In the early 18th Century the formal system we currently use for identifying plant and fauna was developed by a Swedish botanist by the name of Carl Linnaeus. Known as the father of taxonomy, Linnaeus developed a system for the naming, ranking and classifying organisms that is still used to this day. The legacy of his work is seen in binomial nomenclature; the first part of the descriptor describing the genus of the species and the second part identifying the species within the genus. An example of this is found in Homo sapiens; Homo being the genus and sapiens being the species. Flower lovers may resonate with the Strelitzia reginae otherwise known as the bird of paradise.
Linnaeus is also known for his classification of human beings into four groups: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus and Europeaeus. Prior to Linnaeus; classification was hardly what one could describe as scientific as most scholars of that time leaned toward Biblical or philosophical explanations of race. The idea that the human race would be broken into a racial hierarchy in Linnaeus’s description was problematic; ascribing negative traits such as lazy, stubborn, careless to groups other than of European origin while attributing his own European ancestry with adjectives such as gentle and inventive. Linnaeus’s classification exists as one of the first examples of scientific racism we see in contemporary history and just like his work with taxonomy; we live with the repercussions of this myth to this day.
Scientific racism is the use of scientific or pseudoscientific hypotheses and techniques to justify the belief in one group being qualitatively better than another group on the basis of the amount of melanin in their epidermis and the subsequent myth of a racial hierarchy that people of European ancestry belonged at the top; with all other people groups being inferior. The pseudoscientific ideas racial inferiority of any groups non-white held by leading European scholars and academics would then evolve into individual behavior, institutional policy and global worldview. The myth of white racial superiority served as an incubator of institutionalized systems of oppression that would benefit people of European ancestry to the detriment of cultures of indigenous ancestry for generations to come.
There is no coincidence that the myth of racial superiority would rise to prominence during the time that people of European ancestry would first encounter people of color throughout the world. The myth would then be used to justify enslavement, discrimination, colonization and the theft of indigenous lands, genocide, and erasure of cultural norms and ways of life. Despite current science having disproven the myth of a racial hierarchy; as a society we have yet to fully come to terms with its effects and repercussions and how the disparities we experience in the form of racial inequity are a direct result of an institutionalized falsehood – that people of European ancestry are better than every other group of people on the planet.
Racism is a human phenomenon that permeates our social eco-system. We tend to consider pollutants to our physical ecosystem of high levels of concern particularly when they are in our immediate environment. The health of our eco-system is quantified by the health of the individuals found within it. Racism as a toxic pollutant to our ecosystem on an individual human to human level looks like violence, racial slurs and discriminatory practices that cause harm for no reason other than a person shows up with less or more melanin than another. Racism on a systemic level shows up in policies; laws, and allocation of resources to specific groups on the basis of how much melanin they are born with. The myth of racial superiority has created disparities in health between communities of color and people of European ancestry with the latter literally living longer lives at higher states of wellness than the former.
According to Dr. David Williams; “Racial groups with a long history characterized by economic exploitation, social stigmatization, and geographic marginalization have markedly elevated levels of poor health outcomes”. Dr. Williams is Professor of Public Health and African American Studies at Harvard University and an expert in the socio-economic determinants of health. In his presentation to Hope in the Cities’ Community Trustbuilding Fellowship Class of 2014; Dr. Williams explained that segregation; discrimination, institutional racism, internalized racism and the psychological effects of being exposed to racism all serve as mechanisms for the perpetuation of disparities along the lines of race. One study showed that across virtually every therapeutic intervention, ranging from high technology procedures to the most elementary forms of diagnostic and treatment interventions, minorities receive fewer procedures and poorer quality medical care than whites even differences in health insurance, SES, stage and severity of disease, co-morbidity, and the type of medical facility are taken into account
As we reel from the chaos and confusion of Donald Trump as president of the United States; we are forced to confront the endemic toxicity of racism in our social eco-system. The idea that people of European ancestry being better than any other community of lineages on the planet has created systems of oppression that manifest themselves in the health and well-being of people of color. Despite our public abhorrence towards racial slurs and violence; the systemic mechanisms that create racial disparities are often overlooked while they perpetuate the legacy of inequity that those before us fought against. In the looming shadow of xenophobia that heralds our current administration; it is our responsibility to identify how racism has permeated the fabric of our social reality and not only expose it for the myth that it is; but also develop a remedy for its lingering after-effect.
Duron Chavis is an urban farmer and activist from Richmond Virginia. He serves as Community Engagement Coordinator of Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden