Henry Louis Gates Jr. Interviews James Watson

Posted by Osagie Obasogie June 9, 2008
Biopolitical Times

Back in October of last year, James Watson started a heated debate over race and genetics by making a series of statements suggesting that Blacks are an inherently inferior racial group. To recap, Watson noted that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” since “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” Moreover, he is quoted as saying that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

Race scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has filmed two documentaries on race, genetics, and ancestry while also founding a DNA ancestry company, was troubled by Watson’s seemingly pernicious use of race and genetics – particularly since Gates has said that he has “been among those who have long held Watson in high regard.” This led Gates to interview Watson to, in a sense, determine whether he’s a bigot. Gates concludes:

I don't think James Watson is a racist. But I do think that he is a racialist—that is, he believes that certain observable traits or forms of behavior among groups of human beings might, indeed, have a biological basis in the code that scientists, eventually, may be able to ascertain, that the "gene" is some mythically neutral space and what it purportedly "measures" or "determines" is independent of environmental factors, variables and influences.

The difference, the distinction, between being a racist and a racialist is crucial. James Watson is not the garden-variety racist as he has been caricatured by the press and bloggers, the sort epitomized by David Duke and his ilk, and he seemed genuinely chagrined, embarrassed and remorseful that Duke and other racists had claimed him as their champion, as one of their own, because of his remarks as quoted in the London Sunday Times. And, as we might expect, he apologized profusely for those remarks, contending that he had been misquoted, at worst, and his remarks taken out of context, at best.

You can read the full transcript of Gates’ interview with Watson here. Are you persuaded by Gates’ distinction between a racist and a racialist? Post your thoughts in the comments.