As a race, people of African origin have been the object of scientific scrutiny and analysis in America since the colonial period. The practice of science—and the perspectives of its practitioners—were shaped to a large extent by prevailing social and theological notions of racial hierarchy. Science operated on the assumption that "the Negro race" was inferior; it helped define race and was subsequently abused in the promotion of racism in America.
Models of racial classification had roots in the work of the eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus's framework was adopted by nineteenth-century naturalists and broadened by Georges Cuvier, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, and others to include analysis of hair, skull, and facial features. Lyell and Darwin thought of the "Negro" as an intermediate step on the ladder of evolution, somewhere between monkey and Caucasian. Cuvier held that blacks were "the most degraded of human races, whose form approaches that of the beast." Louis Agassiz, the Swiss-born American naturalist and professor at Harvard University, considered the Negro almost a separate species. It was difficult, he said, in observing "their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth … to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us."
The racially charged views of these and other scientists became part of the legacy passed on to succeeding generations. Nineteenth-century America, for example, saw the rise of craniometry (measurement of the brain) and anthropometry (the taking of anatomical measurements in general) as methods of exploring and comparing the physical, mental, and moral condition of the races. This work was carried out, during the Civil War and afterward, largely by white physicians in the service of govern-mental bodies such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a predecessor of the U.S. Public Health Service.
Physicians played a vital role in developing a science-based analysis of black people. The condition of African Americans (often referred to as "the other race") was a common topic of discussion in professional journals, at conferences, and in articles on health topics for popular newspapers and magazines during the nineteenth century. White physicians portrayed African Americans as constitutionally weak—more prone to disease than whites, with a higher mortality rate, and exhibiting signs that pointed toward eventual extinction. Data and statistics, generally void of appropriate context, were used to buttress this thesis. The low rate of suicide among blacks, for example, was interpreted as a reflection of limited intellectual capacity—an indication that blacks lived only for the moment and, unlike whites, lacked the conceptual skills necessary to plan and shape the future.
Nineteenth-century black physicians remained more or less silent about the racial dogmas advanced by their white counterparts for several reasons. First, since white organizations generally refused to admit them to member-ship, black physicians were kept busy developing alternative forums—their own professional societies, discussion groups, journals—to provide opportunities for shared learning and experience. The National Medical Association, the black counterpart of the American Medical Association, was founded in 1895 through the efforts of prominent physicians such as Miles Vandahurst Lynk and Robert Fulton Boyd. Second, black physicians recognized that generating racial or political controversy risked a backlash that could undermine efforts to place their own professional role and community on a solid foundation. And third, some black professionals accepted the truth of racial stereotypes and distanced themselves from the perceived taint of their race by thinking of themselves as unique, as somehow different from the "typical" African American.
Eugenics and Other Movements
In the early twentieth century, activities pursued under the guise of science continued to point to the alleged inferiority of African Americans. The eugenics movement is a good example. While it had always been present in some form (in spirit if not in name), eugenics assumed formal standing as a science with the rediscovery of botanist Gregor Mendel's seminal paper on genetics in 1900 and the establishment in 1910 of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York. Defined as the science of improving the hereditary qualities of particular races or breeds, eugenics found devotees among geneticists and reputable practitioners in other branches of the biological sciences. It captured the public imagination, bringing issues of racial inferiority into focus not only in the realm of natural science, but in the social arena as well. Eugenics, with its growing stock of data on what were termed "weak races," fed into regressive social policies, such as the anti-immigration movement and programs of coercive sterilization aimed at "purifying" the nation's population stocks. Its ideas permeated American society, promoting racial fear among whites and self-antipathy among some blacks. Although eugenics slipped out of the mainstream of American science in the 1930s following its adoption by the Germans as a social-engineering tool, its assumptions remained firmly embedded in the American social fabric.
The racial thrust underlying the work of the craniometrists, anthropometrists, physician-scientists, and eugenicists persisted past the middle of the twentieth century—in spite of the rise of the civil rights movement. In some respects, it persists down to the present day. Examples are numerous. From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service carried out the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (popularly known as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment). This project gathered together four hundred African-American "guinea pigs"; misled them about the nature of their illness by reinforcing the subjects' belief that they were suffering from vague ailments related to "bad blood"; and withheld treatment from them in order to observe the progress of the disease. One rationale underlying the project was the need to assess racial differences in the impact of the disease. Then there was the segregation of blood in the armed services during World War II. Still later, during the 1960s and 1970s, Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, and William Shockley applied IQ and other data in studies of racial differences. These scientists drew broad conclusions, for example, about the genetic inferiority—and, in particular, the inherently lower intelligence—of blacks as compared to whites. Since the 1980s, some work in sociobiology and genetic engineering has attempted to identify genes with behavioral traits. In 1992 the National Institutes of Health awarded funds for a conference on heredity and criminal behavior but later withdrew support to placate critics who felt that linking genetics and crime in this way could add renewed authority to theories that blacks (represented disproportionately in U.S. crime statistics) were biologically inferior.
African Americans in Science
Science may have been used and abused in racially motivated ways, but this has not stopped African Americans from being drawn to careers in the field. The history of blacks in American science is as old as the history of science in America. In colonial America, free blacks were known for their inventive, scientific, and technical skills. The first to achieve a national reputation in science was Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806), known in the latter part of the eighteenth century as a mathematician, astronomer, and compiler and publisher of almanacs. In 1791 Banneker served as part of a team of surveyors and engineers who contributed to planning the city of Washington, D.C. Other free blacks, including Thomas L. Jennings (1791–1859) and Norbert Rillieux (1806–1894), developed and patented technical devices in the years leading up to the Civil War. Some slaves were known for their inventive abilities, but their legal status prevented them from holding patents and from receiving widespread public recognition of their achievement.
After the Civil War, the number of blacks undertaking scientific work increased slowly. The establishment of black institutions of higher learning—necessary because white institutions did not routinely admit African-American students—provided an essential start. Nevertheless, black colleges and universities tended to focus on curricula in theology, education, medicine, and other fields that were more practical (or technical) than scientific, geared primarily toward creating a niche or foothold for African-American professionals in the social and economic mainstream. Science, in the sense of an activity devoted to pure or basic research, did not fit readily into this framework. As a result, African Americans wanting specialized science education or training were obliged to seek out programs at white institutions. It was a difficult proposition that only a few tackled successfully before the end of the nineteenth century. One of the earliest was Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852–1918), who earned a Ph.D. in physics from Yale University in 1876. Bouchet was said to have been the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from an American university. His subsequent career did not, however, include research in the sciences. He became a high-school science teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. Because of his race, professional opportunities in science were essentially closed to him. Bouchet's was nonetheless an important accomplishment, a counterexample to the widespread mythology about the mental inferiority of blacks.
The number of blacks entering scientific fields increased markedly after the turn of the twentieth century. Among these were Charles Henry Turner, zoologist; George Washington Carver, agricultural botanist; Ernest Everett Just, embryologist; St. Elmo Brady, chemist; Elmer Samuel Imes, physicist; William Augustus Hinton, bacteriologist; and Julian Herman Lewis, pathologist. Percy Lavon Julian, a chemist, and Charles Richard Drew, a surgeon and pioneer of the blood-banking system, followed a couple of decades later. This cohort represents the first group of black scientists to receive graduate degrees from major white universities, pursue science at the research level, and publish in leading scientific journals.
World War II brought African-American scientists, as a distinct group, to public attention for the first time. Prior to this, they had worked primarily as teachers at black colleges and universities, and had not—with the notable exception, perhaps, of Ernest Just—exerted their influence widely or made their presence felt in the larger scientific community. As part of the war mobilization effort at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and in the various branches of the Manhattan Project attached to laboratories at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, and other universities, some white scientists witnessed for the first time a sizable number of black physicists and chemists entering their world. African Americans who worked on the atom bomb project included Edwin Roberts Russell, Benjamin Franklin Scott, J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., Jasper Brown Jeffries, George Warren Reed Jr., Moddie Daniel Taylor, and the brothers Lawrence How-land Knox and William Jacob Knox Jr. At a postwar conference in 1946, one eminent white scientist, Arthur Holly Compton, remarked on how the bomb project had brought races and religions together for a common purpose.
After the war, even though a few white universities began to open up faculty appointments and graduate fellowships to blacks, racial discrimination continued to operate at many levels within the professional world of science. It was common for major associations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to hold conventions in cities where segregation was both customary and legally enforced, and where hotels serving as convention sites denied accommodation to anyone of African-American origin. Blacks often relied on their own scientific associations, such as the National Institute of Science (founded in 1942) and Beta Kappa Chi Scientific Society (incorporated in 1929), to share ideas and foster collegial ties. Furthermore, most science education for African Americans—certainly at the undergraduate level—continued to take place within the confines of historically black colleges and universities.
Following passage of the 1964 U.S. Civil Rights Bill, new educational opportunities gradually opened up for blacks, and scientific careers—in both academia and industry—became more of a tangible, realistic goal. Rosters of noteworthy scientists from the 1960s to the 1990s mention a number of African Americans, including Harold Amos, bacteriologist; Shirley Ann Jackson, physicist; Edward William Hawthorne, physiologist; Marie Maynard Daly, biochemist; and Ronald Erwin McNair, astronautical physicist. Scientific organizations, learned societies, and educational institutions grew more inclusive during this period. David Harold Blackwell, a mathematician, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965. The physicist Walter Eugene Massey became the first African-American president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1988 and the first African-American director of the National Science Foundation in 1990.
President George H. W. Bush's Goals 2000 initiative, in which he pledged to make America's students "first in math and science," gave the scientific renaissance of the 1970s and the mid-1980s a boost in 1989. In the ensuing years, African Americans gained greater access to all levels of education in the sciences, increased the percentage of degrees in the sciences they earned relative to their population in the general society, and entered science-related fields in academia and the professions in unprecedented numbers. However, disparities still remain in precollege, undergraduate, and graduate science education and contribute to persistent racial inequalities in the American workforce in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Although African Americans represented around 12 percent of the total U.S. population in 2004, they constituted less than 3 percent of American scientists.
Science in the Twenty-First Century
The postindustrial revolution gained momentum in the early 1990s and prompted dramatic social, economic, and cultural changes in the United States and the international community. The economy in twenty-first-century America, for instance, no longer relies primarily on manufacturing but rather on information. Computers are the engines that drive the information age, and, though underrepresented in the field, black scientists have made basic contributions to advance digital technologies in the global society. For instance, Mark Dean (b. 1957), a Stanford Ph.D. and vice president of IBM and widely considered to be the architect of the modern personal computer, led the design team that created the first one-gigahertz computer processor. Thus, not only was he central to making computers accessible to the common person, he helped to make them faster and much more efficient, too. In addition, Philip Emeagwali (b. 1954), the Nigerian-born Internet and supercomputer pioneer, made scientific breakthroughs that helped to make the world a much smaller place, opening the door to modes of communication that many now take for granted, such as e-mail and text messages.
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"Science." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/science
"Science." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved August 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/science