Born that way? ‘Scientific’ racism is creeping back into our thinking.
This month, Jennifer Cramblett lost her “wrongful birth” lawsuit, which centered on a troubling ideology that has been creeping into mainstream discussions in ways not seen in decades. Cramblett claimed that the sperm used to inseminate her came from the wrong donor, leading to a biracial child, which she had not wanted. Her lawsuit claimed that this mix-up in the lab caused her and her family personal injuries of various kinds.
This lawsuit was shadowed by a troubling logic: the idea that race is a biological reality with particular traits and behaviors that can be avoided through proper breeding practices. In doing so, Cramblett’s claims echoed arguments made in a darker era of global history of “scientific” racism.
Here’s how the argument goes. Some people are born with outstanding talents, easily mastering basketball, mathematics, languages or piano, if given the right environment in which to grow. What biologist or social scientist could argue with that? But alongside that genetic understanding, an old and pernicious assumption has crept back into the American conversation, in which aptitudes are supposedly inherited by race: certain peoples are thought to have rhythm, or intellect, or speed or charm. That’s a fast track toward the old 19th- and early 20th-century problem of “scientific” racism.
Consider a recent paper that argues that ethnic conflict throughout history is a result of genetic diversity among communities. The authors argue that genetic diversity is the dominant force behind conflict among groups. It pushes religious communities into battle, causes distrust among neighbors and dictates support for problematic social policies. Such an argument places the history and future of human conflict in genes, as if human interaction and environmental influences cannot match their power.
In the recent issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, we invited experts in anthropology, evolutionary biology, government, law, medicine, public policy and sociology to examine the return of racial essentialism and biological determinism. Those are separate but related. Racial essentialism is the concept that people of different racial and ethnic groups possess specific traits and behaviors unique to their group. Biological determinism is the belief that race is a genetic reality that regulates how we behave. ...