Taking Science Out Of the Service of Racism

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Uncovering History, Discovering Racism

Over the past three years, I thought I was researching science and religion in America. I thought the outcome would be uncovering new insights and then write an academic book to contribute the body of knowledge. Along the way, I found a history of racism expressed, intensified, and even weaponized, through science.

The killing of George Floyd on May 25 unleashed a profound national outrage against racism. While the shock of these events has our attention, I’ve learned that to grasp the “shoots” of racism today, we’ve also got to look at the historical “roots.”

What Scientific Racism Meant

Drew showed last week how science helps us uncover the falsity of race as a biological reality and how race has a powerful impact as a socially-constructed concept. This week, we go deeper into how science has historically has served racist goals. What blew me away was the development of “scientific racism” and its particular expression in eugenics.

Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in 1883, and it has two basic forms. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Biology, it is “the study of methods of improving the quality of human populations by the application of genetic principles. Positive eugenics would seek to do this by selective breeding programmes, a strategy that is generally deemed reprehensible. Negative eugenics aims to eliminate harmful genes (e.g. those causing haemophilia and colour blindness) by counselling any prospective parents who are likely to be carriers.”

For most Americans today it’s hard to fathom that eugenics was seen as good science; in fact, it was the cutting edge for almost half a century.

Starting in the 1880s—but gaining steam after the turn of the century until the early 1930s—the thrust behind eugenics was to bring about a more Northern European America. In the heyday of eugenics, “science” “discovered” that some were “feeble minded” and therefore undesirable, and this led to family members being carted away and sterilized, often along racial lines. To be specific, 27 states sterilized 60,000 people against their will, as Edwin Black describes in War Against the Weak. President Theodore Roosevelt commented that “the failure of couples of Anglo-Saxon heritage to produce large families would lead to ‘race suicide.’” And here’s where a working definition of racism comes in: “the belief that race determines human traits and capacities thus producing an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Sadly, this isn’t just history.

What This Means Today

If you’re wondering how the history of eugenics relates to science and faith today, here are three payoffs.

1.     This is just one demonstration that science is not culturally neutral. Yes, Science for the Church promotes science that can help us dismantle racism, but honestly, science has also been part of the problem. As Fermi National Accelerator physicist Brian Nord commented recently, “Racism in science is enmeshed with the larger scheme of white supremacy in society.” When some people hear the word “science,” they don’t think of atom colliders and petri dishes, they think of racial and cultural oppression. Many also remember the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male, where black men infected with syphilis were told they were receiving free medical treatment, but instead, they were simply studied as specimens, without their knowledge. This lasted four decades, from 1932-1972. Why black men? Because the scientists considered them racially inferior and therefore expendable. Sometimes I shudder when I ponder what will happen with genetic technologies, and particularly the power of CRISPR gene editing, if it’s used in the service of racism.

2.     This is why we at Science for the Church are working hard not only to demonstrate that science doesn’t, and shouldn’t support racism, but also to broaden the dialogue of science and faith. I can tell you that, when I attend discussions of science and religion, it’s overwhelmingly white (and male). Our conviction is that this dialogue must move beyond these confines. We have taken some steps, but have a long way to go.

3.     Finally, why do I, as a Christian, care? Because racism is a sin. It subverts God’s vision for a flourishing humanity. As Revelation 7:9-10 (my italics added) describes it so beautifully, “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

May it be so. To realize God’s vision, we all—including me, the church, and scientific communities—have some repenting to do.





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