commonalities in terms of gene frequencies. One must then therefore reject obtuse liberal creationism, that is, the notion that all people share genes which are neither advantageous, nor inferior.

  2. WLyon said

    This is cool. No; I mean really! I respect your take on everything and I just found out that Du Chaillu and Alexandre Dumas were cousins who met secretly to avoid detection of their mulatto ways in Lyon and Brazil during their life times. They had a good laugh and said to each other: “one day.” Truly the blind will not see as the Nobel prize is just a brief snapshot or synopsis in the annals of time and the glories of man’s genius which has to date back to Timbuktu, Egypt and the many civilizations of the Nile valley. Don’t forget Zimbabwe and their ironworks. I’m sorry. Dr. George Washington Carver deserves a peace prize posthumously; Jif and Skippy! The picts weren’t invited to the Akhenaten Peace prize. I don’t know; peccant. Let’s not forget 400 years of hindrance and racial vilification about the Nobel. Coconut envy must end. Your friend can have a coconut on me! He really can. His racial insecurities will be washed away and by knowing the truth, he shall be set free. I don’t know. Never mind.

  3. Yup, there are undoubtedly genetic differences among ethnic groups and even among regional populations of the same ethnic group. Some have a genetic predisposition to process alcohol or milk differently. Some are prone to thalassemia or Tay-Sachs disease. The problem is when people concoct theories about putative racial groups–blacks, for instance, or Asians–with no regard for their highly diverse origins. The second part of the problem is when people use these putative racial characteristics to decide the fate (including hiring or firing) of individuals who may or may not fit the stereotype.

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