Reading genes in black and white

Last month Florida State University exploded when a soft-spoken psychology professor claimed he had evidence proving blacks intellectually inferior.

Published April 26, 1999 1:29PM (EDT)

Glayde Whitney doesn't want to hear about racism. More to the point, the tenured Florida State behavioral geneticist doesn't want to hear himself once again called a hateful, loathsome, obnoxious white supremacist who should be lined up and shot. He is offended. Just because he wrote the foreword to David Duke's new book, "My Awakening," in which he claimed that blacks on average have lower intelligence, more natural aggression and higher testosterone levels -- all factors that predispose them to murder -- doesn't mean he's a racist. Quite the contrary: He's a scientist.

"Races are different for many genetic systems that influence everything from behavior and psychology to physiology, medicine and sports," states Whitney in an e-mail interview. "Screaming nasty words does not change the reality."

That others have found Whitney's words worse than nasty isn't surprising. In the foreword to "My Awakening," he calls Republican congressional candidate and former Klansman Duke "a Moses-like prophet" and warns that disregarding Duke's prophecies amounts to "toying with a path that leads to another Dark Age."

Recently Whitney made the rare switch from research on the genetics of sensory system function in mice -- research that is safe, generally, from politics and emotion -- to the study of racial genetics in humans. After several years studying what he claims are genes for IQ, impulsiveness, aggression and testosterone count in different races, the professor released data indicating blacks and whites are, at their core, different. Yet in defending his work he argues that in pointing out such racial distinctions, he is not betraying prejudice, but offering information that might even help African-Americans improve their lives through better recourse to medicine. As an example, he cites the fact that black men's higher incidence of prostate cancer has not been sufficiently publicized because certain people consider it politically incorrect to acknowledge that black men have generally higher levels of testosterone, a hormone often associated with aggression.

Ironically, just before the Whitney story broke, Black Enterprise magazine ranked Florida State as one of the top 50 schools for African-American students. Roughly 20 percent of FSU's 30,000 students claim minority status, and the number of black students has steadily risen over the last five years.

The publication of Duke's book launched a torrent of criticism from the campus and from local newspapers. "If students want to learn about racism, they need not spend hours in the midst of dusty library bins," a columnist for the Tampa Tribune wrote. "Why, they need only drop in on the Mr. Chips of Chintzy Science for a master class on high dudgeons and blow-dried dragons." At a university forum, nearly 300 concerned students and faculty members expressed their outrage. Some demanded the professor's resignation.

"Florida State University is no place," black studies professor William Jones said, "for those who make a learning environment hostile."

But after carefully distancing themselves politically, university administrators concurred with Whitney's claim of academic freedom.

"I find [Whitneys] opinion obnoxious; I find it entirely wrong," President Sandy D'Alemberte said at the forum. "But, if there's any place in our society that deserves to have robust free speech, it's the university."

Florida State seems to have granted Whitney little more than license; in the faculty lounge of his psychology department, forgiveness is nowhere in sight. According to department chairman Robert Contreras, angry e-mails circulate through the department daily.

For his part, Whitney characterizes the recent flurry of media controversy over his ideas as "little more than hysterical name-calling and hate-mongering." After recent events, he says his working definition of racism is that of "Alien Nation" author Peter Brimelow: "Today a racist is anyone who is winning an argument with a liberal."

"The dust hasn't settled," Contreras said. "There are a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of anger."

For many, the dust isn't even close to settling. Trumped by the academic-freedom card, Whitney's opposition refocused its efforts to oust the professor. Critics -- mainly columnists for several Florida newspapers -- claimed that any professor with views such as Whitney's would surely discriminate against blacks in the classroom. Contreras surveyed the teacher evaluations written by Whitney's students and reluctantly reported otherwise.

"I've never had any complaints about his grading," Contreras said. "But I have been concerned about what students get out of his course."

Others looked to Whitney's funding. In addition to concern over his publicly financed salary, critics were shocked that FSU had channeled an $87,700 grant to Whitney in July from the controversial Pioneer Fund, a conservative foundation known for its racist ties. Between 1971 and 1992, Pioneer gave more than $10 million to behavioral scientists whose research lent support to racist ideas and eugenics organizations. More recently, the fund has helped pass anti-immigrant legislation such as California's Proposition 187. Whitney's grant was designated for the study of "behavior genetics in human affairs."

It isn't surprising that a professor who holds Whitney's views should ignite controversy. What is surprising, when you look deeper, is how Whitney even got anyone to listen. After all, it was more than a year ago that Washington University biology professor Alan R. Templeton argued persuasively that, biologically, race doesn't exist in humans. Templeton's analysis of millions of genetic sequences in human DNA demonstrated that most of our genetic variation occurs on an individual level, rather than between populations. While some genetic differences do exist between human populations, these do not define historical lineages in the way popular conceptions of race suggest.

"Race is a real cultural, political and economic concept in society, but it is not a biological concept," Templeton writes, "and that unfortunately is what many people wrongfully consider to be the essence of race in humans -- genetic differences."

Washington University anthropology professor and American Anthropologist magazine editor Robert W. Sussman, Ph.D., echoed Templeton's analysis. "The folk concept of race in America is so ingrained as being biologically based and scientific that it is difficult to make people see otherwise," he wrote in the magazine. "We live on the one-drop racial division -- if you have one drop of black or Native American blood, you are considered black or Native American, but that doesn't cover one's physical characteristics."

Whitney's research is discredited on other fronts as well. Much of the support for his most provocative argument, that blacks are predisposed to murder, stems from a glaring and simple error. According to Tim Lambert, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales, who has researched Whitney's figures, Whitney misquotes the numbers from a table of homicide rates in the 1992 United Nations Demographic Yearbook, allowing himself to argue that the rate for whites in the United States is not significantly higher than in Europe. In fact, it is much higher, a fact that suggests that the difference is due to environmental factors rather than genetics.

In addition to overlooking dozens of post-"Bell Curve" IQ and genetics studies, Whitney's own IQ data comes from a fundamental procedural error. His sample group of blacks, which had a mean IQ of roughly 94 and a standard deviation of 15 or 16, was hardly a typical U.S. population, by most accounts. A task force of scholars convened by the American Psychological Association to investigate Whitney's claims found no support for the assertion that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites.

Despite this persuasive scholarship, one might wonder how the physical component of race can be a complete mirage. Is it not true that some races tend to have different hair characteristics than others, different susceptibility to certain diseases and a greater tendency toward a particular blood type?

"If you looked at the DNA of a 'white' man from Florida, you might find large amounts of his DNA which are identical to a black man in Africa," says Dr. Michael Escamilla, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "Since he's white, his 'melanin level' gene is probably different than the black man in Africa's -- but since there are several genes involved in the expression of melanin in the skin, even then, some of those genes may be identical and only one is different."

So while there is indeed no biological definition of race, there are variations in DNA that occurred when the human race multiplied and evolved in geographic isolation. These variations explain the differences we detect between races.

As researchers point out Whitney's errors and the smoke at FSU slowly clears, a second story surfaces. Beneath the ostensibly anecdotal tale of a lone racist professor lurks the more unsettling suggestion of a movement. Follow a link or two from Whitney's personal Web page and an extensive community emerges. Race-focused behavioral geneticists clamor to defend the legitimacy of their project. Eugenecists lament that Adolf Hitler gave their vision a bad name. Publishers of so-called scientific journals -- Upstream, Mankind Quarterly, American Renaissance -- assault what they often refer to as "politically correct" taboos in the name of heroic honesty. Like a perverted multiculturalism, people in diverse disciplines rally as one under the flag of intellectual courage, integrity and more white people.

"I am no longer sure what people mean by 'racism.' However, if it means 'supremacism' then the implication of my work is fundamentally different," Whitney said. "I do not deal with prejudice. Rather my positions are the result of many years of study."

It's on a similarly constructed myth of hard scientific evidence that eugenics organizations build their foundation. In "Heredity and Humanity: Race, Eugenics, and Modern Science," Roger Pearson lays the groundwork for a modern eugenics: "Most of those who have sought to suppress human knowledge about heredity have done so with kindly intentions, but sound policies can never be constructed on bad science or unsound data."

After the "embarrassment" of Hitler, proponents of genetic cleansing have gotten savvier about PR. Organization names have been cleaned up, mission statements washed vanilla and political-social agendas buried deeper within the agenda-free objectivity of scientific data. Beyond-the-pale nationalist fervor has shifted into a tasteful appreciation for scientific integrity. Peppered with words like "progressive," "freedom" and "compassion," a rhetoric that almost sounds liberal has replaced the venom of the past. If a hidden agenda suggests itself in this new incarnation, it's the American dream of building a better tomorrow for all people.

It is here, in this realm of slippery words and ambiguous ethics, that both Whitney and his critics fall short of fully embodying their points of view. Whitney won't endorse Duke's segregation plan, suggesting only that his data speaks for itself. Similarly, the liberals inexplicably bite their tongues when it comes to an exacting moral critique of Whitney. Opposition to the professor's message has rarely gone beyond the abstract charges of racism, or pointing out the flaws in his science. While his colleagues speak of concern for "diversity" and "multiculturalism," these ideas have grown as imprecise as they are ardent, and scarcely touch on the more fundamental issues of equality that they originally reflected. Not one newspaper editorial took the time to explain precisely why a society committed to humane values must resist all attempts to divide humanity, regardless of the validity of a scientist's numbers.

If the response to Whitney sounds familiar, it is. When Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein released "The Bell Curve" into its sea of anger and hype, the media was quick to summon the science that would invalidate them. Researchers at schools such as the University of New Orleans have followed in Murray and Herrnstein's footsteps, and received similar rebukes. It's a seductive game, this project of refuting wayward scientists, and the fact that Whitney chose to throw his hat into this ugly ring suggests that the game can continue ad infinitum. New studies get commissioned to counter old studies, and newer studies get commissioned to counter these.

Disproving Whitney's research is useful, but perhaps it only invites the next batch of research from the next racist. Perhaps the more effective response would be an overhaul of America's race consciousness to the point where no genetic research has the power to disrupt lives.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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