Scientific Racism: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will define the concept of scientific racism and offer examples of how this concept was put into practice. In addition, scientific racism will be contextualized within the larger context of racist discourse.

Definition and Concepts

Scientific racism is an attempt to co-opt the authority of science to justify racial prejudice. Race is a product of culture and human imagination; it has no scientific basis. The ideas presented by proponents of scientific racism are designed to make racism seem scientific and acceptable, when in reality, it is neither.

Racism assigns characteristics to large populations of human beings based on arbitrary physical characteristics such as skin color, the shape of the eyes, or the texture of hair. Racism assumes that personal characteristics are shared by all members of a racial category. Unlike forms of identity based on cultural characteristics, geographic location, or chosen affiliations, racial identities are usually built by more powerful groups and imposed on less powerful groups for the purpose of maintaining an unequal power relationship.

Some racial theories can be very basic and are designed simply to categorize one group of people as less human than another; i.e. Group A is more intelligent than Group B. Other racial theories are more specific; i.e. all members of Group A like chocolate ice cream while all members of Group B like strawberry ice cream. Theories of this latter kind are intended to create uniformity throughout the racial categorization.

Scientific Racism in the 19th Century

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the scientific and Industrial Revolutions altered the cultural landscape of the Western world. At the same time, the Atlantic slave trade, the proliferation of European imperialism, and the genocide of numerous indigenous peoples in the Americas amplified racist discourse. In order to justify these atrocities in the 'age of science and reason,' scientific explanations were sought to justify racist exploitation.

A 19th-century phrenology chart.

Phrenology was a pseudoscientific method that attempted to link intelligence, personality, and behavior to the shape of an person's skull. Skulls were measured using specially crafted instruments and then examined by 'experts' in phrenology in order to locate the area of the brain where specific emotions or motivations were believed to dwell. Phrenology was a favorite pseudoscientific method for justifying racist beliefs, particularly the belief that people of African descent were less intelligent than people of European descent. Like most forms of scientific racism, the conclusions of phrenologists came first, and the 'evidence' was sought afterwards to justify those conclusions.

The 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species' had a profound impact on 19th century intellectual movements. Though in many respects, Darwin's ideas contradicted scientific racism, Darwin's ideas were also co-opted and distorted by racial theorists to give their ideas scientific legitimacy. Many 19th-century scientific racists argued that different races must have evolved along completely different lines and that the theory of evolution explained once and for all that Africans and other non-white peoples were less human than Europeans. Others latched on to the 'survival of the fittest' interpretation of Darwin's theory of natural selection to justify racial hierarchies. Such interpretations eventually came to be known as social Darwinism, a pseudoscientific theory that justified violence, exploitation, and greed in the name of the 'strongest' or 'fittest' having a responsibility to triumph over the 'weak' or 'less fit.' Since the 19th century, social Darwinism has been used in a variety of contexts to justify racism and oppression.

Scientific Racism in the 20th Century

As theories of scientific racism became more popular in the late-19th century, ideas about how to apply these theories bloomed in the 20th century. While 19th-century scientific racism was often directed towards people of African descent, 20th-century scientific racism became increasingly interested in the racial status of Jews and Eastern European ethnic groups.

Logo of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921.

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