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Book Displays: Equal Justice Initiative 2023: Apr

April's Topic - Science to Justify Racial Hierarchy

A group of students from the Junior Normal class at Fisk University, ca. 1890

Calendar photo caption: A group of students from the Junior Normal class at Fisk University, ca. 1890. (Library of Congress)

Calendar Text

White Americans and Europeans have long used pseudoscientific ideas and language to support theories of white supremacy and racial hierarch. Polygenism, the idea that human races are separate species with their own origins, gained prominence in the 18th century. White scientists then developed theories by comparing skull circumference, nose width, and even toe lengths to promote the idea that white people were not only biologically distinct, but inherently superior. 

In the U.S., proponents of slavery relied on scientific racism to argue that Black people were naturally suited to enslavement. When the 1840 Census erroneously claimed that much higher rates of "insanity and idiocy" existed among free Black people in the North than in the enslaved counterparts, Southerners claimed that enslavement actually protected intellectually inferior Black people.

Dr. Samuel Cartwright labeled Black people who attempted to escape slavery as mentally ill. In 1851, the Mississippi physician called the disorder drapetomania ("runaway slave mania") and advised whipping and amputation as preventative measures. Drapetomania was included in medical dictionaries as late as 1914.

While modern genetics has shown that there is no biological basis for race, the legacy of scientific racism continues to affect the practice of medicine. A 2016 study from the University of Virginia found that a significant portion of medical students and residents held false beliefs about biological differences between Black and white patients, such as Black patients have thicker skin than white patients.