The historic roots of scientific racism and the relevance this has for psychology.

Keisha York has written a really engaging blog about scientific racism and the impact this has had on engagement from ethnic minority communities in reserach.

Originally posted on King's College London's EDIT Lab Blog.

Please be advised that this blog post discusses issues of race and racism in the psychological sciences which may be triggering to some readers. It aims to bring awareness to the historic and continuing practice of scientific racism in the field of psychology.

The psychological sciences have played a pivotal role in combatting racial discrimination and advancing social equity for Black people in the 20thcentury. For instance, findings from the Clark doll study were critical in determining the Brown v Board of Education (1954) landmark decision to desegregate U.S. public schools. Nonetheless, psychology’s contribution to the advancement of scientific racism cannot be dismissed. From the 1600s up till recently, the psychological sciences have been used as a tool to substantiate racism and justify the implementation of racially discriminatory policies and systems.

Today, scientific racism is widely discredited within psychology. Psychologists strive to advance race equality by investigating Black people’s health and wellbeing in order to propose policies and interventions which support mental health. Despite this the legacy of scientific racism lives on and can significantly influence the Black communities’ trust in research and medical institutions. Consequently, this can lead to low participation in studies from these communities, and unfortunately means their experiences are not accounted for in much of the scientific literature.

In this blog post, I explore the role of psychology in perpetuating scientifically racist ideas from the 19th century to present and how its legacy impacts Black peoples’ willingness to participate in scientific research.

What is scientific racism?

Scientific racism refers to the use of scientific concepts and data to create and justify ideas of an enduring, biologically based hierarchy. It is a multidisciplinary project, which employs perspectives from philosophers, anthropologists, statisticians, geneticists, political scientists, and psychologists to support racial discrimination and determine the genetic inferiority of Black people.

A prehistory of scientific racism in psychology

Historically, scientific racism was linked to racial debates and theories from the late 1700s to the mid-1880s where polygenists, such as Samuel Morton and Josiah Nott, theorised that existing human beings had evolved from two or more distinct origins in light of their vast physical differences. Their premise led to the production of a rigid set of racial categories and a hierarchy which identified White people as a superior race and separate to any other race. Scientific evidence was sought to uphold these beliefs.

This ranged from Morton’s assertion that White people had a larger cranial volume, and thus greater intellectual capacity than Black people, a conclusion drawn from a study where he filled skulls with pepper seed and lead shot. Likewise, philosophical thinkers such as Herbert Spencer and biologist Charles Darwin argued that, in accordance with principles of ‘survival of the fittest’, certain races and groups (in this case the White, or later proposed mystical Aryan race) became more powerful in society due to innate biological differences. According to them, prejudice was a normal and inevitable outcome of evolution which warranted racial hierarchies and colonial subjugation.

In 1895, a study conducted by R. Meade Bache pinpointed psychology’s first contribution to scientific racism. Bache hypothesised that “with evolution and learning” human beings would be “less quick in automatic responses”. Thus, the White, “superior race” would have a slower reaction time than that of “inferior” races i.e. “Indians” and “Blacks” . Findings from his study demonstrated that White participants had the slowest reaction times compared to Black ethnic groups.

Scientific racism in psychology

Various studies have demonstrated the ways in which psychology has been used to support racial discrimination while maintaining the appearance of political and ideological neutrality.

“psychology has been used to support racial discrimination while maintaining the appearance of political and ideological neutrality”

In 1917, Robert Yerkes, an American psychologist and eugenicists organised the mass intelligence testing of military recruits. The findings of this study reported that the average IQ of Black men was considerably lower than White men which supported the idea that innate genetic differences between races existed. However, researchers during this time period highlighted that the data supporting racial differences were meagre. The fact that most recruits had little to no education due to segregation and severe socioeconomic disadvantage was later considered as a stronger explanation for racial differences in IQ.

Despite this, Arthur Jensen, an American psychologist continued to explore and conclude that racial differences in IQ test scores were partly due to hereditary factors. According to his reasoning, Black children’s lower average IQ demonstrated the need for separate schools which provided a different kind of educational experience from those of White children. This was reaffirmed by Herrnstein and Murray’s (1994) notorious ‘The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life’ which asserted that socioeconomic issues and racial inequality could not solely explain what they believed were hereditary differences in intelligence. This supported the supposition that increased “breeding” of lower IQ groups threatened the intellectual development of the U.S.This was despite substantial evidence for the ‘Flynn Effect’.

J. Phillip Rushton, a Canadian psychologist and head of the Pioneer Fund, has also dedicated his life’s work to proving the intellectual inferiority of Black people. His book ‘Race, Evolution, and Behaviour’, which reviewed ambiguous data on race from the early 1900s, argued that the Black community exhibited a lower average IQ, a lack of cultural achievements, higher aggressiveness and impulsivity, poor mental health and higher hormonal levels. This work was vehemently criticised for its inaccurate conceptualisation of race and severe scientific inadequacies, including misuse of sources, inappropriate statistical comparisons, and serious logical errors and flaws.

Scientific racism and psychology in the 21st century.

Whilst we hope for a society which embraces and values differences, strives for equality, and recognises the problematic and dangerous use of psychological sciences to reinforce racist ideologies, psychologists have shown none the otherwise.

In 2011, Satoshi Kanazawa, an Associate Professor of Management at the London School of Economics became notorious for his use of the Add Health data by concluding that Black women were objectively less physically attractive and intelligent than women from other races due to them being “on average much heavier than non-Black women” and more likely to have “higher levels of testosterone than other race” hence “more masculine features”. Amongst being highly offensive and inaccurate in his claims, Kanazawa completely disregarded the fact that ‘attractiveness’ in Westernised cultures is largely based on White Eurocentric beauty ideals (i.e. long, straight hair; white/lighter skin tones; and thin body types) which prejudices darker skin colours and afro hair textures. His conclusions were also made in the absence of any measurement of participants’ weight and testosterone levels in the Add Health data set.

Andrew Winston (2020) in his article ‘Why mainstream research will not end scientific racism in psychology’ warns of a more covert rise of scientific racism in psychology and intelligence analysis. For example, Rindermann (2018) presents his study on the cognitive ability of people in Africa versus the African diaspora as a comparative analysis on “national IQ” to avoid a direct discussion of racial differences in IQ. Although social and environmental factors were referenced, he deemed them as highly improbable and showed a fondness to ‘evolution genetic theories’ to explain the tiresome conclusion that Black African people were genetically determined to have a lower IQ. Nyborg (2012) also seriously considers Richard Lynn’s prediction of the decay of Western civilisation through the dysgenic breeding of “super-fertile low IQ non-Western groups.”

These studies, and their subsequent publishing in acclaimed journals demonstrate not only that scientific racism is re-emerging but that psychology’s role in perpetuating these beliefs has not disappeared.

Scientific racism and its impact on Black people’s research participation.

“Black ethnic groups are underrepresented in clinical and health research”

A widely cited study found that articles featured in top psychology and behavioural science journals drew their samples almost entirely from White, Westernised populations. This has far-reaching for psychological research by limiting the validity and generalisability of approaches, theories and models.

When exploring the multitude of reasons for the underrepresentation of the Black community in research, mistrust and fear of the healthcare system are common themes. Concerns over historical events such as the syphilis Tuskegee study, which was informed by racial stereotypes perpetuated by the psychological community, significantly impacts Black people’s willingness to participate in research . Knowledge around scientific racism and its impact on the Black community is also disseminated through conferences and events i.e. ‘The Return of Race Science’ or ‘A History of Scientific Racism’ held at UK universities and scientific institutions. The implications from this suggest that the scientific community urgently needs to rebuild trust and address fear of scientific racism amongst the Black community in order to increase engagement and participation.

“…the scientific community urgently needs to rebuild trust and address fear of scientific racism amongst the Black community in order to increase engagement and participation”

The Repeated Assessment of Mental health in Pandemics (RAMP) study is a research project assessing the effect of COVID-19 on the mental health and wellbeing of the UK population. It addresses the low participation of Black ethnic groups within its own sample by collaborating with various Black mental health groups, charities or key representatives to develop and implement an equitable and inclusive research study. Our researchers attend and participate in communal events to keep informed on the cultural-historical background and socio-political conditions impacting the Black community. With hope of also delivering workshops which inform and nurture Black people’s mental health, the RAMP study provides an example of how the research community can build and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with the Black community.

You can participate in the RAMP study here:


Bache, R. M. (1895). Reaction time with reference to race. Psychological Review, 2(5), 475–486. doi: 10.1037/h0070013

Capodilupo, C. M. (2015). One size does not fit all: Using variables other than the thin ideal to understand Black women’s body image. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 21(2), 268. doi: 10.1037/a0037649

Dain, B. (2002). A hideous monster of the mind: American race theory in the early republic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gill, P. S., Plumridge, G., Khunti, K., & Greenfield, S. (2013). Under-representation of minority ethnic groups in cardiovascular research: a semi-structured interview study. Family practice, 30(2), 233-241. doi: 10.1093/fampra/cms054

Hantman, J. L. (2001). Skull Wars: Kennewick man, archaeology, and the battle for Native American identity. American Ethnologist, 28(3), 680-681. doi: 10.1525/ae.2001.28.3.680

Jackson, J. P., Weidman, N. M., & Rubin, G. (2005). The origins of scientific racism. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 50, 66-79. Retrieved from:

Nyborg, H. (2012). The decay of Western civilization: Double relaxed Darwinian selection. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(2), 118-125. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.02.031

Oakley, A., Wiggins, M., Turner, H., Rajan, L., & Barker, M. (2003). Including culturally diverse samples in health research: a case study of an urban trial of social support. Ethnicity and health, 8(1), 29-39. doi: 10.1080/13557850303554

Rich, W. J. (2004). Betrayal of the children with dolls: The broken promise of constitutional protection for victims of race discrimination. Cornell L. Rev., 90, 419. Retrieved from:

Rushton, J. P., & Jensen, A. R. (2005). Thirty years of research on race differences in cognitive ability. Psychology, public policy, and law, 11(2), 235. doi: 10.1037/1076-8971.11.2.235

Scharff, D. P., Mathews, K. J., Jackson, P., Hoffsuemmer, J., Martin, E., & Edwards, D. (2010). More than Tuskegee: understanding mistrust about research participation. Journal of Health Care For The Poor And Underserved, 21(3), 879. doi: 10.1353/hpu.0.0323

Winston, A. S. (2020). Scientific racism and North American psychology. In Braddick, O. (Ed.). The Oxford research encyclopaedia of psychology. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1177/0959354320925176

Yoakum, C. S., & Yerkes, R. M. (Eds.). (1920). Army mental tests. New York, NY: Henry Holt.


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