Scientists should not be so scared of racism that they ignore facts

'This restraint has become a massive and unjustifiable taboo today that is both foolish and destructive'
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The Independent Online

We were having dinner with some acquaintances. My husband (English, very proudly English, and also a reputable social scientist who once did extensive research into race discrimination) said, half-jokingly, that he thought that Asian women were "genetically programmed" to shout, especially down the phone, because throughout history they had been forced to remain invisible and silent within the family.

We were having dinner with some acquaintances. My husband (English, very proudly English, and also a reputable social scientist who once did extensive research into race discrimination) said, half-jokingly, that he thought that Asian women were "genetically programmed" to shout, especially down the phone, because throughout history they had been forced to remain invisible and silent within the family.

Sitting at the table was one very earnest young white man who wore his anti-racism on his sleeve. He was appalled. He said my husband was being racist by talking about genetic inferiority and that he was shocked that I took this kind of "shit". Things went badly downhill after this and we did not stay for the tempting chocolate-and-prune cake. I can understand why the young man was so upset.

There is an unspoken rule that says that race and science make a deadly combination, and that the effect of "scientific racism" is always malevolent. In his comprehensive, must-read book, The Meaning of Race, Kenan Malik provides a detailed description of how social Darwinism, eugenics, positivism, slavery and colonialism all used real and pseudo-scientific theory to justify white superiority and, at times, class superiority, too.

The odious views held by Aldous Huxley and DH Lawrence on what to do with social misfits were based on eugenics. In their submission to the Poor Law Commission at the beginning of the 20th century, some thinkers of the time argued that the poor had "inherent defects that are hereditarily transmitted". They included theft, drunkenness, immorality and fatalism.

The theories were even more merciless when it came to non-white peoples. Malik says: "Human development was seen as purposive, leading ever forward to the triumph of civilisation, which was defined as contemporary European society." And that was before enthusiastic Mr Hitler got hold of these theories.

One of the first things that the newly formed UN did after the war was to issue statements designed to inhibit research into biology and race. There was an ugly history that it was anxious to kill and bury. But the restraint and caution that was necessary then has grown to become a massive and unjustifiable taboo today. This is both foolish and destructive, especially as we are now in the middle of the monumental human-genome project that is beginning to reveal that we are much more in the hands of our genes than we would like to believe.

A Channel 4 series, The Difference, has released the subject from the paranoid cell in which it has been imprisoned for too long, and I hope that this heralds the opening up of vital debates. But first, let us clear away some of the confusion and defensiveness.

If we are free to talk endlessly about cultural diversity, why are we so nervous about discussing biological diversity? Because it has been used to form self-serving hierarchies by those in power, and to provide a reason why some people are born to be "down there". Too often, it has been used to justify genocidal actions. The caste system, racism and apartheid have all exploited this kind of thinking. In recent times, the New Right in the US and the UK has promoted scientists such as Charles Murray, who co-wrote The Bell Curve, which "proved" that blacks were intellectually less capable than whites. In 1996 there was a furore when an Edinburgh lecturer, Chris Brand, made similar claims.

But I still say that to "protect" people of colour from this science is patronising and racist itself. If our fear of racism has become so overwhelming that we cannot be exposed to research, convincing or otherwise, then racism has indeed won. We need to know these works and produce credible evidence and arguments against them. I do not believe in absolute freedom of speech, but the banning of real scientific findings, which is what is happening quietly in the US and elsewhere because people are afraid of being branded "scientific racists", is plain wrong.

Two other points. In order to redress the injustices of the past, an almost occult belief has grown that people of colour may never be described negatively. They are wholly and only wonderful. In social work, from being unfairly pathologised for decades, black and Asian families are now seen as beyond reproach. We have gone from one kind of ignorance and prejudice to another without walking the road of good sense.

There are important biological differences that distinguish groups and individuals within groups. Vastly more African-American men have prostate cancer than do white men. British Asians have significantly higher rates of heart disease. Sickle-cell anaemia and other illnesses are found in particular ethnic or racial communities. If gene research is only allowed among white groups, important breakthroughs will only be available to them, too. DNA used for crime prevention could reduce false accusations made against black men.

Whatever our fears, we have much more to gain than to lose through liberating ourselves from historical nightmares. Then there is the positive side. Scientific evidence shows that Kenyan runners have physical advantages. Kenyans could use this to promote themselves in all sorts of ways, and no, that does not mean that people will therefore believe that no Kenyans can be heart surgeons.

Genetic adaptation and nurturing have endowed Australian Aborigines with a larger visual cortex than whites - their children have photographic memories. If the education they get can use these skills instead of pretending that all infants are the same, the children would flourish. This is exactly what has happened in one school in the USA, where tests showed that black children processed information differently from white children and had a whole range of particular skills. A tailor-made education programme has produced such dramatic results that white middle-class families are now hungry to send their children to a school they once scorned as a bin for ghetto kids.

And finally, the one thing I am waiting for is widespread DNA testing that will prove that, far from being an pure, uncontaminated island race, this is and has always been a country of mongrels. It would be great to use some science to stop those who tell me that this is a white man's country.

* y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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