Race, Racism and Science (Written in 2009)

Howard University

Race, Racism, and Science

Submitted to

Dr. Mark E. Mack


Introduction to Biological Anthropology


Nick Westbrooks


Race has always been an issue that affects everyone in some form. Whether it is social, political, or economical race is something that is a concern to all. Throughout history up to the present day, race has also been an issue in relation to the field of science. Because race has some biological foundation, scientists have used it to explain certain phenomena and open up new doors for scientific research. In the articles “Bred in the Bone” by Alan H. Goodman and “The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment ‘A Moral Astigmatism”’ by James Jones, the close correlation between the topic of race and the field of science is discussed at length.

In “Bred in the Bone,” Goodman discusses the effectiveness and accuracy of physicians and forensic anthropologists using race to identify human remains. The article opens up with the story of rescue workers discovering a human left leg in the remains of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after the Oklahoma City bombings. Clyde Snow was a forensic anthropologist whose job usually involved identifying victims in such crimes as this. After reviewing the individuals that survived the bombing, going through autopsy records, pathology reports, and photographs, Snow and the other forensic anthropologists couldn’t figure out who the leg belonged to. After measuring the leg and categorizing the leg bone through the use of technology, Snow eventually concluded that the leg belonged to “a darkly complected Caucasoid.”

The problem of using race to identify human remains came up after the discovery that the leg actually belonged to 21 year- old black female by the name of Lakesha R. Levy. Misidentifying people based on race has been a common mistake committed by forensic anthropologists. Without a skull to observe, identifying people accurately becomes even more difficult since the skulls provide more clues about a person’s race.

Over time, scientists have formulated different concepts of race. One concept that comes from the Greek idea of the great chain of being and the ideal types has been deemed anti- evolutionary, and it should not be used to explain race. In fact, anthropologists believe that race should have been eliminated several decades ago. After Darwin published Origin of Species, physical anthropologists used the theory of evolution to help explain human variation rather than the Greek scientific concept of race. Many believe that race itself is a myth, but the idea of race still exists.

Other scientists believe there are three main races: Mongoloid, Negroid, and Caucasoid. These races in turn are ranked according to intelligence and procreative ability. The Mongoloids were ranked the most intelligent, Negroids had the strongest sexual drive, and the Caucasoids were placed in the middle. For people who disagree with this idea and believe race is a myth defends that races do not exist, and sociopolitical policies should not be based on race. Others believe that social policy does not need a biological base, and racism does exist even though true races may not exist. The remainder of the people includes public health/medical professionals and anthropologists who are confused about the existence of race. They believe that racial biology is political, but at the same time they do not see race biology as bad.

Several anthropologists defend the argument that forensic anthropologists are good at identifying humans by race. They argue that racial variations correspond with regional differences. Along with the existence of race and using race to identify people, pre- World War Two physicians use to associate certain health disparities with specific races. All of these tactics have been proven to be inaccurate, and Goodman provides reasons why using race explain human variation is inaccurate.

First of all, race is skin deep. A person’s height, weight, eye and skin color cannot be accurately determined by using race as the identifier. Next, variations in genetic traits occur within the individual races rather than among different races. After that, Goodman states that racial analysis should not be based on the mix of genetics with culture and class with lived experiences. Lastly, race cannot be defined in a stable, repeatable way because race biology varies with time and place. In other words, the color line is always changing so there are a lot more than merely three main races in existence. Goodman also offers alternatives to classifying humans by race, and these include focusing on specific traits and describing human remains as well as possible. It may be true that race is a myth, but the issue of racism still exists.

Personally, I have been exposed to a concept of race that is similar to Philippe Rushton’s idea that there are three main races. Another source expresses that the races of the world originated with the Mongoloid, Negroid, and Caucasoid races. In Blacks In The Bible, James H. Warden Jr. explains that Noah’s sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth became the fathers of the Mongoloid, Negroid, and Caucasoid races after the Great Flood. All of the other races came about “from mixing and mingling of the progeny of Noah’s sons.” As a believer of the Bible, I generally agree with this story about the origin of races. In a way, this biblical explanation supports Alan Goodman’s argument that there are various races and the color line never stays the same. Anthropologists usually do not address religion, and religious believers usually do not address science, but a connection can be seen in this discussion.

As far as using race to identify remains, I agree that using race is inaccurate. For example, the leg that was found after the Oklahoma City bombing had to have belonged to woman but it could have belonged to anyone in regards to race. In examining race, the differences I notice are more visual than physical. Underneath the skin, humans are the same for the most part.

In the article “The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment,” James Jones discusses exactly what the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment was and the morality of the group that conducted the study. 399 men who had syphilis were denied treatment so doctors could observe the effects of untreated syphilis during the late stage of the disease on black men. An additional 201 men who were free of the disease were used as the controls. The Public Health Service conducted the study and the results were high rates of mortality and morbidity among the syphilis victims than the controls. No treatment was involved, and the study was done solely for data.

Next, Jones explained what syphilis is. It is a contagious disease that can be transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy or sexual and other bodily contact. The three stages of syphilis are the primary, secondary, and tertiary stages. Syphilis at its worst results is death. With this in mind, the question of ethics arose.

The public could not understand why these men agreed to participate in this study assuming they knew the risks of leaving syphilis untreated. One explanation was that the subjects did not know they had syphilis nor did they know what syphilis was. Also, the men were offered incentives for participating in the study. They were given such benefits as free meals and physical examinations. These factors questioned the morality of the experiment.

After being questioned, Public Health Service officers denied that the experiment was unethical. PHS officials also defended themselves against not giving the subjects treatment by claiming that penicillin would affect them negatively. The subjects may suffer from allergic drug reactions. Others argued that the immorality of the study was evident well before the men were denied treatments with penicillin. The disease could have been controlled at an earlier stage rather than reaching the life- threatening stage. The Public Health Service did not appear to be remorseful about using human beings as laboratory animals.

In the eyes of the public, the value of human lives outweighed the scientific merits. Some even found the study severe enough to be labeled as genocide. Some classified the experiment as racism, but the PHS denied both claims. Others associated the subjects with their social class instead of their race. Americans felt that anyone who was poor and helpless could have been a victim. The claim was that the men were tricked into participating in the study, and they were incapable of giving an informed consent to be a part of the experiment. After seeing this horrible display, Americans came to the realization that they need to protect society against scientific pursuits that ignore human values.

I find it no coincidence that all of the subjects were black males. If the PHS wanted to do an honest study, they would have mixed different ethnicities into the study to use as a comparison. This experiment is obviously racism because the article fails to mention any record of the effects of syphilis amongst any other ethnic group. If any black person questions why it is important to be aware and educated about what is going on around them, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment is the answer. This is a prime example of how the dominant culture takes advantage of the ignorant. People don’t need to be scientists but they need the knowledge of what’s going on.

One Response to Race, Racism and Science (Written in 2009)

  1. Pingback: Remembering Professor Mark E. Mack « The Manuscript

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