The limits of debunking only the pseudoscience of race

What a very white book launch in a very black neighborhood in downtown Johannesburg reveals.

Gavin Evans. Image Credit: TimesLive

The lights were off. Load shedding. But London-based writer and university lecturer Gavin Evans was back home in South Africa for the launch of his latest book, Black Brain, White Brain: Is Intelligence Skin Deep? A thickly referenced treatise debunking the scientific racism of the past five centuries, Brains is a timely book given the reemergence of “race realism” among geneticists, biologists, and others in the life sciences and beyond.

The Troyeville Hotel, the venue for the launch, had a generator going. In the smoky bar area groups of young black men shot pool and drank at the bar while three older white guys sat on stools around a bar table and watched cricket on a TV mounted in the corner. In another corner four white women who showed interest in neither pool nor cricket dined by candlelight.

The launch itself was held in the candlelit dining area next door, where wait staff made up entirely of black people, most of them women, tended tables where there sat a mostly white audience that’d come to hear Evans in conversation with Keith Breckenridge, the deputy director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.

The whole arrangement echoed what writer Thando Mgqolozana described as the abnormalities of South Africa’s white literary system. It was also an affirmation of what several studies show: South Africans live together apart.

The divisions, however, go beyond beliefs in unscientific ideas about the supposed links between genes, race, intelligence and behavior, the subject of Evans book, and extend into the intersecting ideologies and related arrangements that hold the unjust stratification of societies in place. This points to what is perhaps lacking in this otherwise good book, which, over the course of 300 well-written and accessible pages, answers its own subtitle in the negative. Intelligence is definitely not a matter of skin tone, hair texture or any of the other phenotypical features used to classify human beings into race groups.

Brains might nonetheless have benefited from spending more time on the whys of the ideology of race. This might have led to an exposition on the ways in which the arrangements of old, such as colonialism and apartheid, which scientific racism sought to justify, have mutated and in many ways continued to persist – even that night at the launch of a book decrying them.

Such an expectation might be unfair. The book after all is primarily on the what of racist science. Evans drew inspiration for it from the resurgence in scientific racism such that typified by the popularity of a widely criticised book by Nicholas Wade, a former science writer for the New York Times, on the supposed biological realities and linked behavioral determinism of race. And Evans does get into some of the whys in so far as challenging the idea proposed by twenty-first century sociobiologists such as Richard Dawkins that racism as a human behavior has biological explanations.

However, as the mostly white audience quaffed wine and the all-black servers cleared plates from the R209 (US$18) per person dinner [Disclosure: The Troyeville Hotel comped the writer’s dinner], and the mostly black suburb of Troyeville lurked outside in a state of urban decay, it was hard not to feel uneasy. It was hard, but if there was disquiet in among the wait staff, audience and panelists that night it was muted. And something beyond only a belief in race determining, at the biological level, that all of this was the natural order of things was making it so.

After all, the people who attended the launch and those likely to want to read the book probably consider themselves progressive and enlightened. One audience member even took to the microphone during the question and answer session to berate the “evangelical tone” of Brains and to declare that they were already familiar with much of what was contained in the book.

That may be so. But how, then, was everyone comfortable that a book on this topic would launch to a room full of whites waited on by blacks? How were we all comfortable playing our respective roles in a hierarchical social arrangement that in many explicit and implicit ways unfairly set the deserving apart from the undeserving; the included from the excluded? The metal gate at the entrance manned by two burly black men in suits, the price tag to attend the launch and even the R246 (US$21) price of the book were part of set of agreements we’d either bought or been coerced into to uphold a social order we’ve come to accept as natural – if not natural then inevitable and inescapable within our lifetimes.

“There will always be inequality: it is the natural state. People are born with different attributes and abilities,” goes the popular yet bogus refrain.

It bears repeating. Expecting that this book in its content, production and marketing ought to unsettle such beliefs and the unjust social arrangements they engender and dissimulate, including the arrangements at the launch that night, might be unfair. But then are books like Brains not self-serving, and possibly dangerous, if they allow readers to self-congratulate for not buying into race yet do not challenge their belief and participation in the ideologies and unjust arrangements that intersect?

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.