The Roots of a Racist Myth

The Blacks-as-monkeys slur goes back a very long way.

Posted Jun 13, 2017

In his bid for the presidency, Donald Trump ran what some observers called the most sexist and racist campaign in American history. He called Mexicans liars and rapists, spoke approvingly of sexual assault on women, tried to ban Muslims and insinuated that most blacks lived in poverty and had "nothing to lose" by voting for him.

Of course, "dog whistle politics," in which candidates target certain groups, is not new. Ronald Reagan attacked welfare mothers as cheats and slackers, Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" appealed to racist voters in the south, and Woodrow Wilson screened the film "The Birth of a Nation," which celebrated the Ku Klux Klan, in the White House.

But perhaps the most damaging prejudicial comments by a president came from a surprising source: the man who wrote one of the great documents in American history, the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson's remarks about the mental capacity of Blacks was the impetus for generations of flawed science.

In his book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson asks if slavery should be ended and if blacks are inherently inferior to whites.

Audrey Smedley, professor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Race in North America: Origins of a Worldview,” has written extensively about Jefferson and his attitudes on race. She says that he “actually says he’s not sure, but hazards the guess that Africans are naturally inferior.”

Jefferson  was himself a slaveholder—and the father of children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings.  He writes, “It appears to me, that in memory they (blacks) are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”

Smedley says, “Jefferson’s statement in ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ is seen by many historians as not only the major statement about black inferiority, but as the first statement that really propels the colonies into trying to justify slavery.” Jefferson concludes, “We will not be able to know this until science gives us the answers.”

And so, Smedley says, “He calls on science to examine human populations and determine that blacks are naturally inferior.”

And that’s exactly what science did. “Within a generation after Jefferson writes this, scholars are proclaiming the natural inferiority of Africans.” Jefferson, who famously penned the words that “all men are created equal,” became the progenitor of racist science.

Dr. Samuel Morton, writing in the 1840s, collected skulls from around the world and filled them with mustard seeds to measure them. He announced that African skulls were smaller on average than European skulls and that blacks were thus inferior.

“Of course, intelligence has nothing to do with brain size,” Smedley points out. Morton’s disciples, Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon, argued in “Indigenous Races of the Earth” (1857), that “Negroes” ranked on a hierarchy of creation between “Greeks” and “chimpanzees.” The link between black humans and chimps was thus cemented by science.

The renowned Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz became convinced by these arguments that Africans were a separate species and, says Smedley, “He became the most active spokesman for separate creations of the races. ... He came to Harvard. He became part of the upper crust society in Cambridge. He was Harvard’s most prominent professor. He founded the Museum of Paleontology. He founded all of the biological sciences at Harvard. He was touted as a great man. He gave lectures all over the place. But most importantly, he trained the next generation of scientists in America. And these scientists spread out over America teaching the same kinds of attitudes about racial differences to other people.”

In 2014, former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared  Barack Obama to a “trained ape” in a discussion on Fox about the administration’s Afghanistan’s policy.

And, 2015, the Justice Department investigated the Ferguson Missouri police department in the wake of a shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown. One police email included a picture of Ronald Reagan bottle- feeding a baby monkey, with the caption, “Rare photo of Ronald Reagan babysitting Barack Obama in 1962.”

Will such comparisons vanish soon? Probably not. In fact, in a recent incident at Boston's Fenway Park, a white fan threw a bag of  peanuts at Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones  at the same time that he screamed racial epithets. Jones said players accept fan abuse as part of the game — as long as it's "normal." 

"Berate us. Cuss us out. Tell us we suck," he said, “but "leave it to performance-based comments."

Jones said he also had a banana thrown at him once in a game with the San Francisco Giants

In  May, bananas scrawled with racist messages were found hanging from fixtures around the Washington D.C. campus of American university. Some of the bananas, strung up in black noose-like rope, were marked with the words “AKA Free.” The reference was to Alpha Kappa Alpha , a predominantly Black sorority. The head of the sorority had just been appointed president of the campus-wide Student Government Association.

It seems certain that the blacks-are-like monkeys remarks or images  won’t disappear in the near future. 

They have a very long history.