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Racism and the Public's Perception of Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Racism and the Public's Perception of Evolution
Author(s): 
Randy Moore, University of Minnesota
Volume: 
22
Issue: 
3
Year: 
2002
Date: 
May–June
Page(s): 
16–18, 23–25
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Daisy Bates's death in November 1999 reminded many people of one of America's most bitter civil-rights struggles: the struggle to integrate public schools. In 1957, Bates helped 9 black students to enter Little Rock's all-white Central High School. Although a federal court had ordered the integration of the school, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus became a white-supremacist folk-hero when he ordered 1200 armed troops to block the black students from entering the school. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly sent in the 101st Airborne to escort the students to class and protect them from the mobs of angry, spitting, rock-throwing whites that had surrounded the school. The students, who became known as "The Little Rock Nine", received Congressional Gold Medals in 1999 in recognition of their courage (Lawrence 2000).

Although the story underlying the integration of Central High School has been told many times, another pivotal struggle that occurred just 7 years later at Central High is often overlooked. That struggle, led by biology teacher Susan Epperson, was to overturn Arkansas's 1928 ban on teaching evolution in public schools (the only such ban passed by popular vote; see Moore 2002a). During the struggle, Governor Faubus was a vocal critic of Epperson, basing his opposition on the same reasoning that he had used to oppose integration: "It's the will of the people." Although Epperson's legal struggle was not explicitly about race, the many links between the anti-evolution crusade and its underlying racial sentiments later became explicit. Indeed, racism has long been an issue in the creationism/evolution debate.

Evolution, Creationism, and Racism

How could evolution be used to support racism? We know that human geographic variants are recently derived and that genetic differences between them are superficial and trivial; there are, to echo the subtitle of Darwin's On the Origin of Species (Darwin 1859), no biologically "favoured races" of humans. Even biological distinctions of races are outmoded, for such distinctions are based not on biology, but on our cultural interpretations of nature (for example, see Gould 1977, 1993). Nevertheless, scientists and others have often used - or, more accurately, misused - evolution to support their racist ideas.

In human phylogeny, for example, some biologists, such as Alexander Winchell (1870, 1880), claimed that whites descended from non-whites, but that whites continued to progress while non-whites did not. As a result of this continued progress, whites became superior to non-whites. Other biologists argued, on the contrary, that non-whites degenerated from whites, and therefore are inferior to whites (see McIver 1994). The constant, of course, was the assumption of white supremacy, which various biologists argued for by considerations of neoteny (see Gould 1977, 1993), cranial capacity (see Stanton 1960), and intelligence (see Gould 1977). None of this supposed evidence for white supremacy has stood up to scientific scrutiny; the state of the art in the evolutionary sciences clearly and overwhelmingly indicates that racism is not scientifically justifiable.

Racist arguments have also been based on creationist beliefs, both scientific (or pseudoscientific) and religious. Before the Civil War, apologists for slavery claimed that the South's "peculiar institution" was sanctioned by the Bible, some adding that the Bible proclaims that blacks and whites do not have a common ancestry. Such claims continued to appear well after Emancipation and into the 20th century (Dickey 1958; Odeneal 1958), bolstered by the flourishing of various individuals and groups that promoted a mix of fundamentalist religious beliefs and racism.

The Ku Klux Klan, perhaps the most influential group to promote racism in the US, also opposes evolution (as the recent movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? depicted). Ironically, although the Klan wants to ban the teaching of evolution, it embraces the crudest form of Social Darwinism to explain and justify its racist ideology. Specifically, the Klan endorses the ideas of many "scientific" racists who claim that genetic differences between races are biological determinants of human actions and human destiny. Anyone who intervenes to remedy these inequalities is condemned as interfering with natural laws (for example, see Lewis 1962).

The Klan gave powerful support to the anti-evolution movement (de Camp 1968). William Jennings Bryan is a case in point. Although he was not a member of the Klan and disliked some of its views (for example, its anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic bigotry), he was "soft on the Klan" because he was "mindful that a host of his followers were just the sort of people who made up the Klan" (de Camp 1968). Bryan endorsed Klansmen in elections (Feldman 1999) and spoke passionately at the 1924 Democratic National Convention against an amendment denouncing the Klan (Alexander 1965; Ashby 1987; Chalmers 1965; Rice 1962). In turn, he received political support from the Klan (Anonymous 1924; de Camp 1968; Mecklin 1926).

In 1925, the Klan became the first national organization to urge that creationism and evolution be given equal time in public schools (see Wade 1987). In the same year, Bryan's participation in the Scopes trial turned it into a major event of international interest. When Bryan died five days after the Scopes trial, the Klan burned crosses in Bryan's memory, eulogizing him as "the greatest Klansman of our time" (Werner 1929). The Klan vowed to take up Bryan's anti-evolution cause, and a defrocked Klan official formed a short-lived rival group called the Supreme Kingdom, "whose primary purpose was carrying on Bryan's crusade against teaching evolution" (Larson 1997).

Although there was no formal connection between fundamentalism and the Klan, both movements appealed to similar people. According to McIver (1994), perhaps as many as 40,000 fundamentalist preachers joined and were active in the Klan. As Mecklin observed, "a fundamentalist would have found himself thoroughly at home in the atmosphere of Klan ceremonies" (1924: 100). Moreover, many of the leading evangelists of the early 20th century were fervent creationists who supported, and were supported by, the Klan (Moore 2001; Wade 1987). William Bell Riley - who founded the World Christian Fundamentals Association and sent Bryan to Dayton to prosecute Scopes - advocated white supremacy as well as a ban on the teaching of evolution. Similarly, evangelist Billy Sunday endorsed the Klan Kreed of white supremacy and bitterly attacked evolution. Bob Jones Sr's revivals were supported financially by the Klan (de Camp 1968). And J Frank Norris linked his attacks on evolution with assertions of the importance of white supremacy, warning his followers that white children would have to attend schools with and be taught by blacks.

Later in the 20th century, as most religious denominations in the US denounced the Klan, Southern Baptists - whose denomination was organized in 1845 as a haven for pro-slavery Baptists - were "unanimously silent on the question of the Klan" (Moore 2002a; Rosenberg 1989). "[A] silent but powerful accessory to the segregation pattern in the South" ([Anonymous] 1958: 1128; see also Rosenberg 1989), the Southern Baptists opposed not only integration and other antiracist efforts, but also the teaching of evolution (Ammerman 1990), denouncing Darwinism as "a soul-destroying, Bible-destroying, and God-dishonoring theory".

Other relatively mainstream institutions in which creationism and racism are intertwined include Bob Jones University, founded by Bob Jones Sr in 1927, two years after the Scopes trial, as "a college with high academic standards; an emphasis on culture; and a down-to-earth, practical Christian philosophy of self-control that was both orthodox and fervent in its evangelistic spirit" (Anonymous 2002a). " Until a massive public-relations problem forced the university to reconsider its policy in 2000, it prohibited interracial dating, which was viewed as "playing into the hand of the Antichrist" by defying God's will regarding God-made differences among the races (Hebel and Schmidt 2000). Today, Bob Jones University - the largest fundamentalist university in America - sells satellite-delivered anti-evolution academic courses (Carr 2000). And its creed contains the phrase "I believe in the creation of man by the direct act of God", which is glossed in a way to preclude any evolutionary interpretation ([Anonymous] 2002b).

Such disturbing hate groups as the Aryan Nations and Christian Identity have inherited the mantle of the Klan. Writing in the revealingly titled Christian Patriot Crusader, one Christian Identity writer asserts that Jews are satanic, that blacks are not human, and that evolution is a "satanically inspired Jewish fable" (Dowsett 1991). Although these are fringe groups, the results of a survey in which a significant percentage of students agreed that "[t]he color of a person's skin depends on whether God favored or punished their ancestors" (Lawson and Worsnop 1992) suggests that their influence may be felt in society at large.

A more thorough analysis of the many historical links between creationism and racism is provided elsewhere (Moore 2001; Shipman 2002).

The Vilification of Evolution

A favorite strategy of creationists has been to vilify evolution. At the Scopes trial, prosecutor William Jennings Bryan warned that "All the ills from which America suffers can be traced back to the teaching of evolution." More recently, Judge Braswell Dean of the Georgia State Court of Appeals stated in 1981 that "This monkey mythology of Darwin is the cause of permissiveness, promiscuity, pills, prophylactics, perversions, pregnancies, abortions, pornotherapy, pollution, poisoning, and the proliferation of crimes of all types" (quoted in Toumey 1994: 94) and in 1999, US House of Representatives Republican Whip Tom DeLay claimed that the teaching of evolution is linked to school violence, birth control, and abortion (Anonymous 1999). As part of this vilification, many creationists blame evolution for racism. For example, Henry Morris - the most influential creationist of the late 20th century - claims that "evolutionism" is satanic and responsible for racism, abortion, and a decline in morality (Morris 1989). Today, creationist organizations such as the Creation Research Science Education Foundation sell posters claiming that evolution leads to racism, Nazism, adultery, infanticide, stealing, murder, drunkenness, and homosexuality. Despite this late-20th-century spin associating evolution to racism, the links between creationism and racism have often been explicit in the fight to integrate public schools. Not all anti-evolutionists in the South opposed integration, but many did; for these people, banning the teaching of evolution was part of a heroic campaign to save "The Southern Way of Life" from race-mixers and atheists, who were equally evil in Dixie demonology (Irons 1988). These links were obvious when Susan Epperson challenged the Arkansas anti-evolution statute in the 1960s (Epperson v Arkansas; see Moore 2002a).

The Lessons of Epperson v Arkansas

In 1965, Susan Epperson was a young biology teacher at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. She was deeply troubled by the fact that it was against the law for her to teach evolution, despite the fact that evolution is biology's unifying principle. Much of the mail that she received regarding her case was supportive; for example, John Roberts wrote to her on December 9, 1965: "I hope you win your case because students should know the truth." Yet despite issuing a statement affirming her Christianity, Epperson was attacked by many people as antireligious. Central High School, the site of racial turmoil in the late 1950s, was still seething with racism when she announced that she would test the state's anti-evolution law (Moore 2002a).

Many of her correspondents misunderstood evolution, as evidenced by a letter, dated January 20, 1966, which argued "Now, if man came from monkey, it seems the monkey would be no more. Or, else monkeys would still be having men and men giving birth to monkeys." Similarly, in a letter dated March 15, 1966, a correspondent claimed:
There is absolutely no foundation whatsoever for the belief in evolution ... People still produce people, cats produce a cat, dogs a dog, birds a bird, monkeys a monkey, etc. ... I beg of you to get down on your knees and cry out to God to give you wisdom and understanding.
Others used personal attacks to express their concerns about what evolution meant for their attractiveness and ego:
... if you want to claim relation to the ugly apes go right ahead ... ( undated letter)
Having seen your picture it is easy to understand why you would want to argue and teach that you evolved from this lineage. (undated letter)
You go right ahead Mrs Epperson and teach the ugly theory of evolution - because from the way you looked on TV, it could be true that man and woman did evolve from apes (letter dated, April 2, 1966, emphasis in original).
No wonder you want Arkansas to let you teach evolution in school; to look at you and your old Dad anyone would think you and he both started from a big old baboon. He looks like one and you look like a tailless monkey. ... America needs Bible teachers, not things like you. I pity your Mother for giving birth to such a girl. (anonymous and undated letter, Wichita Falls TX)
Others, though, apparently fearing that Epperson was an intellectual carpetbagger intent on forcing a new type of academic reconstruction on Arkansas's public schools, connected evolution with antiracism. The link was pointed out explicitly in an editorial entitled "Arkansas begins fight for freedom to teach" that appeared in The Ohio State Lantern on January 21, 1966:
And as for [Governor] Faubus - who used National Guard troops to prevent integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1958 - he probably finds the theory [of evolution] distasteful because, among other reasons, it implies that Negroes and Caucasians came from the same ancestor
The antiracism implications of evolution upset many people. Here's a portion of an anonymous letter to Epperson dated December 9, 1966:
If ... them cocoanut-heads [sic] up there want to believe there [sic] foreFathers [sic] are monkeys, apes, or gorillas, its [sic] OK, but don't let them shove it down our throat like Johnson did the Civil Rights law ... If I was a teacher, the first nigger that walked in my classroom I would walk out ... and don't think I wouldn't.
A similar link between racism and Epperson's lawsuit was made in a letter to Epperson dated May 1, 1966:
I can imagine, you refer to the Negroes ... One of many things [that] makes me mad at the Welfare Department. Pays Negroes to increase their population by leaps and bounds... [If] this actually enters court, it will sure scramble the Civil Rights Bill, I hope.
Others made more subtle, yet equally revealing, statements about the link they assumed between racism and evolution. For example, one letter writer closed his "Easter Sunday 1966" missive attacking Epperson with a telling postscript: "P.S. I'm white, too."

History's Lessons

Today, the links between evolution, creationism, and racism often remain explicit. A recent example occurred in April 2001, when Louisiana State Representative Sharon Broome introduced a resolution urging the state legislature to "reject the core concepts of Darwinist ideology" because the writings of Charles Darwin are "racist" and have been used by Hitler and others to justify mass murder and other heinous crimes (Good 2002). Although the Louisiana House Education Committee passed the resolution by a vote of 9 to 5, the Broome resolution was changed on the floor of the House. All references to Darwin and Darwinist ideology were removed, and the final version was simply a resolution to end racism and other forms of bigotry in Louisiana public schools (see the discussion in Good 2002).

There is a great irony here: creationists originally misused evolution to promote racism, but later vilified evolution as racist. The simple fact remains: there is no "inferior" race; the genetic differences between races are trivial. Neither evolution nor creationism is intrinsically racist, but both have been used to support racist ideas. Many creationists have denounced racism, but others continue to promote racism as part of their ideology.

Why do the links among evolution, creationism, and racism persist? Although the blatant racism of creationists such as Billy Sunday, J Frank Norris, and Bob Jones Sr seems a distant chapter of history, relics of these beliefs persist. Some people link racism with evolution out of ignorance; these misconceptions might be remedied with better teaching about evolution in which we explicitly address "the race question" (See "Why we should teach our students about race", p 25). However, many others have political purposes for vilifying evolution. Indeed, there are few accusations that are as strong and potentially devastating as that of racism, and the branding of evolution (and, by implication, people who support evolution) as "racist" immediately puts advocates of evolution on the defensive. This aspect of the evolution/creationism controversy, like many others, is not about science education; it is about politics and perceptions, and we should not expect this to change. Instead, we should be prepared to address the issue with scientific and historical facts and arguments. By exposing these misconceptions about evolution and racism in our classrooms and elsewhere, we can promote scientific literacy as well as social justice.

Acknowledgment

I thank Susan, Jon, and Elaine Epperson for discussing Epperson v Arkansas with me and for giving me access to their papers.

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About the Author(s): 
Randy Moore
General College
University of Minnesota
128 Pleasant Street SE
Minneapolis MN 55455
rmoore@tc.umn.edu