Monday, June 09, 2008

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: The Science of Racism

(Gates comments on his recent interview of genetic scientist James Watson about his inflammatory remarks about "black" intelligence. Another good source on the genetics of race is the three part documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion)

The Science of Racism
By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The Root


I had read, with the admiring avidity of a high school senior hellbent on medical school, his best-selling book, "The Double Helix," back in 1968. It never occurred to me that I would one day be making documentaries for public television about the uses of DNA for ancestry tracing among African Americans. But it was not until December 2006 that I met the scientist I had so admired. I was in New York, delivering a lecture for alumni of Clare College at the University of Cambridge. I had earned my M.A. and Ph.D. in English language and literature from Clare in February 1979, and Watson was living there and working at the Cavendish Laboratory when he and Crick identified the structure of DNA. As I rose to deliver my lecture at the podium, the Master of Clare College whispered to me that James Watson was in the audience. I was astonished; I had no idea that he was still alive. Following the lecture, I was seated next to Dr. Watson at dinner. He was indeed still alive; he was a sprightly and mentally acute 78 at the time. I found him friendly, but a bit awkward in conversation; generous and thoughtful, funny, but quirky-funny. A week later, unsolicited, a signed copy of "The Double Helix" arrived at my home.

I thought of that slightly awkward dinner conversation and his gracious gift as I arrived at his offices at Cold Spring Harbor on March 17 for our interview. We talked for well over an hour, with no holds barred.

"Well?" one of my friends asked later. "Is he a racist?"

I don't think James Watson is a racist. But I do think that he is a racialist—that is, he believes that certain observable traits or forms of behavior among groups of human beings might, indeed, have a biological basis in the code that scientists, eventually, may be able to ascertain, that the "gene" is some mythically neutral space and what it purportedly "measures" or "determines" is independent of environmental factors, variables and influences. The difference, the distinction, between being a racist and a racialist is crucial. James Watson is not the garden-variety racist as he has been caricatured by the press and bloggers, the sort epitomized by David Duke and his ilk, and he seemed genuinely chagrined, embarrassed and remorseful that Duke and other racists had claimed him as their champion, as one of their own, because of his remarks as quoted in the London Sunday Times. And, as we might expect, he apologized profusely for those remarks, contending that he had been misquoted, at worst, and his remarks taken out of context, at best. (I have not been able to determine if the writer who reported the remarks taped them or reconstructed them from notes or memory.)

But I did leave Cold Spring Harbor convinced that Dr. Watson believes that many forms of behavior—such as "Jewish intelligence" (his phrase) and the basketball prowess of black men in the NBA (his example)—could, possibly, be traced to genetic differences among human beings, although no such connection has been made, and will probably never be made on any firm scientific basis, it seems to me. And I have to say that it was ultimately chilling to me when he remarked, with what seemed to me to be monumental naivete, that "if they find genes for all kinds of Jewish intelligence, I don't think it's going to affect me in the slightest," especially when we couple that sort of remark with his passionate belief that "everyone should be judged as individuals. No one should be judged by a term like 'black.'"

Yet precisely because of the misuses of science and pseudoscience since the 18th century, which put into place fixed categories of four or five "races" to justify an economic order dependent upon the exploitation of blacks (and other people of color) as cheap sources of labor, starting with slavery and continuing through Jim Crow and beyond, it has never been possible for a person of African descent to function in American society simply and purely as an "individual." And if the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama has taught him, and us, anything at all, it is that this perhaps ideal state of affairs—to function as an individual and to be judged on your individual merits—still remains a most elusive and somewhat naïve dream.

Watson's error is that he associates individual genetic differences (which, of course, do in fact exist) with ethnic variation (which is sociocultural and highly malleable). Character traits—abilities and behaviors, such as intelligence or basketball skills, that are popularly attributed to groups and are defined as "genetic"—will, in fact, continue to delimit the freedom of choice and expression of individuals who fall into those "racial" categories, regardless of our individual attainments and achievements. In the end, visions that are racialist may end up doing the same work of those that are racist. This is a lesson Watson has lived, and it is one from which we all might learn.

Having spent the past three decades studying racist discourse in the West (starting with my Ph.D. dissertation on the Enlightenment), I know that such conclusions—say, about an entity called "Jewish intelligence"—would deleteriously affect me as a black person because it would reinforce stereotypes about Jewish people being genetically superior to us, and that such a conclusion would reinforce stereotypes about black people being inherently less intelligent than other members of the human community. If such differences in intelligence were purported to have a genetic basis, as David Duke proclaimed on his Web site with such naked glee, all of the social intervention in the world could have only so much effect. (Head Start? Why bother, when nature is to blame.) Sooner or later, in a time of increasing economic scarcity, members of these supposedly "different" or "lesser" ethnic groups or genetic populations could very well find their life possibilities limited and perhaps even regulated. Who among us can doubt that this would be true?

Likewise, I worry even more that Dr. Watson confessed to me that "we shouldn't expect that different persons have equal intelligence, because we don't know that. And people say that these should be the same [that is, that all human beings, that all members of different "racial" groups, should have the same basic range and potential for development of intelligence genetically]. I think the answer is we don't know." And later, he remarked in passing that "we're not all the same," by which he meant genetically. Rest assured that in the very near future, some scientist somewhere will claim to have proven this through our genes, and that claim will be deeply problematic for the future development of black people in American society.

As I drove away from Cold Spring Harbor, I realized that my conversation with Dr. Watson only confirmed something I already, with great trepidation, have come to believe: That the last great battle over racism will be fought not over access to a lunch counter, or a hotel room, or to the right to vote, or even the right to occupy the White House; it will be fought in a laboratory, in a test tube, under a microscope, in our genome, on the battleground of our DNA. It is here where we, as a society, will rank and interpret our genetic difference.

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