Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Getting Your Racism Right

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, January 15, 2019 --  

A rejection of truth in science allows crack-pot ideas to flourish.

When Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory stripped pioneering geneticist James Watson of his titles last week, it wasn't for doing anything he hadn't done before. The scientist, who co-discovered DNA back in the 1950s, said in a PBS interview earlier this month that IQ score differences between black and white Americans are due to genetic differences.1

His new comments were no worse than what he said back in October 2007, but this time it was clear it wasn't just an innocent gaffe. Perhaps more importantly, the political climate had changed significantly since his last outburst.

Back in October 2007, then Senator Barak Obama was several months into his presidential campaign, and his charisma was leaving his Democratic rival Senator Hillary Clinton in the dust. He would of course go on the next year to defeat popular Republican Senator John McCain and become America's first black president. In terms of overcoming America's troubled racial legacy, times were about as good as they would get.

What a difference eleven years makes. Donald Trump's America First populism has brought all kinds of white nationalist nut jobs out of the woodwork. His cynical cultivation of white supremacist supporters has emboldened people with racist ideas and made it more socially acceptable to express such views in public. Just today, the House of Representatives voted to strip Iowa Congressman Peter King of his committee assignments2 over comments made to a New York Times reporter where he bemoaned that "white supremacist" had become offensive.3

It is of course the internet, not the New York Times or PBS, where the most offensive racist ideas get published. One of the stranger themes to have evolved in recent years is the idea of using milk as a racist symbol. This took off two years ago with a neo-Nazi milk chugging party posted on YouTube,4 and got more attention when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals used it as a publicity stunt to smear the milk industry.5

Oddly, the embrace of milk by white supremacists does have some basis in science. Many people of Northern European heritage carry a gene mutation that allows them to digest lactose into adulthood, unlike most humans who lose this ability as they grow older. The gene has been traced to the rise of cattle farming in Northern Europe thousands of years ago, giving neo-Nazis a handy way of defining members of their club. While the superior ability to digest milk may seem like a tenuous claim to being the master race, it has still become a slogan: "If you can't drink milk, you have to go back."

As is usually the case with people who try to justify racism, they can't quite get the science right. Northern Europeans aren't the only ones who started heading cows, started drinking their milk, and experienced mutations that made it easier to digest. People from cattle-rearing cultures in India and Africa also often carry a genetic mutation allowing them to digest lactose into adulthood. Yet the white supremacist don't seem to be inviting any Rwandan Tutsi cattle farmers to join their milk chugging parties. What a pity.

Racists are hardly alone in embracing unsound scientific arguments to promote dubious ideas. The same thing is done by the anti-vaxxers, environmental zealots, and the idiots who slavishly believe in most other politically charged issues today. Tragically, for most Americans, both science and news have entered a post-truth era, where polarization or tribal affiliation determine what people believe. This has damning consequences for America's national consensus. That's exactly why it's so disappointing to see accomplished scientists like James Watson fall into the same trap as the idiots among us.


1. Washington Post, The Father of DNA Says he Still Believes in a Link Between Race, Intelligence, January 14, 2019

2. CNN, House Votes to Reject White Supremacy after Steve King's Comments, January 15, 2019

3. New York Times, Before Trump, Steve King Set the Agenda for the Wall and Anti-Immigrant Politics, January 10, 2019

4. YouTube, He Will Not Divide Us, as posted February 5, 2017

5. PETA, Why Cow's Milk Is the Perfect Drink for Supremacists, March 7, 2017