30/04/2020 07:13

The role of science in building racism

  • Serrapilheira Scientific Retreats

Philosopher Sueli Carneiro, founder of Geledés, between Serrapilheira Executive Director, Hugo Aguilaniu, and Science Director, Cristina Caldas, during one of the Serrapilheira Scientific Retreats. Photo: Bela Baderna

Clarice Cudischevitch

Science has actually been used as a tool in building racism in Brazil. However, it does have a critical role in changing this scenario. This was demonstrated during the discussions on diversity with Philosopher, Sueli Carneiro, and Historian and Anthropologist, Lilia Schwarcz, during the 4th edition of the Serrapilheira Scientific Retreats. The event gathered 30 grantee researchers between December 8 and 11 in the city of Itatiba, located in the interior of the State of São Paulo.

Sueli Carneiro opened the session showing how science has historically been used to disseminate the idea of superiority and inferiority between various human groups. Carneiro is the founder of Geledés – Institute of Black Women. She is a feminist and an anti-racist activist. She pointed out that, XIX century phrenology and craniometry studies, which studied phenotypic traits such as the size of the skull in white and black individuals have been widely used as “evidence” of hierarchy between human races.

However, the relationship between science and racism is not limited to century-old examples. One widely known case of scientific misconduct was the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (USA). The study was conducted between 1932 and 1972 and used 600 male African Americans (399 syphilis patients and 201 healthy individuals) as human test subjects, without their consent, to examine the development of the disease without actually receiving proper treatment.

Carneiro also quoted the case of the American black woman, Henrietta Lacks. In 1951, Lacks, who came from an underprivileged background, had her cancer cells donated involuntarily, from an unauthorized biopsy collected during a stay at Johns Hopkins Hospital as a result of her advanced cancer. “Her cells, which gave origin to the HeLa cell line have been multiplied in laboratories around the world and are sold for very high profits.”

In Brazil, racism takes shape, for instance, in the context of debates around racial quotas. The biological race fallacy often emerges as an allegation that there is no such thing as human races in terms of genetics. “This cannot be used as an argument to affirm that there is no racism”, states Carneiro. “Inequality between black and white individuals in the labor market, access to health services and education demonstrates that races exist from a social stand point as a result of racism. Genetic diversity is not an antidote against prejudice.”

Lilia Schwarcz further stated the Brazilian science has contributed to feeding the myth of racial democracy, which claims that there is no discrimination or inequality between races in Brazil. Theories such as social Darwinism, which advocated the idea that there is only one human race, and that claimed that societies “evolve” naturally to higher stages of social organization, have been very successfully disseminated in Brazil.

In Schwarcz’s opinion, the little diversity in science is an expression of the structural racism prevailing in Brazil. “Here, black people hold asymmetric positions within the social structure and are underrepresented in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects – it only takes looking at the people who attend Serrapilheira events; the vast majority is white Caucasians.”

Because we believe that diversity leads to a variety of points of view and it is essential in enhancing quality in science, Serrapilheira has launched the “Best practices guide for diversity in science”. The guide, drafted by a committee of experts in this area, introduces guidelines to scientists willing to create more diverse research groups.

In addition, the Serrapilheira grantees who have been granted the R$ 700 thousand support during the funding second phase, have the choice of receiving a R$ 300 thousand bonus to invest in training and including underrepresented groups in science – especially black individuals and women in areas where they are a minority. The objective is to contribute to a shift in the scientific community historically dominated by white individuals, also reflected in the selection process of our institute.

It is a long, but possible way to be threaded. “Brazil has been capable of writing an amazing tale on racial relationships, the myth of racial democracy, so it should be able to actually make it materialize”, Sueli Carneiro finally stated.

  • Topics
  • geledés
  • lilia schwarcz
  • science
  • scientists
  • structural racism
  • sueli carneiro