Bleeding science dry: the history of scientific racism and blood

Matthew Casas
Kansas City, United States

 

Poster for the Red Cross, known for blood donation

Help the Red Cross. U.S. Food Administration. Educational Division. Advertising Section. 1917 – 1919. National Archives Catalog, identifier 512661.

One might be familiar with the expression “We All Bleed Red.” But what exactly does blood have to say about our “humanity”? Ripe with good intention, the aforementioned mantra represents a campaign to promote peace by winning over the hearts and minds of those assumed to be unaware of a deeper universal truth. The implication being: if we all bleed red, then why are we all so divided by identity politics today?

Historically, blood has been used to promote division and even genocide. So what, in a new era of modernity, could reclaim blood as a symbol for unity? Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a framework that may be used to connect the dots between the history of scientific racism and the history of blood science, policies, and programs. In a broad sense, critical theorists are concerned with how we come to understand and (re)produce knowledge (i.e. methodology), and advance complex theories and subjects (i.e. substance).1 CRT is unique is its ability to uncover and overcome the ways in which race and racism affect people of color as individuals and groups via institutional and systemic means that may otherwise go largely unnoticed.2 As a theoretical framework and analysis tool, CRT can benefit population health research, organizational systems, and our own personal understanding of topics that may otherwise be regarded as messy, uncomfortable, and to be avoided.3

Dylann Roof murdered nine black worshipers in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. He stated on his internet manifesto:

“Anyone who thinks that White and black people look as different as we do on the outside, but are somehow magically the same on the inside, is delusional . . . Negroes have lower IQ’s, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels . . . a recipe for violent behavior.”4

Contrary to his manifesto, modern DNA science shows that humans “share about 99.9 percent of their DNA with each other,” while “outward physical characteristics such as hair texture and skin color . . . occupy just a tiny portion of the human genome.”5

Why has modern science been unable to contradict the “scientifically” racist motivations that underscored the shooting in Charleston?

Scientific racism can be understood as “the spread of bogus theories of black inferiority in an attempt to rationalize slavery and centuries of social and economic domination,” with “self-interested justifications for atrocities against and the oppression of African-Americans [going] back to the 1400s.”6 Clearly, these bogus theories have had long-lasting power. Says award-winning author and historian Ibram X. Kendi: “What black inferiority meant has changed in every generation . . . but ultimately Americans have been making the same case . . . [they] think that there’s such things as black blood and black diseases and that black people are by nature predisposed to dancing and athletics.”7 This surely says more about white racists than it ever could about black people, but it nonetheless remains to be a force to be reckoned with.

Both scientific racism and white liberalism in North America owe a debt to Thomas Jefferson who wrote that “all men are created equal,” but also played a huge role in popularizing racist pseudo-science.8 A decade after he helped write the Declaration of Independence, his 1787 book Notes On the State of Virginia, which among other things justified slavery with scientific racism, was one of the first best-selling books in America. Its theories remained at the table of contemporary science for at least fifty years.9

Jefferson’s livelihood depended on black slavery. He owned 200 slaves throughout his lifetime. His “scientific breakthroughs” about “black inferiority” reinforced the business-as-usual ideas of white civil society, where racial domination lead to political, economic, and intellectual prosperity.10 Scientific racism was the essential factor in normalizing the enslavement of black people in the United States. It has proven to be just as dangerous today.

Scientific racists have had much to say about the mixing of blood between races, known as miscegenation. The impact of miscegenation from the scientific racist’s point of view was perhaps best articulated by Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Brown in 1869 when he argued in favor of anti-miscegenation laws during Scott vs State, saying: “such connections never elevate the inferior race to the position of the superior, but they bring down the superior to that of the inferior.”11 “Full-blooded white people” were not to tarnish their bloodline with the blood of black people through procreation, for it would supposedly turn whites into a lesser sub-species.

Eugenicists again capitalized on these arguments in the advent of widespread I.Q. testing for soldiers during World War II, stating that miscegenation, by way of the bloodstream, was a threat to the future of the (white) American I.Q., and therefore mankind.12 Whether justified by creationists arguing the first son of man was white, or by scientists who knew what they would find before they began to search for it, the anti-miscegenation movement proved hard to kill.13 The movement continues to a degree, though anti-miscegenation laws officially ended in 1967.14

Scientific racism affected the early years of blood donation and transfusion, as well. During World War II, it was common for black citizens to pour into American Red Cross (ARC) donation centers, ready to donate blood for the many soldiers who desperately needed it, only to be refused.15 Despite the high demand for blood, the lack of scientific justification for blood discrimination, a black scientist named Dr. Charles Drew heading the ARC blood pilot program, and the state-sponsored belief that America was fighting Aryan blood-worship in the form of Nazis, America still refused black donors based on racist conceptions of blood.16 Like all forms of scientific racism, the discrimination was not based on hard facts, but rather reflected the social and political attitudes of the time. As in most civil rights struggles, it took a network of protests to make a change: local black newspapers featured poetry, journalism, and front-page headlines calling attention to blood segregation, and an interracial junior high school even conducted blood tests in the school gym to prove there was no difference between the races.17 The battle against blood segregation was eventually won on a policy level in the 1970s, but the fight to remember lives on.18

Scientific racism continues to take away life and breath in America today. Using a Critical Race Theory approach, we can peel beyond the mantra of “We All Bleed Red” to better understand how scientific racism has dominated the ways in which Americans have historically conceptualized and worked with blood in social, political, and scientific contexts.

That race is a social construct and thus has no conclusive scientific backing does little to thwart the racism and psuedo-scientific theories that often reflect and contribute to the political landscape of our day. For even if we all bleed red, a scientific racist near you may be ready to say otherwise. Only by braving the intellectual wilderness and connecting the dots between scientific racism, pseudo-science, our history, and our present can we truly honor the greater capacity for all people and institutions to change for the better.

 

References

  1. Agger, B., 1991. Critical theory, poststructualism, postmodernism: their sociological relevance. In: W.R. Scott and J. Blake, eds. Annual review of sociology. Vol. 17, Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews, 105–131
  2. Delgado, R. and Stefancic, J., 1993. Critical race theory: an annotated bibliography. Virginia Law Review, 79 (2), 461–516.
  3. Graham, L., Brown-Jeffy, S., Aronson, R., Stephens, C, 2011, Critical race theory as theoretical framework and analysis tool for population health research, Critical Public Health, 21:1, 81-93, DOI: 10.1080/09581596.2010.493173
  4. Bernstein, L., Horwitz, S., Holley, P., Dylann Roof’s racist manifesto: ‘I have no choice’, Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/authorities-investigate-whether-racist-manifesto-was-written-by-sc-gunman/2015/06/20/f0bd3052-1762-11e5-9ddc-e3353542100cstory.html, published: June 20th 2015, accessed: 1/12/2020
  5. Ruane, M, A brief history of the enduring phony science that perpetuates white supremacy, Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-brief-history-of-the-enduring-phony-science-that-perpetuates-white-supremacy/2019/04/29/20e6aef0-5aeb-11e9-a00e-050dc7b82693_story.html, published: April 30th, 2019, accessed: 1/12/2020
  6. Ruane, M, A brief history
  7. Ibid
  8. Sealing, K., Blood Will Tell: Scientific Racism and the Legal Prohibitions Against Miscegenation, 2000, 5 MICH. J. RACE & L., 560-606
  9. Sealing, K., Blood Will Tell, 560-606
  10. Ibid, 560-606
  11. Silverman, R., Blood Group “Fad” in Post-War Racial Anthropology (The), 2000, Kroeber. Anthropological Society Papers vol. 84, 11-27
  12. Silverman, R., Blood Group “Fad,” 11-27
  13. Ibid, 11-27
  14. Ibid, 11-27
  15. 15. Guglielmo, M., Desegregating blood: A civil rights struggle to remember, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/desegregating-blood-a-civil-rights-struggle-to-remember-37480, published: Feb. 12, 2015, accessed: 1/12/2020
  16. Guglielmo, M., Desegregating blood
  17. Ibid
  18. Ibid

 


 

MATTHEW CASAS was the National Parliamentary Debate Association national champion in 2015, the first student from a community college to do so. Today he is a musician and a writer.

 

Winter 2020  |  Sections  |  Blood