The ideology of racism: misusing science to justify racial discrimination.

Author:Tucker, William H.

In his exceptionally insightful book, Racism: A Short History, Stanford University historian George M. Fredrickson notes the paradox that notions of human equality were the necessary precondition to the emergence of racism. If a society is premised on an assumption of inequality, producing an accepted hierarchy--one unquestioned even by those relegated to its nadir--then there is no need to locate the cause of the underlings' position in some specific characteristic on their part that makes them less worthy than others.

However, as societies have become increasingly committed to the belief in freedom and equality--as once revolutionary ideas about equal rights for all have become more widespread, especially in the West--then those groups that are systematically denied these entitlements are claimed to possess what Fredrickson calls "some extraordinary deficiency that makes them less than fully human". That is, racism arose as a result of the contradiction between egalitarian principles coupled with the exclusionary treatment of specific ethnic groups: the rejection of organically hierarchical societies brought with it the implied necessity to account for the fact that some groups were subjected to servitude, enforced separation from the rest of society, or ghettoization. Beginning around the end of the eighteenth century, as Enlightenment rationalism replaced faith and superstition as the source of authority, the pronouncements of science became the preferred method for reconciling the difference between principle and practice. In societies in which there has been systematic discrimination against specific racial groups, inevitably it has been accompanied by attempts to justify such policies on scientific grounds.

Broadly speaking, there have been three types of scientific explanations offered in putative support for racial discrimination, each of them having a lengthy history. One approach has been to claim that there are biological dangers involved in racial interbreeding. Indeed, it was precisely on the basis of this belief that in the United States and South Africa for many years there were statutory prohibitions against intermarriage. The first supposed evidence for this conclusion was provided in the mid-nineteenth century primarily by physicians, who claimed that, as a result of their mixed blood, "mulattoes" were considerably more susceptible to disease than either of their parents and thus exceptionally short-lived. In addition, were persons of...

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