Found 391 Resources containing: Racism
Physicist and social justice crusader Albert Einstein once referred to American racism as a "disease of white people." He was speaking metaphorically, but a host of research in recent years has shown that racism, like a disease, can harm the physical health of both its victims and its perpetrators. Now, the results of a national survey find that children who experience racism appear to be at higher risk of anxiety and depression, and tend to have poorer health in general.
There is no way to pinpoint any one cause behind the results of the survey, which is still awaiting peer review. But one explanation supported by previous research is that racism is stressful: These negative experiences increase stress hormones that tax the body’s immune system, and over time can erode physical health. "These associations were very strong in our data,” says Ashaunta Anderson, a University of California at Riverside pediatrician and author of the new analysis.
Anderson has spent almost a decade looking at how well children are prepared for school and how that affects their health, using surveys and focus groups. But in the last few years, she decided to focus specifically on how racism affects childhood health after finding that minority children tended to enter class far less prepared. "I realized what I was really more interested in were the race-based gaps," Anderson says. "Why aren't we looking at race itself?"
When she began surveying parents of young children preparing to enter kindergarten in California, she found that many had deep concerns about whether their children would face racism and how it would affect them. "I thought a good next step was just to describe the scope of the problem,” Anderson says. "What exactly does racial discrimination have to do with child health? And what might parents be able to do to counter any ill effects?"
Next, Anderson turned to the U.S. Census Bureau's National Survey of Children's Health, which randomly looks at the physical and mental health of one child from more than 95,000 American households. One question on the survey asks parents whether their child “was ever treated or judged unfairly because of his/her race or ethnic group.” Anderson tracked answers to this question, and compared them to the prevalence of various health issues that children were reported as having, including obesity and ADHD.
She found that a child's odds of having ADHD increased by 3.2 percent with exposure to racism, regardless of their socioeconomic background. She also found that children who had been exposed to racism were also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Outside of mental health, those who experienced incidences of racism were more than 5 percent less likely to be rated as having "excellent" general physical health by their parents.
Why does this happen? "The more conservative answer is we can't be sure," Anderson says, because they were relying on only one question in the survey related to racial discrimination. However, the same children who tended to suffer anxiety and depression also tended to be reported as having worse general health by parents, Anderson says, meaning that the stress of racism could be playing a role in harming these kids physically. Anderson will present the preliminary results of her analysis, “The Detrimental Influence of Racial Discrimination in the United States,” this Sunday at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Sciences Meeting.
In her own work, Dartmouth University biological anthropologist Zaneta Thayer has found a similar relationship between racism and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can negatively impact the body’s immune system. In pregnant women, changes in the levels of this hormone and others can result in lower birth weights or changes in the cortisol levels of the fetus. "These findings suggest that discrimination experience can have biological impacts in pregnancy and across generations," she writes.
In a 2015 article in The New Republic, Thayer cites other studies concluding that African-Americans who experience racism often have what are considered unhealthy levels of cortisol, while young Hispanic people who perceived that they were being discriminated against had higher cortisol levels. African-American men who were the victims of racism even seem show genetic signs of early aging, University of Maryland researchers reported in 2014.A reproduction of a historic sign directing people to racially segregated restrooms. (Anacostia Community Museum)
"This research complements a growing literature documenting the wide range of effects that racial discrimination has on health across the life course," says Thayer of Anderson's work. "These findings suggest that some individuals may be predisposed to poorer health in adulthood based on discrimination experiences in early life."
She cautions, however, that extrapolating causes from surveys that captures merely a snapshot of a child's health and experiences during one moment in time is difficult, and that relying on self-reported data from parents can lead to inaccurate figures.
"Nevertheless they are important and very interesting findings," Thayer says. "I hope that they will convince policymakers that an effective way to improve population health is to reduce the disproportionate burden of stress exposures, such as racial discrimination, on socially disadvantaged members of our society."
As to how that could be done? “I suppose that’s the million dollar question,” Thayer says. She sees the creation and enforcement of stronger anti-discrimination laws as a first step. Furthermore, Thayer says, “reducing poverty among minority children, while not necessarily directly reducing discrimination exposure, would likely give children more material and social resources to help buffer the negative impacts of discrimination on their development and health.”
It should be noted that Anderson didn’t control for access to healthcare in her survey. However, using the Census data, she was able to separate out children based on their families’ socioeconomic status—a factor that she notes “often predicts whether people can access healthcare well or not.” A study published last year by University of California at Berkeley researchers found that decreased access to healthcare among minorities could exacerbate the negative health effects of racism that they experience.
And the victims of racism aren’t the only ones facing its negative effects, according to the same Berkeley research. White people living in areas with intense racism toward African-Americans have been shown to be nearly 15 percent more likely suffer from heart disease, the authors found. A 2015 study from the University of Pennsylvania suggested that this could be because “community-level racial prejudice” makes it harder for people of all races to form social bonds, which has been shown to lead to higher risks of death.
The idea of looking at racism as a health problem that can be addressed chemically or psychologically is not a new one. In past years, some psychiatrists have proposed classifying "extreme racism" itself as a mental health condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Others have investigated the possibility of a “racism pill” that could reduce implicit bias. These ideas have received pushback: Others argue that classifying racism as a disease absolves the racist person of their actions.
While systematic racism can seem daunting to confront as an individual, "there are things that families and parents and people can do," Anderson says. Studies have shown that minority children have reduced levels of anxiety when their parents reaffirm pride in their cultural background, she says.
"I usually tell parents to try to do activities that reinforce those things for their children," Anderson says, while avoiding strategies such as "promotion of mistrust," in which parents can consciously or unconsciously condition their children to avoid people of other races. Still, little research exists into ways to improve the health of children who are actively experiencing racism. In the future Anderson hopes to do just that, by following these childrens' health over time.
Scientists, including those who study race, like to see themselves as objectively exploring the world, above the political fray. But such views of scientific neutrality are naive, as study findings, inevitably, are influenced by the biases of the people conducting the work.
The American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois once wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” His words were borne out, in part, by science. It was the century when the scientifically backed enterprise of eugenics—improving the genetic quality of white, European races by removing people deemed inferior—gained massive popularity, with advocates on both sides of the Atlantic. It would take the Holocaust to show the world the logical endpoint of such horrific ideology, discrediting much race-based science and forcing eugenics’ most hardline adherents into the shadows.
The post-war era saw scientists on the right-wing fringe find ways to cloak their racist views in more palatable language and concepts. And as Angela Saini convincingly argues in her new book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, published May 21 by Beacon Press, the “problem of the color line” still survives today in 21st-century science.
In her thoroughly researched book, Saini, a London-based science journalist, provides clear explanations of racist concepts while diving into the history of race science, from archaeology and anthropology to biology and genetics. Her work involved poring through technical papers, reports and books, and interviewing numerous scientists across various fields, sometimes asking uncomfortable questions about their research.
“Mainstream scientists, geneticists and medical researchers still invoke race and use these categories in their work, even though we have been told for 70 years that they have no biological meaning, that they have only social meaning,” Saini says.
Scientific research has struggled with concepts of race for centuries, often proposing misleading or erroneous explanations of racial differences. Contentious debates among Europeans about the origins of modern humans began in the 19th century, and many of the continent’s leading scientists believed firmly that Europeans exemplified the most evolved and intelligent humans. Human fossils in Europe provided the first data points in the budding field of paleoanthropology, but the region was in reality just where European archaeologists happened to start looking. Fossils, as well as cave art, DNA samples and other evidence later uncovered around the world pointed to a more complex picture of human origins: Elements of modern humans emerged throughout Africa, and those people migrated east and then north and west in waves.
Rather than distinct races, groupings or borders, the continually mixing populations produced only gradients, with some traits slightly more common in some regions than others. Lighter skin color in northern climates emerged late; some Britons were shocked to learn that Cheddar Man, the remains of a man who lived in southwest England almost 10,000 years ago, would today have been considered black.
In the 1950s, geneticists began to confirm what some archaeologists had already surmised: “Individual variation within population groups, overlapping with other population groups, turned out to be so large that the boundaries of race made less and less sense,” Saini writes. The conclusion was that no “pure” races exist that are distinct from others. Despite this evidence, those eugenicists still practicing sought to prevent their supposedly superior race from being overrun by immigration, miscegenation and higher birth rates among other ethnicities.
While few people study or advocate for eugenics today, some scientists in the rapidly advancing field of genetics held onto related ideologies after World War II. They simply used different terms, Saini points out, as some continued with race-focused research while referring to “populations” and “human variation” rather than “races” and “racial differences.” Geneticist James Watson, for instance, a co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix structure, has frequently been the subject of withering criticism for voicing racist beliefs, including that differences on tests of intelligence have a racial component, and arguing that Indians are servile and that Chinese people have somehow become genetically conformist.
A handful of researchers with similar beliefs, including former Nazi scientist Otmar von Verschuer and British eugenicist Roger Pearson, had trouble getting their research published in reputable journals and formed their own journal in 1961. Mankind Quarterly became a platform for race science—a place to publish questionable research under the trappings of objective science. Intelligence, a more respected psychology journal that’s published by the major publishing company Elsevier, also occasionally included papers with pseudoscientific findings about intelligence differences between races. Until recently, that journal had two eugenics supporters, Gerhard Heisenberg and Richard Lynn, on its editorial board. But by the time Saini finished her book late last year, after interviewing the journal’s editor-in-chief, she saw that the pair had been removed from the journal’s list of board members.
“The extreme stuff poses a dilemma for legitimate scientists, since you can’t read every crank’s work and falsify it,” says Aaron Panofsky, a sociologist of science at UCLA and author of the book, Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics. Researchers don’t want to endow these papers with more legitimacy than they deserve, but they don’t want to ignore them and risk fueling conspiracy theories, either.
While Mankind Quarterly has managed to hang on into the 21st century, “hard-core scientific racists are mostly old white men, and they’re not being reproduced in academia,” Panofsky says. Even so, plenty of racist, young white men continue to promote concepts of scientific racism, such as the participants in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—an event that even the scientific journal Nature felt the need to condemn.
Even more well-meaning epidemiological scientists nonetheless still use race as a crude proxy for myriad social and environmental factors. Saini cites an example of a 2017 study with statistical errors claiming that race and biology indicate that the airways of asthmatic black Americans become more inflamed than those of asthmatic white Americans. Black Americans do suffer more from asthma than whites do, but they’re also affected more by environmental hazards like air pollution from highways and factories as well as disparities in access to high-quality healthcare. These many forms of inequality and structural racism—which sociologists have documented for decades—were swept under the rug in favor of a race variable that led to findings that could be easily misinterpreted.
In another example, Saini describes the ill-fated 1990s Human Genome Diversity Project, which analyzed the genetic variations of small, remote populations referred to as “isolates,” including the Basques in Europe, the Kurds of eastern Turkey and Native American tribes. Indigenous rights activists, understandably sensitive to being exploited, resisted the project, surprising the naive scientists.
Time and time again, groupings by race, even if they don’t use the term “race,” can be dangerous and misleading to people looking for inherent biological differences. But Saini doesn’t think we can be “colorblind” or “post-race” in scientific research either. Scientists who claim to be so tend to have the same problem as the asthma study, ignoring racial inequalities all around that influence a study’s findings. Saini also explores the possibility of affirmative action policies, reparations or environmental justice advocacy, all intended to mitigate structural, historical and scientific racism.
Like many geneticists, Saini argues that since race is a social construct, it doesn’t belong in genetics research. Scientists in other fields have the freedom to study race, she writes, but with that freedom comes responsibility. They can’t afford to leave room for misinterpretation. Researchers using racial categories “should fully understand what they mean, be able to define them, and know their history,” Saini writes.
The rest of us, too, need to be aware of racial stereotypes, lest we fall prey to them. “That’s part of the reason that we’re fascinated by DNA ancestry testing,” Saini says. “The reason it matters to us is because we feel that these racial categories have some meaning, that they can tell us something about ourselves, and that’s just wrong. They can’t.”
Being the victim of racism is associated with a host of physical and mental problems, and now, it seems, that form of discrimination may also be implicated in causing people to age faster. A new study found that victims on the receiving end of repeated racism—and who internalized negative feelings about their own skin color—have shorter telomeres, the DNA caps that shorten over time and are linked to the aging process.
The researchers focused specifically on black men between the ages of 30 and 50. They recruited 92 subjects living around San Francisco. The men answered questions about racism they had experienced in their lives and also took an "implicit association" test that was meant to tease out their subconscious feelings about their race, Pacific Standard reports. Just six of the men said they had never experienced racism, while more than 85 percent said they had experienced racism at the hands of the police or legal system. Most felt positive about being black, but 37 percent suffered from an "anti-black bias," Pacific Standard says.
The team controlled for age, background and health and found that those who felt badly about being black had the shortest telomeres. Being a victim of racism, they found, did not have an impact on the telomere length—rather, it was the negative feelings themselves that were linked with the eroding telomeres. "African American men who have more positive views of their racial group may be buffered from the negative impact of racial discrimination," the authors said in a statement. "In contrast, those who have internalized an anti-Black bias may be less able to cope with racist experiences, which may result in greater stress and shorter telomeres."
This study brings further evidence to the scientific belief that "social toxins" such as racism have a very real impact on people's lives and health, the researchers write. Their conclusion: "Our findings suggest that racism literally makes people old."
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For many, the call to enter the political fray feels necessary. “Sure, scientific inquiry should be immune from the whims of politicians. It just isn't,” science editor Miriam Kramer recently wrote in Mashable. Others worry that staging a political march will “serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data,” as coastal ecologist Robert Young put it in a controversial opinion article in The New York Times.
But the question of whether scientists should speak their opinions publicly didn't start in the Trump administration. Today’s scientists have a well-known historical model to look to: Albert Einstein.
Einstein was never one to stick to the science. Long before today’s debates of whether scientists should enter politics and controversial scientist-turned-activist figures like NASA’s James Hansen hit the scene, the world-renowned physicist used his platform to advocate loudly for social justice, especially for black Americans. As a target of anti-Semitism in Germany and abroad between the World Wars, the Jewish scientist was well aware of the harm that discrimination inflicts, and sought to use his platform to speak out against the mistreatment of others.
In 1919, Einstein became perhaps the world’s first celebrity scientist, after his groundbreaking theory of relativity was confirmed by British astronomer Arthur Eddington and his team. Suddenly, the man—and not just his science—was front-page news around the world.
"Lights all askew in the heavens; Men of science more or less agog over results of eclipse observations; Einstein theory triumphs," read a November 20 headline in The New York Times. The Times of London was no less breathless: "Revolution in Science; Newtonian ideas overthrown." J. J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron, called his theory “one of the most momentous, if not the most momentous, pronouncements of human thought.” Einstein's social circles expanded to encompass the likes of Charlie Chaplin and the Queen of Belgium.
As soon as he had the limelight, Einstein began speaking out. In interviews, he advocated for an end to militarism and mandatory military service in Germany (he had renounced his German citizenship at age 16, choosing statelessness over military service). While he never fully endorsed the Zionist cause, he spoke frequently of his Jewish identity and used his fame to help raise money for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, making him a very public face not just of science but of Jewishness.
"I am really doing whatever I can for the brothers of my race who are treated so badly everywhere," he wrote in 1921.
His identity politics aroused the ire of many people in Germany, including those who were motivated by nationalism and anti-Semitism. Nobel Prize-winner Philipp Lenard, who eventually became a Nazi, fought hard behind the scenes to make sure Einstein wouldn't win a Nobel himself. Ultimately the Nobel committee decided not to award any physics prize in 1921, partly under anti-Semitic pressures from Lenard and others. (They honored Einstein the following year, giving him the delayed 1921 prize alongside his friend Niels Bohr, who got the 1922 prize.)
In 1929, a German publisher distributed a book titled One Hundred Authors Against Einstein. Although it was primarily a compilation of essays seeking to disprove the theory of relativity, the book also included some openly anti-Semitic pieces.
But it wasn’t just anti-Semitic scientists who criticized Einstein. Fellow scientists, including Einstein’s friends, expressed disapproval of his love of the limelight. "I urge you as strongly as I can not to throw one more word on this subject to that voracious beast, the public," wrote Paul Ehrenfest, Einstein's close friend and fellow physicist, in 1920. Max and Hedwig Born, two other friends, were even more adamant, urging him to stay out of the public eye: "In these matters you are a little child. We all love you, and you must obey judicious people," Max wrote to him the same year.Dr. Albert Einstein, center, a German physicist, stands with his wife Elsa Einstein, and Charles Chaplin, second right, as they arrive for the opening of Chaplin's silent movie, in Los Angeles, Calif., Feb. 2, 1931. (AP Photos)
Just as Einstein's enemies used his Jewish identity to attack his science, Einstein himself drew on his Jewishness to amplify his message about social justice and American racism. "Being a Jew myself, perhaps I can understand and empathize with how black people feel as victims of discrimination," he said in an interview with family friend Peter Bucky. While his political opinions made him a controversial figure, they also got traction, because his words resonated more than most.
Einstein's first aggressive criticism of American racism came in 1931, before Hitler's rise to power. That year, he joined writer Theodore Dreiser's committee to protest the injustice of the "Scottsboro Boys" trial.
In the trial, now one of the most iconic instances of a miscarriage of justice in America, nine African-American teenagers were falsely accused of raping a white woman. Eight were convicted and sentenced to death without evidence or adequate legal defense, and under pressure from armed white mobs. The case was then successfully appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, an effort led by both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Communist Party. As a result, many white Americans took the wrong side of the case not only out of racism, but out of anti-Communist sentiment.
Robert Millikan, American physicist and Nobel Prize-winner, criticized Einstein for associating himself with left-wing elements in the Scottsboro case, calling his politics “naïve.” (Their disagreement didn't stop Millikan from trying to recruit Einstein for Caltech.) Other Americans were less polite: Henry Ford of car manufacturing fame republished libelous essays from Germany against Einstein.
Also in 1931, Einstein accepted an invitation from the great African-American sociologist and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois to submit a piece to his magazine The Crisis. Einstein took the opportunity to applaud civil rights efforts, but also to encourage African-Americans not to let racists drag down their self-worth. "This ... more important aspect of the evil can be met through closer union and conscious educational enlightenment among the minority,” he wrote, “and so emancipation of the soul of the minority can be attained."
Yet whatever problems America had with inequality and racism at this time, Europe had problems of its own. In 1933, a well-timed job offer in the states led Einstein to become a citizen of the nation he loved enough to criticize.Einstein and his wife, Elsa, en route on their first trip to America in 1921. (AF archive / Alamy)
Einstein and his wife Elsa left Germany in December 1932. Armed with 30 pieces of luggage, the pair were ostensibly taking a three-month trip to America. But they knew what was coming: In January 1933, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party took full control of the German government.
While the Einsteins were in California, the Nazi government passed a law banning Jews from teaching in universities. "It is not science that must be restricted, but rather the scientific investigators and teachers,” wrote one Nazi official. Only “men who have pledged their entire personality to the nation, to the racial conception of the world ... will teach and carry on research at the German universities.”
In their absence, the police raided the Einsteins' apartment and their vacation cottage under the pretense of looking for weapons. When they found nothing, they confiscated the property and put a $5,000 bounty on the physicist’s head, distributing his picture with the caption "not yet hanged." By the spring of 1933, the most famous scientist in the world had become a refugee.
Einstein was a more fortunate refugee than most. By that time he was already a Nobel Prize winner and media celebrity, recognizable around the world. That fame made him a high-profile enemy for the new Nazi government in Germany, but it also guaranteed him safe places to go. Ultimately he ended up in America at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Einstein saw racism as a fundamental stumbling block to freedom. In both his science and his politics, Einstein believed in the need for individual liberty: the ability to follow ideas and life paths without fear of oppression. And he knew from his experiences as a Jewish scientist in Germany how easily that freedom could be destroyed in the name of nationalism and patriotism. In a 1946 commencement speech at Lincoln University, the oldest black college in the U.S., Einstein decried American racism in no uncertain terms.
“There is separation of colored people from white people in the United States,” said the renowned physicist, using the common term in the day. “That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.”Einstein at his home in Princeton on September 15, 1950. (Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy )
After settling down in America, Einstein continued to publicly denounce American racism. In a 1946 address to the National Urban League Convention, he even invoked the Founding Fathers in his critique. "It must be pointed out time and again that the exclusion of a large part of the colored population from active civil rights by the common practices is a slap in the face of the Constitution of the nation," he said in the address.
The irony of ending in Princeton, one of the most racially segregated towns in the northern U.S., was not lost on Einstein. While no town was free of racism, Princeton had segregated schools and churches, generally following the Jim Crow model in practice if not by law. The University didn't admit any black students until 1942, and turned a blind eye when its students' terrorized black neighborhoods in town, tearing porches off houses to fuel the annual bonfire.
Einstein loved to walk when he was thinking, and frequently wandered through Princeton's black neighborhoods, where he met many of the residents. He was known for handing out candy to children—most of whom were unaware he was world-famous—and sitting on front porches to talk with their parents and grandparents, little-known facts reported in the book Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor.
Black Princeton also gave him an entrance into the civil rights movement. He joined the NAACP and the American Crusade Against Lynching (ACAL), an organization founded by actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson. At Robeson's invitation, Einstein served as co-chair of ACAL, a position he used to lobby President Harry S. Truman.
He made friends with Robeson, who had grown up in Princeton, and found common cause with him on a wide variety of issues. As Jerome and Taylor note, "almost every civil rights group Einstein endorsed after 1946 ... had Robeson in the leadership." In particular, Einstein joined Robeson and other civil rights leaders in calling for national anti-lynching legislation.
For his anti-racist activism, he was placed under FBI surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover. While Hoover's FBI refused to investigate the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations, there wasn't a civil rights group or leader they didn't target. By the time of his death, the FBI had amassed 1,427 pages of documents on Einstein, without ever demonstrating criminal wrongdoing on his part.
But to a large degree, his celebrity protected him against enemies like Hoover and more garden-variety American anti-Semites. Hoover knew better than to publicly target Einstein. Einstein used his profile and privilege, volunteering to serve as character witness in a trumped-up trial of W.E.B. Du Bois. His influence had the desired effect: When the judge heard Einstein would be involved, he dismissed the case.
Einstein’s fame afforded him a larger platform than most, and protection from the threats that faced black civil rights leaders. What is remarkable is that, throughout his career, he continued to throw his full weight behind what he saw as a larger moral imperative. "[W]e have this further duty," he said to an audience in the Royal Albert Hall in England in 1933, "the care for what is eternal and highest amongst our possessions, that which gives to life its import and which we wish to hand on to our children purer and richer than we received it from our forebears."
Bertolini's restaurant was cheap, but charming: perfect for the creatures who roamed 19th-century London after the sun went down. On Tuesday nights, in Bertolini's backroom, respected judges and doctors, esteemed lawyers, admired politicians and award-winning poets and writers drank heavily, smoked cigars and secretly discussed what they thought they knew of the British colonies, more specifically polygamy, bestiality, phallic worship, female circumcision, ritual murder, savage fetishes and island cannibalism. The gentlemen would trade in exotic pornography and tales of flogging and prostitution. If, by chance, a pious, God-fearing bloke were to accidentally stumble into the Fleet Street backroom on a Tuesday night, the tips of his Victorian moustache would've certainly stood on end.
Before the debate between science and creationism, there was the debate between monogenism and polygenism. Monogenists believed that all of humanity shared a common ancestry while polygenists were convinced that different races of man had different origins. There was a palpable tension in Victorian England between the creation of a democratic scientific methodology and the elitist attitudes that reinforced Anglo-Saxon superiority. During Britain's "Imperial Century" these convenient human classifications were perfectly inline with colonialist sensibilities—of course, no race could match the enlightenment of the English Gentleman. The conflict captured the imagination of Victorian England and, by 1863, drove a wedge between the polygenist and monogenist members of the then 20-year-old Ethnological Society of London. Determined to continue advocating their polygenist ideologies, Captain Richard Francis Burton and Dr. James Hunt, both members of the Ethnological Society of London, broke away and established The Anthropological Society of London. The new splinter society supported the pseudoscientific practices of phrenology, the measuring of skull size with craniometers and, of course, polygenism. Recent scholarship has even suggested that its members were covert propagandists, acting on behalf of the Confederate States of America to convince Londoners that enslaved Africans were biologically incapable of any development beyond their menial work as slaves.
From the intellectual ferment of the Anthropological Society's inaugural year grew an even more exclusive and overtly seditious conclave of high-society rebels: a gentlemen's dining group called the Cannibal Club. Though Hunt was the president of the Anthropological Society, Burton, who possessed a Byronic love for shocking people, was to be the mastermind behind the new hush-hush fraternity. An experienced geographer and explorer, a writer and translator who spoke 29 languages, a decorated captain in the army of the East India Company and renowned cartographer, Richard Francis Burton was also considered by some to be a rogue, a murderer, an impostor and betrayer, a sexual deviant, and a heroic boozer and brawler. He was six feet tall with a barrel chest and an imposing scar on his left cheek. He was famous for infiltrating Mecca in 1853, disguised as an Arab merchant and for translating the raw, unexpurgated texts of erotic Eastern literature such as the Kama Sutra and the Arabian Nights. He was presented to the Queen and he dined with the Prime Minister. When asked by a young vicar if he'd ever killed a man, Burton replied cooly, "Sir, I'm proud to say that I have committed every sin in the Decalogue." Burton was one of Hell's original hounds and the Cannibal Club was his sanctuary.
Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS. Sir Richard Burton around the time of the Cannibal Club's founding. (original image)
Image by © GraphicaArtis/Corbis. Illustration of a goniometer, an instrument used in the study of phrenology. The device was intended to measure the human skill and use those measurements to make predictions about a person's individual characteristics, such as mathematical ability, moral sense, and reproductive instincts. (original image)
Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Michael Nicholson/CORBIS. English poet and critic Algernon Swineburne (left) and Richard Monckton Milnes (right), the latter of whom served as a member of the Apostles Club alongside Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Henry Hallam, in addition to his affiliation with the Cannibal Club. (original image)
Image by © Stapleton Collection/Corbis. An engraving by Gustave Doré of Ludgate Hill as seen from Fleet Street. (original image)
Sitting around in stovepipe top hats, tailored frocks and loosened cravats in the banquet room of Bertolini's, the members would be called to order with a strike of Burton's gavel. The gavel, naturally, was a piece of wood carved in the likeness of their official symbol: a mace drawn to resemble an African head gnawing on a thighbone. And before launching into one of their raucous powwows, a member would stand and recite the club's Cannibal Catechism: an anthem of sorts that purposely mocked the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, likening it to a cannibal feast. The opening stanza of the invocation, written by Cannibal Club mainstay, respected playwright and decadent poet, Algernon Charles Swineburne, depicts just how profoundly blasphemous and anti-clerical the group was:
Preserve us from our enemies;
Thou who art Lord of suns and skies;
Whose meat and drink is flesh in pies;
And blood in bowls!
Of thy sweet mercy, damn their eyes;
And damn their souls!
Swineburne, a short and fragile man with a little weasel-like mouth, was perhaps one of the clubs most debauched members. As a suicidal algolagniac, alcoholic and habitué of London's flagellant brothels, Swineburne also contributed to the eminent 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1903 to 1907 and again in 1909. After Swineburne's Catechism was recited, the members would "eat, drink, and let their conversations veer absolutely wherever they wanted", writes Monte Reel in Between Man and Beast. "The members were drawn to one another thanks to a shared hatred for one 'Mrs. Grundy'—a fictional composite who epitomized the tight-laced prudery that threatened to define the era." Needless to say, no minutes were kept during the meetings.
Cannibal Club members were culture-warriors. They were generally sympathetic to all religions yet loyal to none. They were unapologetic hedonists and scientific racists. They exhibited an unbridled interest in the various expressions of human sexuality and saw sexual repression as a national crisis. Another central figure of the club was Charles Bradlaugh, a political activist, renowned atheist and the founder of the National Secular Society. Bradlaugh was a pamphleteer who openly published information on land reform and birth control. In 1880, when Bradlaugh was elected into Parliament, he refused to take the religious oath—an act for which he was briefly imprisoned in a cell beneath Big Ben. In 1891, his funeral was attended by 3,000 people including a then 21-year-old Mohandas Gandhi. Another cornerstone of the club was Baron Monckton Milnes, a poet, patron of literature and politician. Milnes' unrivalled private collection of pornography, which was known to few during his lifetime, now sits in the British Library. English author, Jean Overton, contends that Milnes was the author of The Rodiad, an unattributed pornographic poem published in 1871 about a schoolmaster who derives pleasure from flogging young boys. Cannibal Club members truly lived dual lives: honorable gentlemen by day, perverse pleasure-seekers by night.
England was teeming with Mrs. Grundy's at the time and cultural non-conformists like Burton and his Cannibals had had enough of her. "Mrs. Grundy is already beginning to roar," Burton once said while working on his translation of the Arabian Nights. "Already I hear the ﬁre of her. And I know her to be an arrant whore, and tell her so, and don’t give a goddamn for her." Mrs. Grundy eventually manifested herself in the Society for the Suppression of Vice and various British obscenity laws such as the Obscene Publications Act of 1857—all established to weed out counter-culturists and prosecute them for their indecency. And although the Cannibal Club had insulated itself to allow for the free and safe airing of subjects deemed deviant by society, it was simultaneously taking it upon itself to challenge prudish conventions and work towards a more liberal London.
But the Cannibal Club, as a furtive extension of The Anthropological Society, had motivations beyond simply rabble-rousing. In Reading Arabia: British Orientalism in the Age of Mass Publication, 1880-1930, author Andrew C. Long writes:
[The Cannibal Club's] central activity was the production and distribution of colonialist pornography for their circle and other elite consumers. However—and this is key for the formation of colonial and imperial ideology—they justified their activities as the pursuit of science and art, where pornography, or their pseudoscientific combination of sexology and anthropology, would help to understand better the specific sexual practices and culture in the far-flung reaches of the Empire.
In the latter half of the 19th century the erotic viewing privileges of the club and its consumers were undermined as British and French companies began to mass-produce pornographic postcards, many of them exploiting colonial imagery much like the Cannibal Club had been doing all along.
The Cannibal Club lasted just a few short years, however. After Hunt's death in 1869 and Burton's international diplomatic services took him abroad, the old gang began to thin out. By the early 1870s, Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), was selling at a rate of 250 copies per month in Britain and his follow-up, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), which focused more on sexual selection and evolutionary ethics, had just hit shelves. Subsequently, the racially motivated polygenist ideology adhered to by The Anthropological Society and, by extension, The Cannibal Club, became passé. In his paper, "The Cannibal Club and the Origins of 19th Century Racism and Pornography" (2002), John Wallen asserts that Burton tried to revive the Cannibal Club sometime in the 1870s without success.
In 1871, the Anthropological Society and the Ethnological Society of London reunited to form The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, which is active to this day, promoting the public understanding of anthropology. In 1886, Burton, respected geographer, racist and rabble-rouser, was knighted by Queen Victoria.
Half a century ago, a special commission assembled by President Lyndon Johnson was tasked to better understand the causes of racial unrest in the nation. The result was the landmark 176-page report, “The America of Racism." Better known as the “Kerner Report,” the massive undertaking—done by National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, headed by Otto Kerner, then-governor of Illinois—examined cultural and institutional racism in the United States, from segregated schools and neighborhoods to housing discrimination, cycles of poverty and lack of employment opportunities.
As Smithsonian.com's Alice George reports, the historic study came to the conclusion that it was white racism, not black anger that had led to the wide-scale riots that had broken out in poor African-American neighborhoods throughout the country. “White society,” the panel reported, “is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
Now, a new study called “Healing our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report” by the Milton Eisenhower Foundation, which has continued the Kerner commission’s work, returns to the study to look at how far the U.S. has come since Kerner’s day. As Karen Grigsby Bates at NPR reports, this week, in a 488-page book, the study concluded that we haven’t come very far at all.
“We made progress on virtually every aspect of race and poverty for nearly a decade after the Kerner Report and then that progress slowed, then stopped and in many ways was reversed, so that today racial and ethnic discrimination is again worsening. We are resegregating our cities and our schools, condemning millions of kids to inferior education and taking away their real possibility of getting out of poverty,” Fred Harris, the last surviving member of the Kerner Commission, said during a talk at George Washington University on Tuesday.
Statistics tell the story. In 1988 about 44 percent of black children went to majority-white schools. But that was also the same year that courts began reversing desegregation policies. Now that number has dropped to 20 percent. There are other sobering statistics. As the AP points out, the study shows that following the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, home ownership by black Americans jumped around 6 percent. Those gains, however, reversed between 2000 and 2015 when black ownership dropped by 6 percent.
The study also found that in 2016, the number of people living in deep poverty—defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as a household with “total cash income below 50 percent of its poverty threshold”—was 16 percentage points higher than it was in 1975. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. children living in poverty has climbed from 15.6 percent in 1968 to 21 percent in 2017.
The Economic Policy Institute, which released its own study on the 50th anniversary of Kerner Commission’s findings, reports that in 2017 black unemployment was higher than it was in 1968, and it remained around twice the rate of white unemployment. The rate of incarcerated individuals who are black also tripled since the 1968 report came out. And the wealth gap has also increased. Today, the median white family has 10 times the wealth of the median black family.
All of this means the conditions that the Kerner Report suggested led to the frustration that poured out in riots throughout many poor African-American neighborhoods during the 1960s, are still present today.
Back when the Kerner Report was released, it was, in fact, more or less ignored by the Johnson administration. The president reportedly felt the commission did not give him enough credit for his Great Society programs. Additionally, as Julian Zelizer argues in the Atlantic, the study was politically toxic. "The report made recommendations for massive investments in employment, education, and housing that Johnson knew would never move through Congress," Zelizer writes.
While the government did not address it, the study nevertheless became a paperback bestseller, setting off new conversations in the public around race, poverty and inequality with its conclusion that "[o]ur Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
The 2018 report wants to open that conversation up again. As Harris tells Bates of NPR, he was 37 years old back when he worked on the Kerner Report. "Whoever thought that 50 years later, we'd still be talking about the same things," he says. "That's kinda sad."