In what has to be the most shameful decision rendered in the long and otherwise distinguished career of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1927 the Supreme Court ruled in Buck v. Bell to uphold a compulsory sterilization law in Virginia. The case centered on eighteen-year-old Carrie Buck, confined to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, and Holmes wrote the majority opinion in the near unanimous decision, famously concluding that “three generations of idiots is enough.”
Similar laws prevailed in some thirty-two states, resulting in the forced sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans. Had Carrie lived in Massachusetts, she would have avoided this fate, but she likely would have been condemned to the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded, which—like similar institutions of this era—had its foundation in the eugenics, racism and Social Darwinism of the time that argued that “defectives” with low moral character threatened the very health of the population by breeding others of their kind, raising fears that a kind of contagious degeneracy would permanently damage the otherwise worthy inhabitants of the nation. I have written elsewhere of the horror-show of inhumane conditions and patient abuse at the Belchertown State School, which did not finally close its doors until 1992.
Sterilization was only one chilling byproduct of “eugenics,” a term coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin whose misunderstanding of the principles of Darwinian evolution led to his championing of scientific racism. Eugenics was also the driving force behind the 1924 immigration law that dramatically reduced the number of Jews, Italians, and East Europeans admitted to the United States. White supremacy did not only consign blacks and other people of color to the ranks of the “less developed” races, but specifically exalted those of northern and central European origin as the best and the brightest. This was all pseudoscience of course, but it was quite widely accepted and “respectable” in its day.
Then, along came Hitler and the Holocaust, and more than six million Jews and other “undesirables” were systematically murdered in the name of racial purity. Eugenics was respectable no more. Most of us born in the decades that followed the almost unfathomable horror of that Nazi sponsored genocide may have assumed that race science was finally discredited and disappeared forever, relegated to a blood-spattered dustbin of history. But, as Angela Saini reveals in her well-written, deeply researched, and sometimes startling book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, scientific racism not only never really went extinct, but it has returned in our day with a kind of vengeance, fueling the fever for calls to action on the right for anti-immigration legislation.
Saini, a science journalist, broadcaster, and author with a pair of master’s degrees may be uniquely qualified to tell this story. Born in London of Indian parents, in a world seemingly obsessed with racial classification she relates how her background and brown complexion defies categorization; some may consider her Indian, or Asian—or even black. But of course in reality she could not be more British, even if for many her skin color sets her apart. The UK’s legacy of empire and Kipling’s “white man’s burden” still loom large.
But Superior is not a screed and is not about Saini, but rather about how mistaken notions of race and the pseudoscience of scientific racism have not only persisted but are rapidly gaining ground for a new audience and a new era. To achieve this, the author conducted comprehensive research into the origins of eugenics, but even more significantly identified how the ideology of race science that fueled National Socialism and begat Auschwitz and Birkenau quietly if no less adamantly endured post-Nuremberg cloaked in the less fiery rhetoric of pseudoscientific journals grasping at the periphery of legitimacy. Moreover, a modern revolution in paleogenetics and DNA research that should firmly refute such dangerous musings has instead been incorporated for a new generation of acolytes to scientific racism that serve to both undergird and add a false sense of authenticity to dangerous political tendencies on the right that long simmered and now have burst forth in the public arena.
Whatever some may believe, science has long established that race, for all intents and purposes, is a myth, a social construct that advances no important information about any given population. Regardless of superficial characteristics, all living humans—designated homo sapiens sapiens—are biologically the same and by every other critical metric are essentially members of the same closely related population. In fact, various groups of chimpanzees of Central Africa demonstrate greater genetic diversity than all humans across the globe today. Modern humans likely evolved from a common ancestor in Africa, and thus all of humanity is out of Africa. It is just as likely that all humans once had dark skin, and that lighter skin, what we would term “white” or Caucasian, developed later as populations moved north and melanin—a pigment located in the outer skin layer called the epidermis—was reduced as an adaptation to cope with relatively weak solar radiation in far northern latitudes. The latest scholarship reveals that Europeans only developed their fairer complexion as recently as 8500 years ago!
The deepest and most glaring flaw in the race science that was foundational to Nazism is that it is actually a lack of diversity that often results in a less healthy population. This is not only apparent in the hemophilia that plagued the closely related royal houses of the European monarchies, but on a more macro scale with genetic conditions more common to certain ethnic groups, such as sickle cell disease for those of African heritage, and Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews.
Counterintuitively, modern proponents of race science cherry pick DNA data to attempt to promote superiority for whites that concomitantly assigns a lesser status for people of color, and these concepts are then repackaged to champion policies that limit immigration from certain parts of the world. Once anathema for all but those on the very fringes of the political spectrum, this dangerous rebirth of genetic pseudoscience is now given voice on right-wing media. Worse perhaps, the tendency of mainstream media to promote fairness in what has come to be dubbed “bothsiderism” sometimes offers an underserved platform to those spinning racist dogma in the guise of scientific studies. Of course, social media has now transcended television as a messaging vehicle, and it is far better suited to spreading misinformation, especially in an era given to a mistrust of expertise, thus granting a seat at the table to the unsupported on the same platform with credible fact-based reality, urging the audience to do their own research and come to their own conclusions.
The United States was collectively shaken in 2017 when white supremacists wielding tiki torches marched at Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” and shaken once more when then-president Donald Trump subsequently asserted that there “were very fine people, on both sides.” But there was far less outrage the following year when Trump both sounded a dog whistle and startled lawmakers as he wondered aloud why we should allow in more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa instead of from places like Norway. (Unanswered, of course, is why a person would want to abandon the arguably higher quality of life in Norway to come to the U.S. …) But the volume on such dog whistles has been turned up alarmingly as of late by popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who in between fear-mongering messaging that casts the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and Critical Race Theory (CRT) as Marxist conspiracies that threaten the American way of life, openly advocates against the paranoid alt-right terror of the “Great Replacement” theory, a staple of the white supremacist canon, declaring the Biden administration actively engaged in trying “to change the racial mix of the country … to reduce the political power of people whose ancestors lived here, and dramatically increase the proportion of Americans newly-arrived from the third world.” Translation: people of color are trying to supplant white people. Carlson doesn’t cite race science, but he did recently allow comments to go unchallenged by his guest, the racist extremist social scientist Charles Murray, that the “the cognitive demands” of some occupations mean “a whole lot of more white people qualify than Black people.” Superior was published in 2019 but is chillingly prescient about the dangerous trajectory of both racism and race science on the right.
There is a lot of material between the covers of this book, but because Saini writes so well and speaks to the more arcane matters in language comprehensible to a wide audience, it is not a difficult read. Throughout, the research is impeccable and the analysis spot-on. Still, there are moments Saini strays a bit, at one point seeming to speculate whether we should hold back on paleogenetic research lest this data be further perverted by proponents of scientific racism. That is, of course, the wrong approach: the best weapon against pseudoscience remains science itself. Still, the warning bells she sounds here must be heeded. The twin threats of racism and the rebirth of race science into the mainstream are indeed clear and present dangers that must be confronted and combated at every corner. The author’s message is clear and perhaps more relevant now than at any time since the 1930s, another era when hate and racism served as by-products that informed an angry brand of populism that claimed legitimacy through race science. We all know how that ended.
I have written of the Belchertown State School here: