Editorial: Pseudoscience and Racism
No one admits to being a racist, but racism is alive and well today. Unless you’re a real piece of work you don’t walk around making racist remarks, you don’t disparage another race intentionally, and you don’t go out of your way to antagonize, belittle, or marginalize someone of another race.
We don’t have lynchings as a regular thing nowadays and we don’t see the pointy white hats of the KKK being legitimized by the average middle-class white family anymore. Indeed, many a white family, living in their clueless bubble of privilege, in America today can be heard claiming racism doesn’t really exist anymore.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Racism today is still a huge problem in America. It’s a disease with deep roots. And the reasons we cling to these racist notions we have are usually ridiculous, as we’ll see below.
As you know, pseudoscience is a belief or explanation for something that appears, on the surface, to be based in science or the scientific method but in reality is not. Famous examples of pseudoscience are astrology, faith healing, psychic abilities, intelligent design, alternative medicine, and holistic healing. Each of these use pseudoscience to give themselves validity by attaching themselves to real scientific concepts inaccurately and incorrectly. These pseudoscientific disciplines are easily dismissed with basic science literacy.
But there’s a more insidious form of pseudoscience. It’s more difficult to get a read on. It can appear to come from legitimate sources, is presented in a seemingly “scientific” manner, and has all the trappings of real science. But it is not. These are evident today in our climate change policies, health care, and environmental issues. Pseudoscientific noise so great it drowns out legitimate science and casts doubt on it.
A lot of us fall for pseudoscience. No one is immune. The problem with a lot of pseudoscience is that it is presented in a way designed to affirm your biases.
The Pseudoscience of Racism
All of the above was a prelude to this; racism is kept alive in this country, in part, because of pseudoscience. People find ridiculous reasons to hate those who are different, and go to great lengths to legitimize those prejudices.
I am ashamed to admit that for my formative years in the 1970’s, I was raised in a traditional, racist, Southern Baptist household. Oh, we weren’t openly racist. We saved our pejorative remarks for family – racist statements tossed about as dirty little “inside jokes” we all laughed at, while side-eyeing the crowd to make sure we weren’t overheard by the wrong people. Some of the jokes even catered to religion – bringing God into the joke as a bumbling chef who overcooked black people and finally got it right with white people. And we all chuckled as we grabbed our bibles and headed to church.
I’d like to say I didn’t know any better. But eventually I did know better. At first I didn’t, though. I was an 8-year-old parrot, reveling in delight at the attention I got from family when I repeated a racist joke I had heard . The racism was just there and, like a goldfish in a bowl, I breathed the water provided me. By the time I was nine, I knew it was wrong and started feeling uncomfortable with it all.
But not before I was given a reason to support the racism that had been taught to me.
Dogs are Racist?
I was taught that dogs hated black people. And there was a very scientific reason for that. I had seen it happen! When people were with their dogs and a black person came near, the dogs went crazy. The dogs would lay their ear flat, bare their teeth, and their hackles would raise. The dogs would have to be held back, lest they attack.
I was told it was because dogs could only make out black people as vague, threatening, shadows and that made them nervous. It had been shown that dogs could see only in black and white, and this made dark-skinned people have less contrast and appear more as looming dangerous figures.
It checked all the pseudoscience boxes:
- Presented with certainty by an authority figure? Check!
- Used an actual scientific fact to prove an ancillary point? Check!
- Explained as self-evident when considered based on subjective observations? Check!
It made perfect sense to my childish mind, and I believed it. It was filed away in my head as a novel scientific fact and became a part of my core understanding of the universe.
The Mushroom of Racism is Fed
Yeah, I was fed a line of pseudoscientific bulls#!t. I didn’t realize it until much later. By the time I was eleven I had rejected the racist behaviors and attitudes that I had been taught. So had my sister and brother. We had the advantage of being a Navy brats. It meant we changed schools and locales often. I was often an outsider, and at more than one school the white kid was the minority. It taught me a lot about prejudice and the ridiculousness of it all.
Still, for all of that, the idea that dogs saw black people as threats and shadows had been implanted in me. I never thought about it. It never came up in conversation. I never discussed it. But it was there, a seedling in my brain. It sat there, ignored, in the dark until I was in my 20’s.
Something Rings a Bell
I was in my early 20’s. Married. Had my first child, a son, by my side.
Someone in my family had gotten a copy of The Bell Curve. The book was presented to me by this family member as proof that intelligence is, in part, based on race and that black people were consistently less intelligent than white people.
Yeah. If you cringed reading that, you’re not alone. I’m having a hard time typing any of this.
Every red flag in my head went off at this. I was only a young man, but even then I knew that such an extraordinary claim would require some pretty extraordinary evidence. Without even cracking the book open, I rejected the notion presented to me by this family member.
And I was right to do so. The pseudoscience of The Bell Curve has been debunked time and time again by legitimate biologists and social scientists. But not before it was latched onto by every racist seeking to legitimatize their bigotry.
To this day, people cite The. Bell Curve as justification for their racism. It has enough science-y words in it, appears legitimate if you don’t look too closely, and confirms the biases some people already have. Never mind the fact that much of the research in the book was funded by The Pioneer Fund, which has neo-Nazi leanings and supports eugenics.
An Unflattering Mirror
My rejection of The Bell Curve, sight unseen, forced me to think about racism again. Even though I had rejected the racism in my family, I hadn’t really thought much beyond that. I still had unconscious behaviors, drilled into me since I was a kid, that were lurking inside me. The subtle, insidious, racism I still held onto.
- Locking the car doors in a bad neighborhood inevitably meant “in a black neighborhood.”
- Looking for a person of authority in any crowd meant looking for a white leader.
- Getting nervous when a group of black kids walks towards me was still a part of my makeup.
- etc – the “polite” white racist fears.
But, because I was once again exposed to the deep-rooted racism in my family, I was forced to look at my own. The mirror I looked into did not flatter me. Yeah, I was rejecting what I had exposed to as a child but a lot of what I had been taught had taken root and sprouted in some fashion. It needed to be excised.
In the Doghouse
I really started self-examining myself. I was ashamed. I realized I was a classic “modern” racist. The kind who didn’t think he was because he had black friends. Who was intelligent and rejected racism, while at the same time being shackled by the racism of his childhood. The kind that wanted to believe racism didn’t really exist anymore while cashing in on his white privilege every day in so many ways.
I realized that what I had been taught as a child was the worst kind of self-confirmation pseudoscience.
Dogs were not racist. People were.
Dogs have amazing eyesight. They are spotters, hunters, and predators. Anyone knows this who has even a modicum understanding of dogs. My dogs probably see better than I do. The fact that they may or may not see color does not affect their ability to see contrast. It was a lie.
Dogs respond to their owner. Dogs that go ape sh#!t when a black person is near is responding to the fear and unease of the person at the other end of the leash. We’ve bred dogs for thousands of years to read our physical and emotional cues. Of course the dog knows when you’re afraid and reacts to the unknown threat.
Without even digging into the actual science of it – the pseudoscience I had been fed a decade before was debunked. As were all of the racist tenants under which I had been raised.
Racism Is Alive
In 2016 I had another layer of my bubble of ignorance popped. The rise of the alt-right and Donald Trump has exposed the seedy underbelly of bigotry and racism that has never gone away in America. Under Obama, I had seen real progress towards acknowledging , identifying, and dealing with racism. Sure – I was dismayed at the vitriol leveled at Obama because I knew it was all based in racism, but I also saw a lot of reason to hope this was a “last gasp” of racism.
Boy was I wrong.
My bubble was popped – and it was a bubble. Because I don’t live a life of being a PoC in America I had the luxury of focusing on the hope and denying the reality. Trump changed that. And his supporters.
They levy a lot of pseudoscience, red herrings, and alternate explanations to hide their inherent racism – but it’s all racism in the end. It’s not “America First” for them, but “White America First.” Like the side-eyed jokes at my dinner table as a kid, the word “white” is left out while they waggle their eyebrows at each other, implying their actual meaning.
Fight the Pseudoscience of Racism
It’s more important than ever to recognize the excuses people use to justify their racism. And to call it to the carpet.
- Sharing articles on Social Media about the man dragged off a United Flight being part of a sex scandal is racist. Why? Because it attempts to paint the asian man as a deviant who somehow deserved his treatment at the hands of United. Asian racism is alive and well today.
- Banning people from Muslim majority countries who pose no threat to the United States is bigotry. False claims of threat that are easily debunked highlight this.
- Refusing entry of Syrian refugees based on a .00000001% chance of terrorism is rooted in racism – covered with patriotic and fearful rhetoric.
- Denying women access to contraceptives and rights to control their own bodies is racist – covered in a thin veneer of religion.
- Stating that we’re going to make this nation more “respectful” of law enforcement is literally racist. It’s dismissing the very real racial problem with police and the black communities in our nation. It places the blame on the victims and marginalizes them.
It behooves all of us to reject the false arguments, no matter how logical they sound, and uncover the boiling cauldron of hate these excuses cover.
The shame I feel every day for how I was raised and how I’ll spend a lifetime deprogramming myself needs to be injected into every overt and subtle racist in this country.
I’m ashamed of my racist upbringing. I’ll have this shame all my life, but I will not bury it or hide my shame; too many people do exactly that and it helps nothing except to preserve the privilege bubble we live in. It, in fact, propagates and is a continuation of the racism that is a problem in our society. Polite and hidden shame is bad, folks.
You can fight pseudoscientific justifications for racism. It’s not enough to just recognize your inherent biases. Own the fact that you have them. Work to shed yourself of them, and don’t let anyone get away with explaining away racism as if it were natural, reasonable, or scientific.