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Black Herring by Nigel Roth


In 1799 in the City of Brotherly Love, our modern brand of racism was forged.

It was down to a single man who collected skulls. Every time he received a skull he polished it gently, described the geographical origin of its owner, and stuffed it full of lead balls. When he’d stuffed as many of his balls into the cranium as he could, he recorded the capacity.

For this man, Samuel George Morton, that measurement gave him what he believed to be the key to the intellectual capacity of different races. And for Morton, there were five races, which he referred to as ‘Caucasians’ (whites), with the highest intellect, ‘Mongolians’ (or East Asians), ‘Southeast Asians’, ‘Native Americans’, and ‘Ethiopians' (blacks), with the lowest.

Why that order?

Simply because the specimens he received came from anyone and anywhere, were described loosely, and were not particularly representative. If a very tall and large-headed ‘Dutchman’ died and his skull found Morton and his little balls, Caucasians were recorded with higher capacity and intellect, whether he was Dutch or not, or even a man. If a young ‘African’s’ cranium was delivered Morton recorded a smaller capacity and lower intellect, even though that human may have been younger or smaller, or not even African.

Young, old, male, female, their true origin, or the last place the whole person had been when they died; none of that mattered to this pseudo-scientist. If Morton had just kept this to himself and expired believing that, say, a Scot with macrocephaly was a genius and thus was their entire ‘race’, that would've been fine.

But unfortunately, on April 12, 1861, Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard was asked to attack Fort Sumter with his artillery regiment, and the war against the Confederate States of American began, with slavery at its core.

While economy, way-of-life, and autonomy were often cited, it was of course being able to enslave Africans that the CSA were fighting for. And their scientific justification for enslaving Africans, and not Caucasians or Asians or Native Americans?

Ten out of ten, you large-skulled humans.

One hundred and sixty years later, when you fill out a form and you’re asked to check boxes on a list of races, they are there largely because of Morton.

And yet, all of our scientific evidence shows that we are simply not of different races. In fact, we’re more closely related to each other than chimpanzees are to chimpanzees: there is more variation in that one primate than there is in homo sapiens.

Our evolution to differing skin tones, or face shape variations, or height or hair thickness, is all thanks to tiny tweaks in our genetic makeup, over millennia, but starting with the basic human genus who picked up sticks and traveled from Africa outwards to colonize the planet.

Since that traveler made the journey, we’ve added to genetic evolution by developing different cultural lives; adopted lifestyles, created religions, made traditions, formed communities, loved and argued. But we’ve also engaged in this spurious labeling process, and it's that labeling that we’re forced to grapple with today.

Race itself is a fallacy; it’s really labeling that’s the challenge.

And what’s even more important to remember is while this may all be fascinating, and the misguided Morton responsible for labeling, and everyone since then complicit in confirming those labels every single day, over and over again, none of this really matters.

None of what I’ve just written even matters.

Because when you’re being murdered by a knee on your neck, or shot dead for being autistic, or arrested because your profile fits, it's because that label - the black race label - defines who you are and the reactions you get from those unable to pause, take a step back, and see those labels for what they are.

And what’s more, I - labeled ‘Caucasian/white’ by society - can at best just point out this baseless ‘science’ and write about it in disgust, because I cannot even begin to understand any of what labeling has done to anyone else, or how every moment of those labeled lives is affected so negatively by what someone of their own race concluded over a century ago.

But I’m glad you read till the end.

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