Book Review: Science for Segregation: Race, Law, and the Case Against Brown v. Board of Education

John P. Jackson, Jr., Science for Segregation: Race, Law, and the Case Against Brown v. Board of Education, New York: New York University Press, 2005. Pp. 291. $45.00 (ISBN 0-8147-4271-8).

In this intriguing study, historian John P. Jackson, Jr. focuses on the relationship between science and racist ideology during the mid twentieth century. He argues that “segregationist scientists” provided crucial tools that upheld racism in the years following the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Although scholars have explored proslavery thought, very little research has been done on the intersection between science and prosegregationist thought since 1954, with the possible exception of The Bell Curve controversy during the 1990s. Jackson’s book will thus interest scholars of race and social thought, the history of science, and law and society.

Science for Segregation opens with the eugenics movement during the early 1900s. As anthropologists (in particular those associated with Franz Boas) began to reject arguments supportive of biological racism, a small but significant minority of scientists and pseudo-scientists continued to cling to their worldviews. Much has been written about thinkers such as Madison Grant, but Jackson explores the work of lesser-known ideological protégés such as Ernest Cox. A founder of the short-lived Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America in the 1920s, Cox and his supporters succeeded in pushing for the 1924 Virginia Racial Purity Act. The law introduced the “one-drop” rule of African blood for determining blackness, thereby rigidly enforcing a black-white dualistic social barrier.

The Virginia law, however, stood as one of the group’s few successes. Cox continued to write and agitate throughout the Depression and World War II years for rigid racial separation, even working with black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey for black repatriation to Africa. Closely tied to Cox’s efforts were scholars who believed in a “Jewish conspiracy” to control the United States politically, economically, and in academe; Boas and his students especially were cited as egregious conspirators. Nonetheless, by the 1950s the movement represented by Cox had been more or less pushed underground. Activists and writers such as Willis Carto and Roger Pearson continued after Cox’s death to champion Nordic white supremacy in publications such as Truth Seeker and in organizations such as the Northern League.

But while arguably Carto and Pearson represented a form of northern racist scholarship, a second group of southern scholars, led most prominently by psychologist Henry Garrett of Columbia University, articulated a defense of white supremacy based on their intimate knowledge and background as southerners. Born and raised in Virginia, Garrett testified in favor of segregation during the Brown v. Board of Education arguments. Ironically, he had worked with both Kenneth and Mamie Clark while both were graduate students at Columbia, the two African American psychologists known for their work on the Brown case. Garrett joined forces with scholars and activists such as Ernst van den Hagg, a harsh critic of the use of social science evidence in Brown, and others including Carleton Putnam, Donald Swan, A. James Gregor, and the members of the Northern League to help found the International Society for the Advancement of Ethnology and Eugenics (IAAEE) in 1959. If the NAACP’s mission was to debunk white supremacy and push for racial integration, then the goals of the IAAEE were exactly the opposite. The IAAEE functioned as the most important organization dedicated to a scientific attack on Brown during the 1960s. But just as importantly, the group’s followers and fellow travelers believed that Jews had manufactured the ridiculous concept (in their view) that racial integration was right and morally just. It was therefore imperative that all their energies be mustered to reverse Brown. In several court cases, most notably Stell v. Savannah, the IAAEE attempted to argue on the basis of IQ scores that blacks were simply not as intelligent as whites. Hopes for the IAAEE’s efforts ended, however, with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Science for Segregation is a much needed book in studies of the Civil Rights Movement period. The book is also important for the questions it raises about the role of science itself. How is it that two opposite strands of scientific inquiry have developed at the same time? As Jackson points out, by 1950 scholars had virtually unanimously rejected arguments for biological racism. Yet individuals such as Garrett, van den Hagg, and later William Shockley, Arthur Jensen, and Charles Murray continued to have large followings in what the author calls the “radical right underground.” Jackson argues that scientists have been partly responsible for this by advocating for a “free market” of ideas where there are no bars on scholarly inquiry. His observation is a sobering reminder about the limits and possibilities of science.