Racist Attitudes and the Global South

When Jenny Horne, a white Republican representative from a town near Charleston, stepped up to the podium this week to address the House of Representatives in South Carolina, her words contributed a passionate moment in the debate that eventually led lawmakers to vote to remove the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds. “I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body,” she said while attempting hold back tears, “to do something meaningful, such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday.” Referring to the tragic June 17 shootings that killed nine African-American members of a Bible study at a Charleston church, Horne aimed her words directly at house representatives concerned with preserving the historical semblance of the Confederate flag.  “Enough about heritage,” she proclaimed towards flag supporters. When the emotional debate ended early Thursday, the House voted 94-20 to pass the bill to remove the flag.

The events that led to the landmark decision in South Carolina mark another episode in the long history of the American civil rights movement. The racialized treatment of non-whites in the United States predates the birth of the nation. Spawned from European attitudes that created the “Global South,” colonists believed biological differences might exist between persons of varying skin pigmentation. British attitudes from the seventeenth to nineteenth century suggested the Indian climate had made its inhabitants weak and ripe for conquest by a superior racial group that had been born and strengthened out of the harsh weather of northern Europe. Europeans from Britain viewed Indians as unequal but complimentary opposites. The dominant conception of the human body held that it was capable of adaptation to new environments, but a theory of race did not exist. Still, Europeans place Indians below whites on a racialized hierarchy. Such attitudes spread throughout the globe as the European empire grew. As a result, colonization took hold and non-whites in many parts of the world were subjected to racialized modes of European thought.

Settler societies in North America were established under this very precedent, and many whites thought it their civil duty either “control” or “help” persons they considered biologically and culturally inferior. Such attitudes enabled the Atlantic slave trade and provided false justification for the racialized treatment of non-Europeans, the roots of which still impact today. White scientists in the United States even went so far as to administer radioactive tracers to Indigenous persons in the mid-1950s, in an attempt to prove scientifically a biological difference between whites and non-whites. The government funded experiments to study the role of the thyroid gland in acclimatization of humans to cold. Scientists used Iodine 131, a radioactive medical tracer to measure thyroid activity in 102 Alaskan “Eskimos and Indians” as well as 19 military personnel.

The American scientists that conducted the work hypothesized that hyperthyroidism was intrinsically connected to biological cold-fighting properties in the human body. The notion received diverse attention in the contemporary scientific community, but ethical questions regarding the selection process of the participants and the associated medical risks of the research led to a public inquiry in the 1990s. After hearing testimony from medical scientists and persons directly involved in the study, the committee heading the inquiry published a report that described the shocking details behind what was a gross disregard for human life. News of the experiments made international headlines and further advanced the Indigenous rights movement south of the North American border.

When read more than fifty years following its conclusion, the acclimatization research administered on Indigenous persons in the United States (and other Western countries) represents a gauche symbol of science in the Cold War. The research assumed that human testing might produce civilian as well as military applications, and ethical issues concerning the use of human beings did not deeply penetrate the scientific or medical discourse. The studies contributed to a popular and growing area of environmental scientific inquiry and unlike many of the chemical and biological weapons tests that occurred during the same period, acclimatization research was not highly restricted or classified. A number of acclaimed scientists and doctors received support from state and academic institutions to conduct the research and publish the findings in reputable scholarly journals. When the studies failed to yield practical results science moved on and the experimental work gradually faded from relevance. Yet the survival of medical papers, unpublished reports, defence records, and other oral testimonies have made it possible for historians to investigate the underlain purpose of the research and contextualize the studies in accordance to the perceived scientific intent. It’s clear that racialized perceptions of biology produced and perpetuated illusory notions of science well into the twentieth century.

It’s important to remember that persons subjected to racialized European perceptions remained active in contemporary relations. Although it’s easy to overlook the agency of persons subjected to racism in history, we must be careful not to overstate narratives of victimization. Although the processes of colonization often excluded non-white forms of social behaviour and often silenced cross-cultural dialogue, those same processes did not prevent non-whites from maintaining distinct sociocultural patterns.  Cultural diversity is today widely recognized, accepted and celebrated. But humans have always lived in variation, even in the face of extreme racism. Racialized attitudes have not and will not weaken the resolve of those who recognize and push for equality – at all levels of society – past and present.