Lord God, during this Lenten season, teach us to come before you in humility, lamenting the signs that your kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. Help us to acknowledge our finitude and failings, and guide us into a journey of remembering rightly, repenting honestly, and responding faithfully. We long for the coming of your mosaic kingdom in Jesus Christ, our Lord, and invite your Holy Spirit to lead us now.
THIS DAY IN HISTORY: MARCH 17, 1851
Samuel Cartwright “discovers Drapetomania”
Scientific racism refers to when social scientists began turning towards scientific quantification and statistics in an attempt to construct law-like assumptions about societal and human development. When this shift in scientific rationale occurred, racial issues received the greatest attention and the findings from theses “studies” were produced and published widely in medical journals across the country.
In 1735 Carolus Linnaeus, who was a biological taxonomist, documented in his essay “Systema Naturae” that human beings should be classified by race, stating that there were four racial classifications: “white, black, red, and yellow.” Linnaeus concluded his theory of racial classification by ascribing traits to each racial group saying, “whites [have proven] to be innovative and of keen mind, [while] blacks were lazy and careless.”[iii] While this was one of the first studies to do so, the concept of each race encompassing and exhibiting different mental and moral traits became a central part of this new scientific discourse.
Some of the earliest evidence of the implementation of scientific racism in the United States comes from the writings of Benjamin Rush. Rush was an acclaimed medical doctor who served as a surgeon general in the Revolutionary Army and as a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Furthermore, Rush was one of the founding fathers and signers of the Declaration of Independence. Rush often spoke out on the question of racial morality, and he wrote an article in 1799 entitled Observations Intended to Favor a Supposition That the Black Color of the Negroes Is Derived from the Leprosy where he articulated his views on “black pathology” saying that “the big lip, flat nose, woolly hair, and black skin [of African Americans & African descendants as a whole] were the characteristics of lepers.” He also said that black people have a greater propensity to have “insensitive nerves, uncommon strength, and venereal diseases.”[iv] As an esteemed medical doctor, Rush’s words were very influential, both throughout society at large and within scientific communities. Furthermore, his belief that blacks needed to be civilized and morally restored through righteous living went a long way in justifying paternalistic relations between Whites and Blacks.
While Rush was one of the first U.S. scientists to offer “scientific” justifications for what was seen as the inferiority of African Americans, he was far from the last. A plethora of other noted scientists and physicians like Dr. John H. Van Evrie, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, Dr. Edward Jarvis and Dr. Louis Agassiz made similar conclusions. In 1853 Van Evrie wrote that his research revealed that black people were diseased, unnatural, and possessed impeded locomotion, weakened vocal organs, coarse hands, hypersensitive skin, narrow longitudinal heads, narrow foreheads, and underdeveloped brains and nervous systems. Van Erie concluded that the combination of these traits constituted racial differences and proved inferiority.
And on March 17th, 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright in his “Report on the Disease and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” diagnosed blacks as having “drapetomania,” a disease [which he created and claimed mentally disabled them] making them want to run away. Cartwright believed that Blacks had insignificant supplies of red blood cells, smaller brains, and excessive nerves, which lead to what he called the “debasement of minds in blacks.” Furthermore, Cartwright asserted that “the physical exercise provided by slavery would help increase the lung capacity and blood functions [of African Americans]. The prescription for “drapetomania‟ he argued, was “care and kindness,” [from whites, who were to supervise them through paternalism, but he also asserted that] “the whip should not be spared should kindness fail.”[v] And in extreme cases, Cartwright recommended amputation was the best treatment.
Overtly racist studies and theories such as these continued to be produced and published by physicians into the 1900s.
SCRIPTURAL REFLECTION: LEVITICUS 19:14-19
14 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the Lord. 15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. 16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.
17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. 18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
19 “‘Keep my decrees.
RESPONSE OF LAMENT AND CONFESSION: Please spend some time in personal response, crying out to God with prayers, poems, songs, or art that expresses your lament and confession. If you feel led, please share these responses with others, using #lentenlament #day17
You may close with the following:
Lord have mercy,
Christ have mercy,
Lord have mercy.
CLOSING PRAYER: A PRAYER OF REPENTANCE (Covenant Book of Worship, pg. 349-350)
“Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts no longer bear, what our minds fail to remember, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past we cannot change; open us to a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more into your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world.”