Read Part I here.
So, back to Dr. Watson’s racist statements. The racism lies not just in what he said but why he said it. Dr. Watson ignored social, environmental, political, and cultural factors, instead trying to to use “race” to explain why Africa was doing so poorly, and why he was not optimistic about the continent’s future. He also argued that the races were not equal (presumably he also meant other “races” besides Black and White). But in reality, he was not proposing anything new. Rather, he fell back on simplistic racist assumptions—Africans are not intelligent and the races are not equal—and later, after he had come under fire, tried to use his position as a scientist to couch his original remark in scientific terms. The jury is still out on whether intelligence is or isn’t genetically predetermined but what we do know indicates that genetic difference, or similarity, is not so neatly tied to “race.”
More importantly, Dr. Watson’s statements rested on a common and essential element of racist thinking, the belief that people who share the same physical characteristics (skin color, hair texture, etc.) also share personality traits (intelligence, industriousness, etc.) regardless of environment, culture, religion, or any of the other factors that may affect a person’s personality. In the interview, Dr. Watson says that Africans are less intelligent, according to ”studies” he had seen (he does not elaborate on how these were conducted or who the subjects were, but that’s a lesser point). He then goes on to add that anyone who has ever had Black employees knows that people of different races are not equal. In other words, Dr. Watson—who ought to know better—is conflating Africans with Black Americans (I assume Dr. Watson has had only Black American, not African, employees), completely overlooking differences in culture, environment, language, religion, etc. In a classic racist display, he observes that Black Africans and Black Americans face similar economic and social challenges, but he concludes this must be because they have similar skin color and/or hair texture.
Dr. Watson should know that because of the widespread rape of slaves in North America, very few Black Americans would be genetically identical to Black Africans, but he ignores this obvious fact in favor of making a blanket statement based on skin color and hair texture. Of course, I’m not implying that Africans are all genetically identical. Quite the opposite. Dr. Sarah Tishkoff, now an assistant professor in the Biology department at the University of Maryland, wrote as far back as 1999 that genetic studies have revealed
an enormous amount of diversity within and between the African populations, and we found much less diversity in non-African populations. Only a small subset of the diversity in Africa is found in Europe and the Middle East, and an even narrower set is found in American Indians.”
Put simply, there is more genetic diversity among the human populations on the African continent than there is in all the rest of the non-African populations combined. Someone with Dr. Watson’s background in DNA research should know that this diversity would mean that, even if Black Americans and Africans were really less intelligent, it would be very unlikely that their “lack of intelligence” came from the same genetic source. To clarify, Black Americans share a genetic predisposition to Sickle Cell Anemia with their West African ancestors because most of them are descended from slaves taken from West Africa. However, the large genetic diversity among African peoples means that Black Americans cannot be genetically identical to East or South Africans because even their West African ancestors are not genetically identical to those other African peoples. Dr. Watson, in making his inference about Africans’ and Black Americans’ intelligence cannot, then, have been basing his statement on genetics because that would have precluded a common genetic root. Rather, he was—in true racist fashion—ignoring the social, political, and economic realities of Black Americans’ and Africans’ lives, focusing instead on the most superficial things both peoples share: dark skin and curly hair.
The other thing that struck me as racist was his focus on the question of lower intelligence while talking about Africans and Black Americans. Why did he pick that particular issue? To me, that would be like a modern scientist being interested in proving “scientifically” whether or not Black men have a gene for large penises, or whether brown-skinned people have higher sex drives (an argument Dr. Watson himself has made before). How ridiculous would Dr. Watson have sounded if he had suggested that Jews possess a gene that predisposes them towards avarice?! But because he chose to discuss Africans’ intelligence, people actually defended him, arguing that, as a scientist, he should be allowed to propose new scientific possibilities!
I’m not a geneticist and I generally oppose attempts to explain individuals’ behavior through racial or genetic arguments but, where there’s scientific evidence, let it speak for itself. But Dr. Watson’s statements were not based on scientific evidence, which makes me strongly suspect his motives. Nor was he proposing a new direction for genetic science. He was absolutely not talking about using modern science to break new ground? I mean, there are many differences among individuals of different “races” that could be studied at the genetic level, but why did he have to start from an old racist “truism” (Africans are less intelligent/the races are not equal)? The fact that he then tried to back it up with unscientific anecdotal evidence (if you’ve ever had Black employees, you know the races are not equal) makes me even more suspicious. After all, the question of difference in intelligence between the races is as old as racism itself. It predates genetics. Why would he be so concerned about using genetic science to prove or disprove a viewpoint that has existed and even thrived in the total absence of the science that could have proved or disproved it?
Furthermore, if Dr. Watson were so intent on using genetics to explain certain qualities in Black American or African people, he could easily have started out with something positive. For instance, statistics show that elderly White men have the highest suicide rates in the US. Dr. Watson could have expressed his interest in finding a gene to explain this (we know there is one because suicidal tendencies seem to run in families). Better yet, he could have talked about an “optimism” or “resilience” gene that might explain why, despite their widespread social, political, and economic marginalization, Black Americans tend to have much lower suicide rates than White Americans. Instead, he chose to focus on something negative, the racist idea that Black people are less intelligent than White people.
At the end of the day, the beauty of racism lies in its simplicity and Dr. Watson’s remarks demonstrate this simplistic thinking. For people who can’t be bothered to study social sciences, economics, and politics, race “theory,” racist thinking, and outright racism are ideal. Everything about an individual or group can be explained simply by looking at skin color, hair texture, or any of the other signifiers of “race.” The underlying social, political, and economic order is never examined and challenged, so power relations remain intact. The racist in turn remains assured of his or her own superiority, itself the product of nothing more than an accident of birth that resulted in his or her having been born with the “correct” skin color. The racist never needs to compose a concerto, write a great novel, or even read one for that matter. She or he is more than content to know that other people who share his or her skin color have done so. This also absolves the racist of the need to prove his or her own intelligence, because that burden of proof is shifted onto people who were not fortunate enough to have been born with the right skin color or hair texture. Dr. Watson—in lending his voice to the question of Black and African people’s intelligence and industriousness—has joined a long and disgraceful line of pseudo-scientists who have, for centuries, attempted to argue that non-White people, be they from Africa, Australia, Asia, North America, the Caribbean, or the Middle East share one unifying characteristic: Their dark skin means they are not equal to Europeans. Even worse, Dr. Watson has thrown a bone to modern racists who—without considering science, economics, or politics—have always believed Black people are less intelligent than White people.
In making those utterly prejudiced and unscientific statements, Dr. Watson has shown the world that, despite his cutting-edge research, when it comes to social and political issues, he is living two centuries in the past. I am very sorry that the “World Have Your Say” team allowed him to escape the scrutiny, analysis, and eventual denunciation that his words so richly deserve.