Racism in Social Science: Copy, Paste, Repeat (An Urgent Call to Action)

11 July 2020, 0634 EDT

This is the second installment in our series on Race&IR.

This is a guest post from Ebby L. Abramson who is a Doctoral student in the political science program at the University of Ottawa and a research associate and editor for Endangered Scholars Worldwide. His current research systematically investigates counterterrorism policies in Europe and the United States, examining how these policies account for and impact their respective society. Abramson has worked for the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, the New School, Cardozo School of law, and The George Washington University Elliot School of International Affairs where he specialized in Law of Conflict, International Human Rights Law, terrorism, and illicit arms trafficking. He holds a master’s degree in international affairs from the New School in New York City. He is a contributor to IRPP (Policy Options). Follow him at @EbbyAbramson

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is an ineffective advocacy group because the organization is fighting for an imaginary cause— stopping systemic racism and discrimination against Black people, neither of which exist. The narrative that unarmed Black people are more likely to get shot and killed by the police due to policy brutality is nothing but an overexaggerated delusion. The alleged racism by law enforcement against Black people does not play a role in arresting, shooting, and killing them. These are among the multiple outrageous claims that I have seen in students’ essays and within classroom activities over the course of my career.

I was living in New York City when Eric Garner was murdered on Staten Island, and at that time I wrote an opinion piece pleading with the academic community to take sides. I argued that all academics who stay silent about police brutality against Black people are culpable in perpetuating racism in our society. When I started working toward a doctoral degree at a Canadian university in 2018, I was under the impression that Canada was more progressive and had been taking active steps to address racism—an understanding that faded away in just a few short weeks.

Soon after my move from New York, I learned that in Canada the racism is slightly different than in the United States or the United Kingdom; while examples of racism may not be quite as overt in general, I have witnessed numerous examples of covert discrimination and systematic racism, and on occasion, even racism in the most overt forms. For instance, in early June, Alain Therrien from the Bloc Québécois vetoed a motion to acknowledge the existence of systematic racism in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police force. When Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, then called Therrien “racist,” Singh was thrown out of the parliament session for being “disruptive.”

That racism is alive and well in Canada has been even more apparent in some of my students’ essays and classroom comments. To support their arguments, students commonly allude to the “Indian experience” in the US, Canada, and the UK, arguing that despite appearing as the same race as Black people in skin color, the law-abiding Indian immigrants face far fewer encounters with police and have been overall much more affluent, more educated, and more successful. The conclusion usually follows that if there was systematic racism against Black people based on their skin color, Indian immigrants would have faced the same level of poverty, police brutality, and discrimination. Little do they know, they have been adopting and touting a common White supremacy narrative.

Debunking the Model Minority Myth

Racism and racial hierarchy have long been overlooked as integral to the foundations of political science and IR. “Model minority” theories continue to be prevalent in academia and are deeply harmful, inaccurate, and in themselves a form of racism. The simplistic take proposed by model minority theories entirely overlooks the fact that different minority groups often grapple with distinct challenges and forms of discrimination. Such a take also pits ethnic minority groups against each other, vying for the spot of the supreme minority, and it perpetuates stereotypes, in essence othering all minority groups. If not for this contrived competition, minority groups could become allies and threaten the current order, banding together to overthrow, or at minimum improve, the system.

Model minority theories provide institutions of power a picture-perfect alibi with which to conceal institutional and systematic racism. That is why right-wing media every so often point to the Indian immigrants’ success story in the US, Canada, and UK. For instance, the Telegraph reported that British-Indian graduates in the UK, on average, earn more than most other ethnic minority groups. Likewise, right-wing media in both the United States and Canada often point out that Indian minorities achieve better results in grades K–12 and are arrested less often than White people. Black people, on the other hand, earn far less than other minority groups and achieve among the lowest levels in primary and high school, which right-wing media attribute to laziness and poor work ethic. Because Black people are more likely to be detained than White people, the right-wing media also claim that it must be because they are more crime-prone. 

It is interesting that in a system where Indian immigrants succeed, people may applaud the system for its impartiality, but when Black people fall behind in the same system, there is no recognition of the system’s role. Instead, all responsibility for the negative implications is imputed to the Black community. Recognize that I am not disputing the data. Rather, there are many ways to digest, understand, and contextualize raw data and statistics. While the data support the clear and substantiated evidence-based claims that more needs to be done to tackle structural racism and bridge the gap in these three countries to form a more equitable society, all too often, such data is utilized to reaffirm the system and showcase those who have attained success, and as some of my students have, chastise those who haven’t.

In the United States, Indians’ success is often attributed to their work ethic. While some might see truth in such an assertion, it is easy to neglect the fact that other groups may be working just as hard or harder while facing other structural obstacles.

As Indian-American Rishi Madnani noted in a viral video, many Indians immigrated to the United States during a wave of migration under visa programs that specifically targeted highly skilled people between 1965 and 1990. By contrast, many Black Americans’ ancestors were forcibly brought to the US as slaves for free labor and faced generations of subjugation, trauma, and terror thereafter. Because of this, Madnani said, “we were pre-determined to be successful, and when we were, the media painted us as model minorities, as good, law-abiding citizens that were the opposite of Black people.”

I would never claim that Indians or other minority groups do not face discrimination, ignorance, racism, and police brutality. We have all read about numerous instances of violence and discrimination against people of Asian heritage throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While no forms of racism are justified or acceptable, almost no other minority group has been systematically dehumanized and oppressed in the same way and over the same time duration as Black people have in the US, UK, and Canada. 

Just like “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” the model minority myth has been touted to distract people from the enslavement and continued oppression of Black people, and replace it with “you’re just lazy and not working hard enough,” disregarding hundreds of years of discrimination that saw White society embracing eugenics, the Ku Klux Klan, and countless other instances of overt and covert racism comprising a history of continuous efforts that purposefully have put White people at the top of a racial hierarchy. 

Racism in the Foundation of Social Sciences

For years the disciplines of political science and IR have explicitly theorized, legitimized, and centered race and hierarchy in the world politics these disciplines helped to construct. IR never began with the state of nature, or with anarchy. Instead, as Bob Vitalis argues, since its inception, “international relations meant race relations” because “race” was considered the foundational political unit reflective of the time. About a hundred years ago, Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, the eugenicist political theorist and racial theorist, also argued that “the idea is if we don’t look out the White race — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved”. John W. Burgess—who was instrumental in establishing the Faculty of Political Science at Columbia University, the first major institutionalized program in the United States to grant PhDs—argued that American democracy was built on the “Teutonic Germ” of Anglo-Saxon immigrants. He feared that the US administration’s ambitious plan to become an empire would, in turn, diminish such superiority. In 1895, he commented:

[Native] Indian America has left no legacies to modern civilization; Africa has as yet made no contributions; and Asia, while producing all of our great religions, has done nothing, except in imitation of Europe, for political civilization. We must conclude from these facts that American Indians, Asiatics and Africans cannot properly form any active, directive part of the political population which shall be able to produce modern political institutions and ideals. They have no element of political civilization to contribute. They can only receive, learn, follow Aryan example.

Thus, Burgess believed, if America wanted to preserve its soul, Aryan genes should not be polluted with non-Aryan elements. The origin of IR was an effort to preserve the superiority of Whites and promote fears of dissolution of the “White nation” in a world that was becoming increasingly multiracial and interdependent. The very same scholars who made “race relations” equivalent with “international relations” trained younger generations who continued to place an emphasis of study on the great global powers, anarchy, and other realist “core concepts.” As time went on,  history was constructed so as to mask the role of racism in bringing an academic discipline into existence. As George W. Stocking argues in Race, Culture and Evolution, “all that was necessary to make the adjustment to the new situation… was the substitution of words. For ‘race’ read ‘culture’ or ‘civilization,’ for ‘racial heredity’ read ‘cultural heritage.’”

Racism Still a Problem in Social Sciences

In the US, Canada, and the UK, my students’ essays and comments cannot be considered  outlying perspectives in academia or the policy world. In early June, for example, a University of Central Florida (UCF) professor dismissed systematic racism by tweeting that “If Afr. Americans as a group, had the same behavioral profile as Asian Americans (on average, performing the best academically, having the highest income, committing the lowest crime, etc.), would we still be proclaiming ‘systematic racism’ exists?” Even though the psychology professor quickly deleted the tweet, and UCF issued a statement condemning his comments and denouncing the tweet “in the strongest terms”, and launched an inquiry into his remarks and other matters, the fallacy he articulated prevails in academia. 

As long as racism remains a behavior for which its promulgators are held unaccountable, in addition to this just being plain wrong, it will allow two problems to persist in the social sciences. First, unfettered racism, both explicit and implicit, threatens our collective ethics by continuing to accept projections of our path forward that are immoral, unjust, and unfair. Second, the strong bias inherent in racist attitudes influences what counts as valid knowledge.

The fact that my students have written such papers is, in part, my own fault. I am aware that Realism, Martin Wight, the state of nature, Thucydides, Machiavelli, and Hobbes are all post-1945 addenda to the curriculum. I know that beginning my students’ academic journey with an “Introduction to IR” course based on these texts and ideas is laying the groundwork for a construction that is not at all based on the reality of the institutional history of IR. Scholars such as Tarak Barkawi, Naeem Inayatullah, L.H.M Ling, Nivi Manchanda, Robbie Shilliam, J.P. Singh Robert Vitalis, Srdjan Vucetic, along with others have started to introduce deep analysis of hierarchy, racism, race-thinking and empire, offering hope for a more expansive future.

Call to Action: Curriculum Reform Needed in Social Sciences

When we open our classes with Hobbes and Rousseau, and omit the racist history of political science, we neither use nor provide the tools that would allow us to teach our students to recognize and dismantle the fallacy of prominent racist narratives, such as the model minority narrative. It illustrates our failure to find ways to reform, transform, and adjust the way that the social sciences are being taught. Changing our syllabi is one way to begin to turn away from this problematic trajectory. Learning how historically marginalized people represent themselves orally, visually, and gastronomically helps students gain access to multiple worlds without interference from the state and its nationalistic politics.

This is another reminder that “not being racist” is not adequate enough. Consider this an urgent call to action. We must examine our implicit biases, and we must be vocally anti-racist and actively take part in fixing the system. If not, we inevitably become part of the problem. Our students will fail because we have failed them. And guess what, those same failed students become our next academics, politicians and policymakers, copy, paste, repeat…