[News] Black Protest, White Backlash, and the History of Scientific Racism

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Oct 5 14:28:58 EDT 2016


  Black Protest, White Backlash, and the History of Scientific Racism

            *Co-Authored by Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer -
            October 5, 2016

/“Mainstream culture…defines threats to racial order as a form of 
madness that is, still, overwhelmingly located in the minds and bodies 
of black [people].” –Jonathan Metzl/

On September 28th, television host Bill Maher tweeted that 
“#colinkapernick [sic] is a f**king idiot 
after the 49ers quarterback voiced his disappointment with both Donald 
and Hillary Clinton on the basis that their campaigns are “trying to 
debate who is less racist 
Maher’s choice of invective has proven popular among those who 
disapprove of Colin Kaepernick’s critique of white supremacy 

Delegitimizing black protest by labeling its expressions as “idiocy” is 
not new. Since the very invention of the ideology of race, white people 
have struggled to accept black social protest on its own terms. Instead, 
white people have often marshaled the language of science to attribute 
black resistance to various forms of derangement, stupidity, and 
psychosis in an effort to delegitimize its critique of white supremacy. 
In fact, the endurance of white supremacy rests in its ability to 
construct, define, and police the boundaries of black pathology in the 
very moments in which it perceives deep challenges to its stability and 
legitimacy. When black protest threatens white supremacy, white 
“science” steps in.

The history of pathologizing black resistance to white oppression has 
its roots in the practice of U.S. slavery. Nineteenth century medical 
diagnoses, for instance, often reflected white slave-holding interests 
in the context of black protest and revolt. In 1851, Samuel A. 
Cartwright, a New Orleans physician and Confederate loyalist, published 
his “Report on the Disease and the Physical Peculiarities of the Negro 
Race <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3106t.html>” in which he 
argued that high rates of physical and mental illnesses afflicting black 
persons were products of the supposed biologically inferior mental 
capacity of the “black race.”

In this report, Cartwright introduced what he called “Drapetomania,” 
known as the “Disease Causing Slaves to Run Away.” He claimed that 
Drapetomania was curable except in “slaves [who are] located on the 
borders of a free State, within a stone’s throw of the abolitionists.” 
Interestingly, Cartwright offered no explanation as to why these 
particular enslaved black communities could not be “cured” of their 
“mental “illness” and thereby continued to flee northward toward 
freedom. While “kindness”—keeping one’s property well-fed, clothed, 
providing enough fuel to keep the enslaved warm at night, and so 
forth—was the prescribed antidote to the “disease,” Cartwright 
nonetheless warned that “if any one or more of them, at any time, are 
inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or 
overseer…they should be punished until they fall into [a] submissive 
state….’” Cartwright, in other words, viewed Drapetomania as a mental 
“illness” that could be beaten out of those who resisted enslavement.

In the immediate aftermath of slavery, everyone from physicians to 
scholars and politicians sought to explain the supposed high-rates of 
diseases, most notably tuberculosis, among black communities. According 
to historian Tera Hunter 
“Race handicapped affluent blacks because they could not withstand the 
excessive ‘mental strain’ necessary to emulate the ‘higher degree of 
civilization’ and good health of ‘the better class of their white 
neighbors.’” The “diseases” of black communities were therefore the 
black bodies physically breaking down because they could not handle the 
responsibilities of freedom.

In the early twentieth century, black resistance was described as 
disease through the eugenics discourse of idiocy. Terms such as “idiot” 
and “moron” emerged to classify those unfit for civic life and to 
justify deportation, institutionalization, or sterilization. Both terms 
were used to police the project of white (Anglo, Nordic) race preservation.

The terms “idiot” and “moron” entered into our nation’s lexicon in 1910. 
At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of the 
Feeble-Minded, held in May of that year, racial eugenicist Henry Goddard 
proposed a taxonomic system—“idiot-imbecile-moron”—for classifying 
individuals with “mental retardation” based on an intelligence quotient 
(IQ). Goddard ascribed the term “idiot” to those with a mental age of 
less than three years. Moreover, he applied the term “imbecile” to those 
with a mental age of 3 to 7. A “moron,” in Goddard’s estimation, was 
best reserved for those with a mental age of 7 to 10. All three terms 
fell under the broad category of “feeble-mindedness.” Goddard’s typology 
also corresponded with precise IQ ranges:

    0-29 = idiot

    30-49 = imbecile

    50-69 = moron

In 1917, Goddard was tapped to serve on the U.S. Army’s Alpha and Beta 
Testing Team, a research body that conducted intelligence tests on over 
1.7 million soldiers. A few years later, Goddard and his team published 
the results in their book,/Psychology Examining in the United States 
Whereas Goddard and his cohort found that 47 percent of whites from 
southern and eastern European countries could be classified as morons, 
they alleged that 89 percent of black soldiers fell into the same category.

But the timing of the report’s publication is curious especially given 
the prominent role black veterans played in resisting white lynch mob 
violence in the immediate aftermath of the war. In 1919, whites who were 
upset by black migration from the rural south to the urban north began a 
lynching campaign 
of near-historic proportions. According to the Library of Congress, at 
least 76 black Americans were lynched that year alone.

In the war’s immediate aftermath black veterans were often at the 
forefront of these violent confrontations. During the bloody “Red Summer 
<http://www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow/stories_events_red.html>” of 1919 in 
Chicago, Washington D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas and again three years 
later in Tulsa, Oklahoma demobilized black veterans used their combat 
experience and tactical and organizational knowledge to resist 
oppression in their communities. Alleging that 89 percent of black 
soldiers—and therefore black veterans—were morons, one can argue, served 
as a way of undermining their resistance to lynch mobs and the 
destruction of black communities.

The delegitimization of black protest was again on display in 1968 at 
the height of the Black Power era when eminent psychiatrists Walter 
Bromberg and Frank Simon dreamed up a diagnosis—“protest psychosis”—that 
described Black power as a form of “delusional anti-whiteness.” Four 
years later, in “Symbolism in Protest Psychosis 
they forcefully described that malady as “a psychotic illness with 
strong elements of racial hostility and black nationalism [that entails] 
the release of previously repressed anti-white feelings, which combine 
with African ideology and beliefs.” In short, “[the illness is oriented 
toward] reversing the white supremacy tradition or stating an objection 
to the accepted superiority of white values in terms of an African 

During the same period, and in keeping with Bromberg and Simon’s thesis, 
the idea of schizophrenia shifted from a condition historically 
associated with “white feminine docility” to that of “angry black 
masculinity.” In his compelling text, /The Protest Psychosis: How 
Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease/ 
Dr. Johnathan Metzl demonstrated how schizophrenia’s new clinical 
parameters were signaled in the second edition of the Diagnostic and 
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published in 1968. 
Schizophrenia, he argued 
was reorganized as a “disorder of masculinized belligerence” through the 
language of hostility and aggression. According to Metzl 
the diagnosis “mirrored the social context of its origins in ways that 
enabled users to knowingly or unknowingly pathologize protest as mental 
illness [or cognitive deficiency].”

Contemporary attempts to delegitimize black protest as “idiocy” reflects 
the scientific discourse of pathology that has been evident in white 
critiques of black resistance for decades 
<http://apa.nyu.edu/hauntedfiles/about/timeline/>. Arguing that black 
protest is grounded in derangement, stupidity, and psychosis is 
precisely what allows white people to sidestep the actual content of 
black activists’ demands.

Perhaps we can begin to understand and to respect black resistance by 
affirming that Colin Kaepernick is not an idiot; that black veterans 
fighting lynch mobs were not morons; that enslaved men and women who ran 
away were not diseased; and that the unwavering demand to be regarded as 
“fully human” in the eyes of the state does not signal a psychotic 
break. To the contrary, black protest, in all its forms, fundamentally 
challenges white supremacy and affirms blackness as fundamental to the 
fabric of our democratic society in the making.


*Christopher Petrella* <http://www.christopherfrancispetrella.net/> is a 
Lecturer in American Cultural Studies at Bates College. His work 
explores the intersections of race, state, and criminalization. He 
completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of 
California, Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @CFPetrella 

*Justin Gomer* <https://csulb.academia.edu/JustinGomer/>is an Assistant 
Professor of American Studies at California State University, Long 
Beach. His work centers on race and representation in the post-civil 
rights era. He completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the 
University of California, Berkeley.

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