Geneticist, author and broadcaster Adam Rutherford appeared at Hay Festival Digital to talk about his new book, How to Argue With a Racist. Although disappointed not to be there in person, he was happy that the viewer numbers were so high – 10,500, according to the ‘people-counter’ on the web page – far more than could be fitted into the usual tent. Rutherford was also recovering from COVID-19 himself, so he probably preferred the audience looking at his series of stimulating slides rather than at him.
How to Argue With a Racist is a continuation of a chapter on the subject of genetics and race from Rutherford’s previous book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. In the last few years the conversations around race had changed due to scientific advances, politics, pseudo-scientific myths and the popularity of commercial genetic tools, such as Ancestry.com. In response, he wanted to provide a toolkit of facts and figures to empower readers and oppose racism.
Rutherford shared his own personal results from 23andme.com, an American company that carries out DNA genetic testing and analysis. Half of his DNA is from northern Europe, half from India and some from Guyana. These results are open to misinterpretation as the reality is “immeasurably complicated,” a blur of matted connections rather than a neat family tree. “We are incredibly inbred as a species,” said Rutherford, “I come from Suffolk (Ipswich), so I can say that with impunity!” The idea of ancestral purity is “a complete fiction: everyone is descended from everyone else.”
Rutherford’s work means that he occasionally haunts white supremacist websites such as Stormfront.com (“don’t go there,” he advises), where racists discuss their ‘purity’. New commercial tests often lead to disappointment when users find out they are not pure. Possible responses include: ‘try another company for a different result’; ‘23andme is run by Jews,’; ‘look in the mirror. If you don’t see a Jew, you’re ok’; ‘kill yourself.’
White supremacists such as Richard Spencer have got hold of the idea of ‘lactose persistence’ and use it to bolster their perceived racial purity and superiority (‘white people can continue to drink milk after weaning; black people can’t’). Spencer even uses a logo of a glass of milk between his first name and surname. Rutherford debunked this myth, calling it “ridiculous, misunderstood science.” In reality, whenever people became dairy farmers, the same thing happened all over the world.
Although racism had entered public discourse, with Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Dominic Cummings all being accused of it in some form, Rutherford said there was evidence that we are less racist than we were 50 years ago. He showed us a Conservative Party poster from 1964, which begins: If you desire a COLOURED for your neighbour, vote Labour … This had apparently been changed from the original ‘nigger’.
Rutherford went on to discuss race and sport, which is often associated with racial stereotypes, for example 100 metre runners mostly being black; or long-distance runners being mostly eastern Africans. One of his favourite photos has Jesse Owens standing on the medal podium at the 1936 Munich Olympics, though he remarks that Roosevelt did not invite Owens to the White House with the white American medal winners.
It was important to acknowledge that race exists as a social construct, like money or time. It was a remarkably modern idea, said Rutherford, which only began in the 19th century with colonialism, when the colour of skin was first used as an excuse to subjugate races, and a taxonomy of races by pigmentation first appeared.
A cornerstone of history study dictates that we don’t judge people from the past by modern standards. Rutherford cited authors such as Voltaire as being “profoundly racist”. Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) was a human taxonomist with a “ludicrous” way of pigeon-holing races: Africans were “crafty, lazy, lustful, governed by caprice …” Europeans came top of his chart.
In the 1850s/60s Thomas Huxley added a few more racial categories: Mongoloids; Australoids; Negro; Bushman etc. He asked why northern Africans had lighter skin that southern Africans. ‘Hamites’ put forward the fictitious idea that lighter skinned Africans were descended from Noah’s son, Ham.
A specific, serious example of this pseudo-science being applied was in Rwanda, where the Tutsi tribes had slightly paler skins that other tribes, such as the Hutu. They used this fact to demand better treatment and the occupying Belgians formalised this into law. When Belgium left Rwanda the native people continued to buy into this idea, which eventually led to civil war and genocide in the 1990s. The root of this conflict, “this deeply horrific story,” said Rutherford, was the racialisation of two groups of people who had peacefully existed in the 19th century. It was “a hideous example of a racist past echoing into the present.”
“We are an African species,” said Rutherford, “we are 70,000 years out of Africa,” where there is more genetic diversity and variation in skin pigmentation than the rest of the world put together.
He finished with the assertion that “racism is a bad idea because it is an affront to human dignity,” and quoted political activist, Angela Davis: “in a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, you have to be anti-racist.”
There was time for a couple of questions from viewers: “are we making progress?” Rutherford said “we are in a less racist society than at any time in history.” White supremacists were “a distraction,” and “you can’t argue people out of a position that they didn’t argue themselves into.”
Why were BAME people more likely to die from COVID-19? “The truth is, we don’t know,” said Rutherford, “that’s the best thing a scientist can say.”