Why are African Americans two to four times as likely as white Americans to die from the coronavirus? Ohio state Sen. Steve Huffman mused at a hearing about whether “African Americans or the colored population do not wash their hands as well as other groups? Or wear a mask? Or do not socially distance themselves?” (He was swiftly fired from his day job as an ER doctor.) Rod Dreher of The American Conservative sought the answer in the “extent Black folks all over the country still eat the traditional soul food diet, with lots of grease, salt, pork, sugar, and carbs.”

And Sen. William Cassidy, R-La., was ready with a whole theory about his constituents, one-third of whom are Black: “There’s a physiologic reason,” he told NPR in April. “African Americans are 60 percent more likely to have diabetes. Now, if you look at the (National Institutes of Health) website, that would say that’s for obesity, for genetic reasons, perhaps other things. … I think if you control for diabetes and hypertension, a lot of racial difference (in virus outcomes) would go away,” said Cassidy. “We have to focus on health disparities, but we can’t get distracted by that which is true, perhaps, but unrelated to the problem at hand.”

These thoughts – which duck the topics of historical inequality and sociostructural conditions and their effects on Black health – reflect a bafflingly persistent belief in America: that our society has vanquished racism. Therefore, the only explanation for racial disparity is that Black people must simply be different or choose to act differently. This is the contemporary manifestation of a particular historical pattern of racism, one that examines Black biology and health in an attempt to hold African Americans culpable for their suffering at the hands of white institutional abuse and neglect. These ideas have roots in the 19th-century theories of scientific racism deployed to justify slavery.

A bizarre episode in the life of Frederick Douglass – the fugitive slave who rose to oratorical and abolitionist fame – reveals just how long racialized scientific thinking has plagued Western approaches to health. Douglass spent much of 1846 lecturing throughout the British Isles. He spoke to rowdy public crowds, local abolitionist organizations and English elites in a trans-Atlantic attempt to leverage British anti-slavery sentiment against American slavery. In Scotland, he was received as an exotic but genuinely admired hero. And on June 8 in Edinburgh, he had his head measured.

George Combe, Douglass’ host there, was a renowned theorist and practitioner of phrenology – the now-debunked discipline that classified individuals based on the size and shape of their craniums. Combe was part of a much larger academic trend involving numerous fields that operated under the names ethnology and natural history; these sought to explain and categorize racial difference and capacity. It was no accident that such theories surged as Britain achieved the heights of its global colonial power, relying on scientific justifications of white supremacy. In his diary, Combe recorded an account of his breakfast with Douglass, where it seems he took measurements:

“His head is very high from the ear to Firmness & to Benevolence, and the line forward from the ear is long. The base is full. … Ideality & Wit moderate: The lower ridge & middle perpendicular line of the frontal lobe are large. … The head is well balanced, and his manner is that of a born gentleman, it is soft, quiet, yet firm: His manner of speaking is deliberate, but natural & without embarrassment. His style of language & pronunciation are remarkably fine; and altogether he is a very interesting man … one cannot realize his having been born & reared in slavery.”

Whether Combe produced his phrenological instruments and measured Douglass’ head while they sipped tea, or made surreptitious mental notes about his guest, is unclear. But here was a white man with a claim to scientific and institutional authority examining the body of a Black man, seeking to situate Douglass in a wider landscape of stratified racial difference. Combe enjoyed Douglass’ company but couldn’t see this Black man for who and what he was, a breathing intellectual refutation – rather than a subject – of racial science.

Combe was far from pro-slavery, and experience made him a kind of abolitionist. He had visited the United States and stayed in Baltimore in 1839, less than a year after Douglass escaped from slavery in the same city. Combe was repulsed by what he saw of slavery. He recorded the horror he felt “placing myself in their stead” and imagining being sold on the auction block. Yet he reported from the United States that “the African has been deprived of freedom and rendered ‘property’ … because he is by nature a tame man, submissive, affectionate, intelligent, and docile. … In both (Africans and Native Americans), the brain is inferior in size, particularly in the moral and intellectual regions, to that of the Anglo-Saxon race, and hence the foundation of the natural superiority of the latter over both.” To this scientist, slavery was unambiguously immoral, but it was also explainable; Black people were biologically predisposed to hold a subservient place in a predominantly white society.

There was something tragic about Combe. He found slavery morally repugnant. Yet he was so wedded to his racialized, pseudoscientific worldview that he was unable and unwilling to reassess it. His system for understanding the world took priority over his moral convictions. And thus it has always been with assumptions that originate from racism.

That problem lives on. Too many still explain away the racial disparity of the pandemic’s impact in a way that ignores the reality: tens of thousands of our neighbors and fellow citizens dead because our systems and institutions put them at higher risk and refused to aid them adequately in a moment of national peril. If we give in to the urge to stratify society and blame vulnerable populations, we are committing Combe’s error. We will feel a moral imperative to act, but our efforts may be stymied by flimsy reasoning and lingering racial prejudice.

Eight years after his breakfast with Combe in Edinburgh, Douglass delivered an extraordinary commencement speech at Western Reserve College in Ohio titled “The Claims of the Negro, Ethnologically Considered.” The abolitionist demonstrated the depth of his reading in the works of many racial scientists, including Combe, one of only two he mentioned somewhat favorably. He took on the greatest figures in this respected field and fairly demolished their theories as “scientific moonshine.” Douglass warned in quite modern terms against using biology to fashion differences between groups of people. It was “a mortifying proof … that the moral growth of a nation, or an age, does not always keep pace with the increase of knowledge.”

In a passage that Huffman, Dreher, Cassidy and millions more Americans would do well to read, Douglass took on the issue of blame. “Pride and selfishness,” he said, “combined with mental power, never want for a theory to justify them – and when men oppress their fellow men, the oppressor ever finds, in the character of the oppressed, a full justification for his oppression.” In the middle of the 19th century, when an overpowering theory of racism lay at the roots of the enslavement of African Americans, Douglass had the temerity to warn across time that humankind is not stratified on “a sliding scale.” By his logic, no one – scientist, politician or voter – can find in subjugated peoples a just explanation for that subjugation.

We no longer measure heads, but we are still engaged in the centuries-old task of making equality out of pluralistic, common humanity. But racialized ideologies seeking to stratify the American people continue to plague us, and they are advanced in high places. Thankfully, the tens of thousands of human beings in our streets now are their newest refutation, and the hope of our species.


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