Once they blamed breast-feeding. New racists just measure the tendons

Click to follow
The Independent Online
POOR Sir Roger Bannister! In telling the British Association last week that black athletes had "natural anatomical advantages", he certainly stirred something up. The runner Mark Richardson, writing in the Independent, said it was a hornets' nest. But to me the hornets look more like bluebottles, and the nest belongs to a dead mare.

Sir Roger said black people were physically different. Gosh, racism! He said that "there must be something rather special about their anatomy or physiology". Gosh, apartheid! He remarked that the differences between great runners were anyway less physical than "in their capacity for mental excitement - which is probably inborn." Gosh, he says they have different brains!

This is one of those pseudo-controversies in which the truth is less interesting than the nonsense. Richardson, who is black, wrote that while Sir Roger had identified differences between black and white, "it is unclear whether these ... disparities among racial groups are directly related to performance". That is the right caution to enter, and in fact Sir Roger merely asked what the relationship was - if any. If he made a mistake, it was only in generalising about "them", when the disparities between different black groups are so striking.

Mark Richardson referred to "West Africans" with longer leg-to-torso ratios, narrower hips and lighter calves. A group of north Kenyans tested against Swedish distance runners - whom they outran - proved to have leg muscles with more blood capillaries around them and better able to metabolise fat as fuel. The list could go on for pages. But two things need to be said. The first is that nobody has yet shown that any of these attributes are directly related to athletic performance. The second, which follows logically, is that the proposition "blacks are better runners" remains unproved. Blacks do not excel in swimming competitions, on average, and it appears that blacks have denser, heavier bones. But this does not mean that "blacks are bad swimmers". If anything, it means that a marginal physical disadvantage may turn many young blacks to other sports than swimming.

But the panicky shrieks over Sir Roger Bannister's supposed breach of PC drown out a more respectable voice. It asks: If we accept all these other physical differences beyond mere colour and features, where will we end up? What defence will we have against the return of outright racialism, proclaiming that blacks do not just have less body fat - but fewer brains? How do we refute a book like Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve (1994), which uses IQ scores to argue that blacks have a genetic mental inferiority to whites?

When I first went to Kenya, not long after the Mau Mau rebellion, white intellectuals kept pressing me to read a particular book. This was J C Carothers's The African Mind in Health and Disease, published in 1953. Carothers, who had been in charge of Mathari mental hospital near Nairobi, set out to discover just what made the African so ... African.

For years, I took that book's conclusions seriously. I noticed at the time that it made African friends gurgle with laughter before handing it back unfinished, but I thought that perhaps it was too near the bone for them. Then I decided that it was a work of arrant racism, and forgot about it. Last week, after it was mentioned in the London Review of Books, I got Carothers out of a library and read him again.

Carothers, to his great credit, put little trust in brain measurements or IQ tests. "The culture-free intelligence test is ... a contradiction in terms," he wrote - a point which Herrnstein and Murray are still evading 40 years later. But he accepted that "the African" had a set of typical "attributes".

This average African was "lacking in spontaneity, foresight, tenacity, judgement and humility; inapt for sound abstraction and for logic; given to phantasy and fabrication; unstable, impulsive, unreliable, irresponsible and living in the present without reflection or ambition ... To counteract these ruderies, he has also been described as cheerful, stoical, self- confident, sociable, loyal, emotionally intuitive and eloquent, and as bearing no grudges and having an excellent memory, a large vocabulary, and an aptitude for music and the dance."

This droning fly-past of adjectives and cliches has several meanings. It's the white settler's moan about the houseboy, in joined-up writing. But it's also one of those unintentional mirror-games about "otherness". Reverse the adjectives, and you get a Carothers portrait of "The White Man (subspecies britannicus colonialis)": spontaneous, tenacious, humble, reliable, logical etc etc. All the same - and again to his credit - Carothers did not claim that these were genetic failings. Instead, he thought they were partly due to climate but mostly to faulty mothering.

At first, the African infant received "excessive affection and indulgence". It was carried warmly close to its mother's body and only weaned as late as 36 months or longer, its excretory habits quite undisciplined. But then came the devastating trauma of sudden weaning, as the mother shifted her attention to the next baby. The damage to personality was permanent. Carothers seems to have thought that the real answer to Mau Mau was not rifles and internment camps but bottle-feeding, potty-training and the odd smack.

All this has now acquired period charm. Carothers was an amateur, with no psychiatric training, but he read more books and had more ideas than many with multiple degrees. He was certainly an improvement on his predecessor at Mathari, Dr James Cobb, who (according to Jock McCulloch's Colonial Psychiatry and the 'African Mind') used to get drunk and sodomise a pet lion on the hospital lawn. But Carothers was also better than some of those who have come after him. He was wiser than our new racists, out to prove that the growing mass of black urban poor in the West are doomed by their genes to be stupid and criminal and to pass on those traits to their children.

In the forgotten struggle between white settlers and more liberal colonial officials, Carothers was on the enlightened side. It is true that he thought that African cultural patterns led inevitably to "abuse of power and savagely heartless exploitation", and once compared Jomo Kenyatta to the Devil. Neither did he entirely exclude "physical" factors, writing that Africans neglected the frontal lobes of their brain and that "all the peculiarities of African psychology can be envisaged in terms of frontal idleness". But he considered these to be cultural problems, and therefore reformable.

These are old arguments, but now they matter again. In his book The Race Gallery, (reviewed on page 31 of today's Review) Marek Kohn argues that an anti-racist orthodoxy conquered science so completely after 1945 that the real physical facts and problems of group difference were ignored. It is this well-meaning consensus that has allowed the new counter-offensive of "race science". The social and physical sciences remain saturated with antique racial assumptions - but nobody dares to examine them.

This is why the reaction to Sir Roger Bannister's remarks was all heat and no light. This is why it is easy to laugh at some of what Dr Carothers wrote - and harder to look for elements of truth in it.

The hopeless course is to insist that "race is an exploded concept", or a figment of fascist imagination. As Kohn says, "dealing with difference may be easier said than done. But denial no longer appears to be an option."