Addressing Scientific Racism and Eugenics in the Classroom

May 10, 2023

STEM classrooms where instructors use evidence-based inclusive teaching practices is one way to recruit and retain diversity in STEM .
STEM classrooms where instructors use evidence-based inclusive teaching practices is one way to recruit and retain diversity in STEM .
Source: iStock
Scientific societies, including ASM, are coming to terms with the roles that scientists played in creating an unwelcoming climate and unequal playing field for the pursuit of science, as evidenced by the number of conversations, curated conference tracks and publications in the broader area of social justice and equity in science. Scientists are calling for a new science agenda to invest in; connect and align efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion; make use of available data and best practices; support social science research to understand barriers to science entry and hold scientific enterprises accountable.

There is immense value in recruiting individuals from a wide diversity of backgrounds. Focusing on  STEM classrooms—where instructors use evidence-based, inclusive teaching practices that enhance growth mindsets, invite students to connect to the material, shift stereotypic views of scientists, make expectations clear to all and embrace diversity in science—is one way to recruit and retain diversity in STEM. In addition to these approaches, having conversations in science classrooms about inequality, diverse cultural perspectives and how structural racism and sexism have played a role in developing the science enterprise can help students understand the roles they can play on making science more welcoming and inclusive.

What is Scientific Racism?

“Scientific racism is an organized system of misusing science to promote false scientific beliefs in which dominant racial and ethnic groups are perceived as being superior," described Vence L. Bonham Jr., J.D., Acting Deputy Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. He further asserted, "Scientific racism is a historical pattern of ideologies that generate pseudo-scientific racist beliefs….Leading scientists across scientific institutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries were proponents of such ideologies.” Thus, scientists have helped create this problem and concept of scientific racism. For example, Carl Linnaeus, didn’t just create taxonomic organizations for plants and animals that school children learn, Linnaeus also created groupings for people. These groupings, which were flawed, laid the groundwork for the faulty notion that race is a biological factor. Race does not have biological meaning, rather, it is a sociopolitical construct. But the damage of Linnaeus’ groupings has been woven into the fabric of society.

According to Bonham, pseudo-scientific racist beliefs were widely disproven by the mid-20th century. "However," he went on to assert, "evidence shows that scientific racism persists in science and research.” Many health care professionals maintain the myths associated with race. For example, a 2015 publication demonstrated how many medical school students falsely endorsed beliefs about biological differences between Black and white patients, particularly regarding pain perception. In 2017, a nursing textbook was pulled out of print when it was found to have contained stereotypes about groups and their responses to medicine and medical procedures. Angela Saini, a science journalist and author, looked deep into race-based science and the harm it has done in her book, Superior: The Return of Race Science. The Smithsonian book review of Saini’s work about the disturbing resilience of scientific racism captures the essence of the situation and reminds us that we’ve known for 70 years that race has no biological meaning.

The bookRacism: A Short History, by Stanford University historian George M. Fredrickson, identified ways that science has been used to defend racial discrimination and includes the following compelling statement: “In societies in which there has been systemic discrimination against specific racial groups, inevitably it has been accompanied by attempts to justify such policies on scientific grounds.” These ideas may not be widely voiced or supported by scientists today, but they are not completely gone either, despite the statement in Article 2 of the 1978 Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice from the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which says “Any theory which involves the claim that racial or ethnic groups are inherently superior or inferior…has no scientific foundation and is contrary to the moral and ethical principles of humanity.” Importantly, this statement alone does not change the culture of science. Awareness of this history, honest reflection on its impact and discussions about these topics with upcoming scientists are all part of recognizing the damage that science has done to perpetuate inequality and taking steps to move toward more equitable and anti-racist systemic practices.

How to Discuss Scientific Racism in the Classroom

What are some best practices for addressing scientific racism in the classroom? First, educators can be aware of the ways that scientific racism creeps into discussions and consider how to help avoid or to redirect such conversation. Some of the ways scientific racism may show up include the following themes:

  • Claims that people are born with outstanding talents.
  • Arguments that the way things are is just natural.
  • Perpetuated beliefs that certain groups excel in athletics.
  • Stereotypes about IQ differences.
Educators at any level should be aware of the concept of scientific racism to be sure it doesn’t influence their teachings or research. It is important to give context to case studies that mention race. For example, by discussing sickle cell anemia and race, classes can discuss that those who were forcibly enslaved were from geographic regions where skin pigmentation protected from UV damage and explain how this correlated with regions where malaria is endemic and a mutation in a single beta-globin allele offered protection against malaria.

Classrooms need to also be careful in discussions around genetic ancestry for the sake of science and society. Genetic ancestry categories must not be interpreted as a stand-in for race. Use of presumed distinct continental origin categories could have negative health outcomes. Using race to track the impact of racism on health outcomes is the only appropriate usage, as described by a 2022 publication regarding getting genetic ancestry right.

If discussing SARS-CoV-2 infection rates and race, look at structural issues that can play a role in higher rates of COVID-19 in Black populations, such as how pulse oximeter readings are less valid for pigmented skin, and how some populations experienced racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 treatment. Provide students with resources, like those that are linked throughout this article, that explain how race is a social construct and not biologically based. These can lead to reflection writings or classroom discussions regarding biology and race. Health disparities are driven by racism not race, and guided discussions can help students see this in the world in which they live, so that they can be a part of the solution moving forward.

Tackling Eugenics in the Classroom

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines eugenics as the practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations (as by sterilization) to improve the population’s genetic composition. Steven A. Farber, Ph.D., a biologist in the Department of Embriology at the Carnegie Institution for Science, set the stage for the role that U.S. scientists have played in the eugenics movement in his 2008 article on this topic. He began by explaining that Francis Galton, cousin to Charles Darwin, used the term in 1883 in the context of promoting marriages between the “fittest” individuals of society, and the scientific enterprise endorsed the concept with establishment of the Eugenics Records Office (1918-1935) to study Galton’s ideas. While these dates seem a long time ago, the work by Saini (author of Superior: The Return of Race Science) shows that these eugenics-themed beliefs persist throughout science, biology and genetics today.

When addressing racism and eugenics in the classroom, educators can have students read about these topics and the views of those who have shaped them, then consider how these ideas and individuals have impacted science, both historically and today. Classrooms can be designed to address biology and social justice with case studies and social context within the classroom. If desired, and possible in a curriculum, consider creating whole courses devoted to looking at the interface between science and the public—with the goal of understanding who and how science has been performed throughout history, and considering how it could be more welcoming and ethical.
Focusing on an inclusive design for the classroom curriculum will help drive engagement.
Focusing on an inclusive design for the classroom curriculum will help drive engagement.
Source: iStock

Moving Forward

Pursuing science decolonization in the classroom is part of the solution. The following is a useful definition of science decolonization in education. (Exerpt taken from a commentary by Caroline E.H. Dessent, et al., published in the Journal of Chemical Education in 2022): “In the broadest sense, decolonization involves identifying colonial systems, structures and relationships, and working to challenge them. For the field of science, it suggests that we should question our understanding of science as something that grew solely from the discoveries of a series of famous, western individuals. Instead, we should recognize that there are colonial roots in science that can arise from both commerce and imperialism. The aim of ‘decolonizing the sciences’ is therefore to develop a more complete scientific perspective that better includes global voices.”

Science has been recorded, taught and curated through largely white, western and cis-male lenses, which have influenced what is counted as scientific knowledge and the basis of some mathematical systems. Unfortunately, science has been a gatekeeper of knowledge that stifles other approaches and voices. One doesn’t have to be overtly racist or sexist to be part of the problem. When oppression is institutionalized, individuals themselves don’t have to be oppressive. Individuals reinforce and perpetuate the system when they are a part of it and are compliant with it, even when they may not have deliberately thought about it or intend harm. This current system has been shaped by scientific racism and eugenics, and will continue to be so, if systems are left unchecked and unchallenged.

Strategic anti-racism measures are needed to move beyond this system of science. Within classrooms, there is value in moving beyond standardized testing whenever possible, as some standardized tests have historically been shown to be biased in their questions, and such standardized tests were originally designed with ill-intent by those with beliefs in eugenics and science gatekeeping. 

These considerations extend past the field of microbiology to science broadly, as scientists and systems within each scientific discipline have contributed to racism, scientific racism and eugenics in society today, and therefore need to actively and specifically address these topics within their practices to move forward. Science isn’t an objective space, and scientists and educators should consider what and who it has excluded, and at what costs, to move forward in a specifically anti-racist and inclusive manner.

A number of articles related to the general topic of social justice, equity and inclusive science classrooms have been published through ASM. Interested in writing an article related to DEI in STEM? We are always looking for new volunteer writers and we want to hear from you!

Author: Amy J. Reese, Ph.D.

Amy J. Reese, Ph.D.
Amy J. Reese, Ph.D., is an associate professor of biology at the University of Health Sciences & Pharmacy in St Louis.