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

By Christopher D. E. Willoughby

Christopher D. E. Willoughby is a scholar-in-residence in the Lapidus
Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, where he
is writing a book on racial science and slavery in American medical

April 22 at 6:00 AM

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

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.