Thursday, February 06, 2020

Science Used in the Service of Racism: Will It Ever Go Away?

One more of my Eleven Topics in Science and Religion, this post is adapted from my book Negotiating Science and Religion in America.

#9. Race and a possible redux of eugenics

In this book, I noted where the construction of race 
in the United States, and especially racial superiority, has been tied to science and thus scientific racism. On the one hand, I’m hearing a serious questioning of the status of race as a biological category. As biologist Dave Unander has made clear.
“Genomics—reading DNA—is showing that all human populations carry most of the same genetic variations, contrary to what we would expect if ‘races’ existed.” (Dave Unander).
In this respect we—and by “we” I mean those of religious and scientific insight— have to grapple with the social construction of race. (And many specialists science and religion, it should be added, are predominantly and disproportionately white, which further complicates these topics.)

In doing my research over the past two years, I was entirely surprised to find that, in the early 20th century, it was progressive or modernist Christian pastors that gave sermonic voices to proclaiming eugenics. That historical fact was a little difficult to wrap my head around. Didn't their theology teach something about God's creation of a unified humanity? Didn't they know better? And how could they do this? 

As Christine Rosen has written about this very period in Preaching Eugenics:
"Certain kinds of religious leader gravitated toward eugenics in the early twentieth century, ministers anxious about the changing culture but also eager to find solutions to its diagnosable ills. Theirs was a practical spirituality better understood in terms of worldviews than theologies." Christine Rosen, Preaching Eugenics
I mentioned "on the one hand" above, the questioning of race as a definitive biological category. It is, however, a powerful cultural category. Somewhat recently, that is, in the 1990s, Marouf A. Hasian, Jr. already noted a “revival of eugenics” in his The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought. Now about thirty years later, one of the surprises of cultural life in post-Trump America is the return of white supremacists and nationalists. Even more, today’s anti-immigration rhetoric highlights certain countries (in this case, Latin American ones) and religions (Islam). These are resonant with eugenicist themes.

My hope is that skilled and informed Christian contributors to this conversation will emerge, including those who understand religious sensibilities and theological beliefs. At any rate, race and the specter of eugenics will continue to rise in importance for science and religion. It's worth being prepared.

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