400 years and (re)counting

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Science  20 Sep 2019:
Vol. 365, Issue 6459, pp. 1221
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaz4970

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Over centuries of slavery in America, systematic structures were erected to present enslaved people as “the other”—a race apart and less than human—as a way to justify the institution and forestall discussions of its inhumanity and the moral imperative to dismantle it. These efforts included invoking science, as objective arbiter, in support of these viewpoints. Some theories of human origins, for example, espoused by great names of science, reflected attempts to bolster constructs of racial inferiority rather than to advance science. But they did their damage, and we live with their fallout even today. How many of the current challenges in diversifying science are part of this legacy: lack of investment in education; belief in innate capacity to do science (or not); exclusionary teaching practices; tolerance of classroom microaggressions; implicit bias in hiring, and in assessing and valuing work?

This year marks the 400th anniversary of slavery in America, provoking scholarly retrospectives that have considered how central a role the concept of race has played in the course of human affairs, including in science. The ground that has been stirred offers an opportunity for soul searching and reflection, not only about science's past but perhaps, more importantly, about its present and future. Articles have appeared, including in Science, revealing some of the scientific and medical advances associated with slavery, such as the natural history collections derived from the transatlantic slave trade where Africans were shipped to the Americas as enslaved people whose labors became a driving force of the economies of the European colonies, or the cruel experimentation on enslaved women in the history of gynecology.

It is difficult to tell these stories or to read them, especially for those who are both descendants of these enslaved people and members of the science community. The marginalization continues today, long after the legal end of the institution. Outcomes manifest themselves as statistics documenting inequality and limited opportunity within and beyond the United States, such that, in the United Kingdom in 2018, blacks and other minorities comprised less than 1% of professors in higher education institutions.

But the lens of science has also provided a powerful tool to help reframe the narrative of exclusion: race as social construct rather than biological reality; stereotype threat as self-fulfilling and reversible; lack of opportunity rather than lack of capacity. Sadly, the damage continues. How much of this legacy is represented (through the inherited trauma of epigenetic changes) in health disparities—poor disease outcomes; differential maternal and infant mortality for blacks and whites, independent of socioeconomic levels—or in wealth and income inequality? It is time to use scholarship to uncover the deeply rooted structures that science helped reinforce.

Even while acknowledging blanket complicity, beyond science there is a powerful social infrastructure in laws and tolerance of behaviors that holds inequalities in place, and possibly more on the horizon such as artificial intelligence which, as a tool that relies on historical information, promises to deliver old discriminatory wine in new algorithmic bottles, cloaked in the black boxes of proprietary models.

Continued inequality should not be an inevitable legacy of America's past. Diverse perspectives and convergent scholarship can be applied to build an understanding from the history of biological and political theories, and from the social and cultural traditions that fuel today's system of inequality.

Even if the political will should arise to take on the grand challenge of creating a system of opportunity for all, different institutional structures would be needed to begin the hard work: diverse participants, perspectives, fields, and practices; un-siloed, solution-focused, non-partisan discussions; and governance by a search for truth and reconciliation. The United States needs a map that points the way to unpacking and dismantling the infrastructure of social inequality that was unleashed when slavers docked in Virginia 400 years ago.

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