The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White supremacy was at the core of 19th-century science. Why that matters today.

The need for American universities to atone for their racist histories

Tamara Lanier attends a news conference near the Harvard Club on March 20 in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Last month, Tamara Lanier, a retired professional from Connecticut, filed a lawsuit against Harvard University over photographs of her enslaved ancestors, taken for the racial scientist and Harvard professor Louis Agassiz during the 1850s.

Lanier accused Harvard of capitalizing on these images of her ancestors, two enslaved people named Renty and Delia, for centuries. In her suit, Lanier asserts that her family should control the rights to the photos, not the university whose racist faculty member commissioned them.

Lanier’s lawsuit draws attention to how universities continue to profit from their past dealings with the slave system. But dig into the history, and this case has even deeper meaning. For Agassiz was more than just a Harvard professor. He was a leading figure in a wildly popular movement that brought together pro- and anti-slavery forces to use science to justify white supremacy.

Agassiz’s beliefs and position in the scientific community expose the central and largely unquestioned role of white supremacy in the history of American science. That history further justifies the need for reparations for slavery and American racism, while underscoring that they are only one part of the reckoning that needs to happen.

While it might be tempting to assume that white-supremacist science held sway only among proslavery advocates in the South, the racist theory of polygenesis — the belief that God created each human “race” as separate species — was the dominant idea in American science when Agassiz, himself an opponent of slavery, commissioned these racist photos in the 1850s.

Before the 19th century, scientists almost unanimously supported monogenesis, the belief that God created all humans as the same species and that climate shaped phenotypical differences like skin color and hair type that supposedly separated races. However, during the first half of the 19th century, scientists increasingly ascribed to polygenesis, believing that not only had God created different races, but also that those races could thrive only in certain climates. (In other words, God created black people for the tropics and white people for temperate zones.)

Agassiz and his cohort occupied some of the most prestigious positions in American science, with polygenists holding professorships at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Louisiana (now Tulane University), among many other institutions.

Likewise, while slavery might have been divisive among white Americans in the 1850s, white supremacy was not. Nothing better illustrated white Americans’ near-universal support of white-supremacist science than when the famed white abolitionist newspaper the Liberator ran an op-ed defending Agassiz for contributing an essay to the proslavery, polygenist tome “Types of Mankind.” Agassiz’s sprawling essay argued that God had ordered the entire animal kingdom (including the supposedly separate human species) around different species’ fitness for specific climates.

The op-ed writer, in turn, argued that while Agassiz’s essay was included in “Types of Mankind,” Agassiz did not defend slavery and should not be held accountable for the proslavery aims of the book. A week later, this writer’s motives for defending Agassiz became clear when, in a harshly critical review of “Types of Mankind,” he revealed his own support for polygenesis. As he put it, “I cannot find reason for believing in the single origin and specific unity of the human genus.”

As the op-eds show, polygenesis was the norm in American science at the time, something believed by scientists as well as many average Americans. This support spanned class lines and cultural boundaries. In addition to the intellectually and politically active readership of the Liberator, at least one bar song was composed in defense of polygenesis and “Types of Mankind.” (The song attacked opponents of polygenesis as religious zealots who opposed scientific progress.)

The end of slavery did nothing to halt the inextricably intertwined nature of science and racism in America. In 1865, just as emancipation was being secured in the United States, Agassiz had more than a hundred photos taken of nude African-descended Brazilians to build support for white supremacy and polygenesis. With slavery in the United States ended, Agassiz’s work became even more critical: In a moment when America’s future regarding race was highly malleable, building a scientific foundation to support continued white supremacy was even more of an imperative.

But scientists like Agassiz weren’t simply motivated by politics. They were also motivated by professional concerns. Agassiz was working at a time when science was in the first throes of professionalization. In 1847, Harvard had appointed him as the founding head of its new Lawrence Scientific School, one of the first graduate schools of science in the United States. Agassiz’s fame as a race scientist and natural historian were significant factors in his employment at Harvard.

The relationship between racism and science, then, was symbiotic. Agassiz and other scientists helped legitimize white supremacy as scientifically ordained, and white supremacy gave science popular appeal at an important juncture when scientists were attempting to define themselves as a coherent and authoritative profession.

Racist scientific ideologies helped build science into the powerful force in American life that it is today. At the same time, these ideologies led to atrocities ranging from Agassiz’s photos to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

The enduring presence of racism in scientific thought demands action on multiple fronts. Amid increasing calls for reparations, Agassiz’s history reveals the need to consider how expansive reparations must be and the multitude of debts incurred by private and public institutions in a country where so many profited from slavery and white supremacy. Georgetown’s students, for one, recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of reparations for descendants of enslaved people sold to help pay the university’s debts in the 19th century.

In addition to reparations, though, American scientists must also grapple with the deep roots of white supremacy in their methodologies, from persistent examples of race being used as a biological category to the creation, marketing and selling of drugs aimed exclusively at black patients. Thus, solving the problem of scientific racism resides in changing both the operational norms of American science (most notably in medicine and the life sciences) and paying reparations for centuries of crimes committed by scientists against people of color.