Teaching Reverse Racism

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The teachings are sheer fantasy, unsubstantiated by any credible evidence: ancient Egyptians mastered flight with gliders, which they used for both recreation and travel. They invented electric batteries and mastered electroplating, discovered the principles of quantum mechanics and anticipated Darwin's theories of evolution. Furthermore, all Egyptians were black, and their abundance of the dark skin pigment, melanin, not only made them more humane and superior to lighter-skinned people in body and mind but also provided such paranormal powers as ESP and psychokinesis.

Incredible as it may seem, these fallacies are being included in public school multicultural courses in a growing number of U.S. cities and espoused in black-studies departments on some college campuses. The ideas represent the views of extremists within the Afrocentric movement, which is intended to acquaint U.S. blacks with their long-ignored African heritage and raise their pride and self-esteem. While approving of the legitimate aims of Afrocentrism, many educators, both black and white, are concerned that its excesses will subvert the very goals it seeks to accomplish.

"It defeats what we're trying to do because it's going to be discredited," says David Pilgrim, a sociologist at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. "All the good reasons why it was proposed are going to come back tenfold as negatives on the black community -- and on the black intellectual community specifically." Pilgrim, who is black, calls the claims of the extremists "pseudoscience" and "reverse Jensenism," referring to the controversial theories of Arthur Jensen, who argued that blacks were genetically less intelligent on average than whites.

Much of the Egyptian lore of Afrocentrism stems from the African-American Baseline Essays, published in 1987 by the largely white Portland, Oregon, school district to encourage multiculturalism. This series of seven essays has since been used as a guide by public school systems in Atlanta; Detroit; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and other cities. Teachers are encouraged to read the essays and incorporate at least some of the material into their lesson plans.

The science essay is a strange, error-filled melange of pseudoscience, the Egyptian religion Ma'at and other fanciful ideas, written by Hunter Adams, a former environmental technician at Argonne National Laboratories in Illinois. Yet despite the essay's bizarre claims, it has been accepted not only by Afrocentric extremists but also by apparently scientifically illiterate school boards.

The dissemination of the science essay dismays Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, an anthropologist at Detroit's Wayne State University who has long lobbied for greater minority representation in science. "The danger of an Afrocentric scientific curriculum," he says, "is that if you start doing pseudoscience in schools under the guise of getting more minorities into science, you actually end up with fewer minorities in the real sciences."

Adams is a member of a loose-knit consortium of Afrocentrists and "melanin scholars" that includes Leonard Jeffries, the controversial chairman of black studies at City College in New York; Wade Nobles, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University; Asa Hilliard, a professor at Georgia State University; and other black scholars and psychiatrists. These "melanists," Ortiz de Montellano writes in the latest issue of the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, provide a supposedly scientific explanation for the excessive claims of Afrocentrism.

Basing their beliefs largely on a speculative scientific paper published in 1983 by Dr. Frank Barr, a San Francisco physician, the melanists assert that blacks -- who indeed have more of the skin pigment than other races -- possess superior and supernatural traits that can be ascribed to the magical qualities of neuromelanin, a little-studied substance in the brain. Yet while neuromelanin is markedly different from the skin pigment, the melanists often fail to differentiate between the two and ignore the fact that all humans have similar amounts of neuromelanin. According to the melanists, neuromelanin can convert light and magnetic fields to sound and back again, and can capture sunlight and hold it in a "memory mode." Furthermore, they say, melanin granules are minicomputers that can respond to and analyze stimuli without interacting with the brain.

Barr is aghast at the distortion of his writings: "I wrote a paper for a theoretical journal about specific properties of an interesting, neglected molecule," he says. "It included no stupid things like the more melanin you have, the smarter you are."

That kind of disclaimer apparently has little impact on the school boards that embrace Afrocentric extremes. In Detroit the public schools' radio station has rebroadcast in their entirety Adams' rambling lectures. Adams has participated in seminars for the school system's science teachers, who in one session accepted without protest the assertion that Egyptians were flying around in gliders thousands of years ago. And in Atlanta, Gladys Twyman, coordinator of the African-American infusion program for public schools, confirms that the concept of melanin is used both as a teaching tool and as part of the curriculum. That concept, she explains, "is the thread, the core of the project."

Afrocentrist myths have taken hold in higher education as well, extending beyond black-studies courses. In one of the required multicultural courses for freshmen at Southern Methodist University, for example, the Rev. Clarence Glover, director of intercultural education and minority affairs, tells students that melanin content generates certain emotional reactions. He suggests that those with little melanin and a Nordic background are "member- object" oriented: they rely on objects like warm clothing made of animal skins to survive. But Africans, with more melanin, he says, "have a 'member- member' orientation and value human relationships more than objects."

Even some well-educated black professionals are not immune to the odd tenets of Afrocentrism. Covering the annual convention of the black National Medical Association last summer, Andrew Skolnick, an editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association, listened in disbelief as Dr. Patricia Newton, a psychiatrist affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, waxed eloquent about the wonders of melanin. It has "one of the strongest electromagnetic field forces in the universe," she proclaimed, and was responsible not only for imparting traits that make blacks superior to other races but also for stimulating healing through movement.

"No joke," she explained. "Because when you hear that bass drum ... it creates a melatonin increase surge, causing it to be released in the body, induces the opiate system -- the endorphin and enkephalin system -- and gives you a sense of well-being." From the audience, Skolnick says, "there was not a single murmur of dissent."

These melanist notions and other extremes of Afrocentrism are discomforting to many black educators. John Warfield, who until recently headed the African- American Studies Center at the University of Texas at Austin, calls the melanist theory "a difficult concept to support scientifically" and feels that Afrocentrism is "a romanticizing of Africa that should give everyone pause." But he urges understanding of a form of black nationalism that "waxes and wanes" with the sense of discontent among U.S. blacks. He calls it "a response reflective of some of the destitution in the black community."

While acknowledging the bad science in Afrocentrism, Manning Marable, director of African-American studies at Columbia University, attributes it to a handful of crackpots engaged in what he calls "vulgar Afrocentrism based purely on speculation and racial divisiveness." It developed as "an attempt to speak to a crying need for identity, purpose and human development within the context of the black underclass." Much of Afrocentrism, he says, is based on solid scholarship.

But Marable and some other responsible black educators may be underestimating the appeal of "vulgar" Afrocentrism. Barry Mehler, a white Ferris State professor who specializes in investigating white racism, only recently became aware of the melanist advocates and was shocked by the wide acceptance of their views. "They do not represent a majority of black opinion," he says, "but they represent a significant minority." In a society that has treated blacks as inferiors because of the color of their skin, it is hardly surprising that many of them now embrace melanist doctrine. But in doing so, they are indulging in what they have long decried: racism.