May 23, 2011

Racism or Science: The Sins of the Father are Visited Upon the Son

I am teaching my "Composition and Rhetoric" students the art of argument.  For the past few weeks, they have been writing Rhetorical Responses and applying the critical reading and critical writing process to real issues.  From a pedagogical perspective, the primary intent of the Rhetorical Response is to hone the students' critical reading skills as well as help them to understand and dissect the structure of rhetorical writing so that they will be prepared to write a well reasoned, researched argument at the end of the term.   

1953 Doctor injecting patient with placebo
I am very proud of the work my students are doing.  However, this week, I am challenging their intellectual fitness a bit further.  Quite serendipitously, several rhetorical situations have emerged in popular culture that are very closely linked with the essay my students are studying.  My freshman are reading Allan M. Brandt's Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1978).  In the article, Brandt asserts that the Tuskegee Syphilis Study demonstrates the pathology of racism rather than the pathology of syphilis.  Brandt supports his argument by examining the historical context of the study, in which the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) initiated an experiment using 400 syphilitic, Black men.  The USPHS purposely deceived the subjects of the study, pretending to offer them treatment for their disease, while secretly withholding such treatment, and voyeuristically watching and documenting their slow deaths. Brandt provides data from 1932 through 1974 of physicians' anecdotal reports, records from the National Archives, reports from the Journal of the American Medical Association, and records from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW).  The data reveals how the medical community, sanctioned by the various agencies mentioned above, used their racist ideology of the genetic inferiority of Africans as a justification to purposely deny treatment to 400 Black men, all while convincing them that they were being treated.  Brandt's purpose is to expose how racism shapes scientific inquiry in order to reveal that science is not an unbiased, value-free discipline.    

Although many of my students understand the 21st century relevance of the Tuskegee Syphilis study, some of them still believe that this kind of racism in medicine is a phenomenon of the-not-so-recent past.  They believe that there are safeguards and checks and balances in place like "informed consent" to protect them against the occasional rogue physician.  A recent article in Psychology Today may make them think again.

Satoshi Kanazawa, an "Evolutionary Psychologist," wrote a now infamously controversial article in the May 16, 2011 edition of Psychology Today.  I am not linking it here because the publishers of Psychology Today have since removed the article from their site.  In the article, Kanazawa claims that Black women are objectively less physically attractive than women of all other races.  He explains,

Vogue Italia

are many biological and genetic differences between the races....
For example, because they have existed much longer in
human evolutionary history, Africans have more mutations in their 
genomes than other races. And the mutation loads significantly decrease
 physical attractiveness (because physical attractiveness is a measure of genetic and developmental health). 
But since both black women and black men have higher mutation loads, it
 cannot explain why only black women are less physically attractive,
 while black men are, if anything, more attractive.
 The only thing 
I can think of that might potentially explain the lower average level
 of physical attractiveness among black women is testosterone.
 Africans on average have higher levels of testosterone than other
 races, and testosterone, being an androgen (male hormone), affects the 
physical attractiveness of men and women differently. Men with higher
 levels of testosterone have more masculine features and are therefore 
more physically attractive. In contrast, women with higher levels of 
testosterone also have more masculine features and are therefore less
 physically attractive. The race differences in the level of 
testosterone can therefore potentially explain why black women are less 
physically attractive than women of other races, while (net of 
intelligence) black men are more physically attractive than men of other 
Kanazawa's claims are absurd on many levels.  First, he predicates his assertions on a series of interviews he conducts over a seven year period with a group of Asian, Black, White, and Native American (number not disclosed) men and women.  This group is neither racially diverse nor numerically vast.  Kanazawa proceeds to survey their responses about attractiveness of so-called random photos of men and women of different races.  This factor analysis is the basis of his claim.  Next, Kanazawa never considers that most races are attracted to people who physically resemble them.  A discerning reader is left with more questions than answers.  How attractive were the people depicted in the photos?  And isn't attractiveness subjective anyway?  Did Kanazawa purposely choose photos of Black women that were slightly or considerably less attractive than the photos of non-Black women?  How many test subjects were there?  Were the test subjects all chosen from the same geographical location, discourse community, age group (in order to determine objectivity)?  Were the test subjects all Kanazawa's fellow "evolutionary psychologist" friends?  Did Kanazawa invent the whole thing in order to create more controversy and in turn more notoriety for himself?  Or did his personal racism shape his scientific inquiry?  We may never know.  But what we do know is that the subjects of the study could not have been looking at the photos of the beautiful Black women above.  

Kanazawa's brand of "evolutionary psychology" conspicuously resembles its 19th century predecessor - Eugenics - reshaped and repackaged for a 21st century audience of new racial egocentrics.  Eugenics, popularized in the 19th century, is the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding in order to achieve genetically desirable outcomes.  Just as the doctors in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study assumed that black men were genetically criminal, insane, sexually depraved, and moronic, so now do evolutionary psychologists contend that Black women are genetically ugly and Black men are aesthetically pleasing but still genetically stupid.  

In a May 20, 2011 article in the The Root entitled "Black Quarterbacks' Intelligence Still Scrutinized", we see the old tropes of Eugenics and racist ethnology rearing their ugly heads again.  In short, the article examines the racist theory that since the quarterback is considered "the brain" of a football team, Black men are not genetically intelligent enough to hold the job.  Nearly two centuries after Eugenics first gained notoriety and 80 years after the Tuskegee Syphilis study, men like Donovan McNabb and Cam Newton are still trying to prove that they are intelligent enough to memorize and execute football plays.

I challenge my students to examine the contemporary world around them, and how that world is shaped by old ideologies so deeply interwoven in the fabric of America that they are almost invisible.

May 08, 2011

In Honor of Mother's Day...

Because it's Mother's Day, I thought I would post a short story of mine that the Tidal Basin Review published last year.  I think the story says so much more than my prose could say today:

"Life and Death and a Penis"
Another of the angry pains rose up through her hips and into her abdomen as she squatted in the bed gripping the bar in front of her.  She heard – felt a bursting release of pressure, like the sensation of biting a cherry tomato.  Then she looked down between her trembling thighs and saw the liquid trickling at first then pouring like a small waterfall onto the white sheets.  This was "the water" that her friends had described in such revolting and lengthy detail, the water that strange women in the line at the post office mentioned casually as their birth stories poured from them like so many confessions and tales of war, the water that all of the books with baby in the title referenced as the impetus for the birth experience, the water that all of the women on the cable T.V. birth stories talked about with mythic anticipation.  And it was not mythic.