Many people assume that scientific racism and eugenics were dealt a death blow at the end of the Second World War when the nature and scale of horrifying Nazi atrocities were revealed. But Angela Saini destroys that myth in the most forensic of fashions.
First, she shows the extent to which the Nazis were foreshadowed by top British academics who sought justification for slavery, and later colonisation, in theories of racial hierarchy.
A tour of the hallowed University of London leads us to lecture theatres and departments, some still named after pioneers, such as Karl Pearson, who worked tirelessly to classify skin pigmentation, hair types, and so on used to define the “races”.
She explains that while the Holocaust sent as big a wave of revulsion through the academy as it did the rest of society, those wedded to notions of human species being subdivided into sub-species did not simply give up. Some existed in the shadows for a time, while others changed departments and titles but quietly carried on their struggle. Both groups now looked to genetics to prove the validity of race.
In the new world, emerging in the 1950s and 60s from the shadows of colonialism and segregation, there was supposed to be no room for theories of race. Unesco, the world scientific body, even drafted a statement that committed science to anti-racism. And yet, race science did return.
For Saini, a key reason is that the concept of race is seductive. A cursory look at the world reveals vast inequalities and injustices that appear to map closely to the common ideas of races. In the West, people with darker skin tones are disproportionately poor.
On every social and economic index we are found near the bottom of the list.
There are two distinct ways of explaining this repeated pattern. Either we live in a deeply racist society in which people who are designated part of an “inferior” sub-species receive worse treatment and therefore suffer worse outcomes, or, the hierarchy of races is in fact real; the unequal way society is organised is merely a reflection of the natural order of things.
The vast majority of scientists happily embrace the second reason, and even some of the most enlightened feel the need to classify and group things, including human beings, seemingly oblivious to the ways in which their research is then used.
After interviewing Stanford population geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, Saini says:
“He never mentioned that humans were classified in large part because it was politically and economically useful to those who did it. He completely glossed over colonialism and slavery, and the ways in which they fundamentally shaped how European scientists thought about race in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (indeed, within his own lifetime).
“Instead, as he saw it, racism was merely a scientific idea that turned out to be incorrect.”
This supposed scientific neutrality — a search for truth no matter how uncomfortable it may be — has very real ramifications.
In her chapter “Black pills: Why racialised medicine doesn’t work”, Saini discusses the way high blood pressure among African Americans have been turned into a problem of race, rather than a problem of poverty compounded by racism.
The most obvious explanations for hypertension are the same for all people — diet, stress and lifestyle. There is no real evidence of a genetic factor. Black people in Britain and the US disproportionately suffer from the condition, but black people in rural parts of Africa very rarely do.
Yet drugs firms in the US have even taken to marketing medicines specifically directed towards black people, suggesting that their treatments work better for them — despite there being scant evidence for this, and no evidence to suggest that the medicine does not work equally well for white patients.
This way of looking at health conditions as being particular to, or more prevalent among, certain ethnic groups is not restricted to big pharma. It can be found even on web pages of the NHS. And once a condition is viewed this way it reinforces the assumptions about “essential differences” between blacks and whites.
Not everything in the book works as well as that chapter. Saini’s search for the origins of racial thinking in Europe is muddied by a shallow understanding of the Enlightenment and a rose-tinted view of societies that for a time stood outside the realms of capitalist development.
But don’t let the beginning put you off.
This is powerful and thought-provoking book should be widely read by anti-racists.