Phrenology was a pseudoscience that aimed to study the size and shapes of skulls in order to determine one’s mental abilities, or lack thereof (Real Archaeology, 2017). This “science” was welcomed in the early 1800’s but it has since been refused by most scientists for at least the past 50 or 60 years. Even though we may reject it now, phrenology was used to confirm many racist beliefs in the 1800s and those beliefs are embedded in our society. There are similar affects with eugenics.
The eugenics movement began a bit later than phrenology, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The goal of eugenics was to improve the human race and protect those with “racial purity” through human breeding processes (Goodman, Moses, & Jones, 2012). Phrenology was used as “proof” that whites were superior to non-whites. Eugenics was sold as a practice to keep whites “pure” and slowly wean out the rest. Both phrenology and eugenics work hand by hand to instill the inferiority of whites into every element of society – institutions, laws, customs, values.
Both have also been used as reason to continue with racist practices and laws. Phrenology was used to defend racist laws, particularly as the United States was struggling at the time to justify slavery (Real Archaeology). Phrenology was also used against Native Americans. Western settlers cited the science when there were arguments or hostile interactions with Native Americans. Backed by phrenology, Westerners were told that Native Americans were of a different species and their minds were different (and lesser) than those of whites, all based on skull shapes. Eugenics was used as a tool just the same. With the objective of a pure and superior race, eugenics was used as the justification of anti-miscegenation laws (Goodman et al., 2012). This meant the breeding of people not of each other’s “racial types” was illegal and they would be forbidden to marry, cohabitate, or procreate. While it may seem like an outdated law that we have learned and moved on from, it is important to note that all anti-miscegenation laws were not federally overturned until the United States Supreme court decided to do so in 1967. In their own ways, phrenology and eugenics carefully wove fear, hatred, and racial supremacy into the fabric of American society, past and present.
The world has changed so much since phrenology and eugenics were mainstream ideas in the U.S., but our fabric is still the same. That is why we are now facing issues like bias in medicine and environmental racism. Environmental racism is defined as exposure to a variety of pollutants and toxic waste that affect poor communities and communities of color more so than whites (Goodman et al., 2012). It is easy to assume this is a socioeconomic status (SES) issue, but you would be incorrect. Health is molded by race and class. If you are poor and live in a low SES area, you are less likely to have approaches or connections to health care. Thus, you may suffer from treatable diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity. These health conditions affect poor communities of color much more often than they do affluent or white communities (Goodman et al., 2012). This should be our first sign that health relates to both race and class. Unfortunately, if you are both poor and a person of color, there is a double negative affect. Current research shows low-income communities and communities of color must endure a disproportionate amount of nuclear pollution in the United States when compared to affluent and white communities (Jantz, 2018). Further, when these areas are impacted by pollution, the clean-up is much quicker and those responsible likely face more strict penalties.
One cause for environmental racism is housing discrimination and discriminatory zoning. People of color are often victims of this processes and are forced to stay in less desirable, low SES neighborhoods. Housing discrimination leads people of color to occupy less desirable land near polluting industries. Moreover, discriminatory zoning allows private industry to regularly target these neighborhoods specifically for cheap land and low political representation and economic power (Jantz, 2018). Without tough policy and repercussions for those responsible, this issue will continue to occur and likely worsen.
Phrenology and eugenics may seem like concepts of the past, but we are still dealing with their influences in our society every day. Whether it be debunked pseudoscience, or a misinterpretation of the dark side of Darwinism, these former “scientific” findings were used to keep whites superior and keep people of color inferior. It is important we recognize biased science and information, especially when it has been used to heavily impact our values. Without recognizing the harsh reality of where and what science was in the past, we will struggle to create scientific findings in our future that are neutral. Racial bias in medicine and science exists today and needs to be addressed to better combat environmental racism.