Whiteness of academia, and celebration of eugenicist

Gosh, could there be a connection?

William Ackah, lecturer in community and voluntary sector studies at Birkbeck, University of London, told the event, which was chaired by UCL provost and president Michael Arthur, that outdated Victorian views on the “wild and untamed” nature of “the Negro” still persisted at some level in UK universities.

“This [idea] that black life is…anti-intellectual still echoes down the corridors of time,” Dr Ackah said on 10 March.

“Society has grown comfortable with black people in sport or music, [but] it has a problem with black people leading in public life and academia, even if…we are more than capable of doing so,” he added.

The situation contrasts with US universities, where the existence of black studies courses had created a space for black academics to gain a foothold in academic life, Dr Ackah explained.

And also…

Amid many comments from a mainly black audience of students and academics, UCL itself was also criticised for its uncritical praise of one of its benefactors, the Victorian polymath Francis Galton, known as the “father of eugenics”.

One student raised the issue of UCL’s Galton Lecture Theatre – Galton also endowed a professorial chair in eugenics, now genetics, at UCL – in light of the scientist’s controversial opinions on the “inferior Negro race”, whom he hoped to be supplanted in Africa by the “industrious, order-loving Chinese”.

“Why do we celebrate someone like Francis Galton who hated us [ie, black people]?” the student asked.

Thanks, N!

One thought on “Whiteness of academia, and celebration of eugenicist

  1. Galton is an interesting case. His work on eugenics and race was bad science in two ways. It was epistemically flawed, in the ordinary sense that the evidence didn’t justify his conclusions, but it was also the case that the work’s epistemic flaws were attributable to racial prejudice—an attitude not only irrational but morally blameworthy. So it’s not akin to someone who merely employed poor reasoning in developing a theory. But his work in statistics (regression analyses, the notion of standard deviation, and so on) is hugely important and of lasting value. Had he made those statistical contributions without publishing a word on race or eugenics, we should certainly be justified in celebrating his work. But in the actual world, given that he combined morally blameworthy enterprises with scientifically praiseworthy ones, is it permissible to honour him publicly—by naming edifices or installations after him and so on—for the work on statistics, provided that we make it patent that we do not endorse his racial views and that we hold his eugenicist programme to be scientifically valueless? My own view is that here it matters that he did all the statistical work *in the service* of his eugenicist and racist projects. If these were two disconnected enterprises, I think it would be acceptable to honour him for the work on statistics alone, just as we might build a statue in honour of some specific accomplishment of a politician or king who was in some respects progressive and in others a tyrant. But I think that the connection here is too tight, and it is not morally licit publicly to commemorate his accomplishments in the manner in question. But I don’t have a general theory of this: I’m not sure that I’m prepared, for instance, to endorse the principle that it’s permissible to commemorate a person’s accomplishments through public memorialization only if they did not arise in the service of a morally reprehensible project as an exceptionless norm. I think the issues here are complex and merit serious consideration.

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