White Guilt and Black Science
Last spring, I gave a talk at St. Vincent College on “Black Privilege and Racial Hysteria in Contemporary America.” It went exactly as you’d expect it to go. I denounced the widespread system of preferential treatment that benefits our fellow black citizens, including the prohibition on noticing said system. The university proceeded to prove my point by hysterically denouncing me as—wait for it—a racist and imposing a draconian policy to restrict outside speakers on campus.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose newfound fame is due to America’s seemingly endless appetite for racial flagellation, recently caught wind of an excerpt from my speech in which I criticized the excessive praise showered on mediocre black composers, scientists, and writers from the past. “If he were not black, no one in America today would know who George Washington Carver is,” I said.
In response, the mother of the infamous “1619 Project” tweeted: “It is truly a heady cocktail of hubris, ignorance and mediocrity to claim that a Black men [sic] born into slavery who became one of the most renowned scientists of his time wouldn’t be celebrated if he weren’t Black and actually had to work for his acclaim like white men did.”
That is quite the claim. Carver’s “time” spanned from 1896, when he was hired by Booker T. Washington to teach at the Tuskegee Institute, until his death in 1943. His career thus overlapped with those of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Louis de Broglie, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Rutherford, Marie Curie, and Ivan Pavlov, to name but some of the most prominent Nobel laureates from that era.
Carver’s claim to scientific fame, by contrast, lies in…well, that is actually hard to say. He obviously did not win a Nobel Prize. In fact, he never won any scientific prizes. Nor did he ever publish articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals. His most famous publication was a bulletin entitled “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption,” in which he gratefully acknowledges drawing from Good Housekeeping, The Montgomery Advertiser, Wallace’s Farmer and a number of other magazines, newspapers, and cookbooks.
Carver also did not leave behind any scientific manuscripts or laboratory notebooks. His published works were “free, simply-written brochures that included information on crops, cultivation techniques, and recipes for nutritious meals.” He obtained three patents in his lifetime: two for paints and stains, and one for a cosmetic containing peanut oil.
In the popular imagination, Carver is the man who invented peanut butter. That honor, in truth, belongs to the cereal pioneer John Harvey Kellogg. Carver is also credited with developing some 300 peanut-derived products. Setting aside the fact that the list contains significant double-counting, many of those 300 items were clearly not invented by Carver (salted peanuts, for example). And while I love “chocolate-coated peanuts” as much as the next guy, I fail to see how they constitute a scientific innovation. Even if one of his peanut products were to have some scientific application, Carver left behind no formulas for them. As such, they can neither be reproduced nor evaluated.
None of Carver’s purported inventions were commercially successful. The company he founded, Carver Penol Company, sold a peanut-based medicine for respiratory diseases such as tuberculosis. It flopped and was deemed ineffective by the Food and Drug Administration.
In 1960, the National Park Service (NPS), which administers the George Washington Carver National Monument, commissioned a study of Carver’s scientific achievements from two professors at the University of Missouri. After receiving the report, the NPS concluded it should not be circulated as its “realistic appraisal of his ‘scientific contributions,’ which loom so large in the Carver legend, is information which must be handled very carefully as far as outsiders are concerned.”
In Carver’s defense, he never claimed to be a great scientist. One of his students, who worked with him in his lab, later recalled: “When I could not find the ‘real’ scientist in him, I became hurt. …I should have known better since time and again he made it clear to me that he was primarily an artist who created good…out of natural things. He knew that he was not ‘a real chemist’ so-called ‘engaged’ in…applied chemical research. He used to say to me jokingly, ‘You and I are ‘cook-stove chemists’ but we dare not admit it, because it would damage the publicity that Dr. Moton [Booker T. Washington’s successor] and his assistants send out in press releases about me and my research, for his money-raising campaigns.”
Carver was by all accounts a good man who sincerely wanted to help the lot of Southern farmers. He urged them to practice crop rotation and freely disseminated his agricultural advice and recipes. None of this, however, warrants his inclusion in the pantheon of great American scientists. It is simply true that, had Carver been white, he would have sunk into obscurity. Instead, he is better known today than John Bardeen, the American physicist who is the only person to ever win two Nobel Prizes in Physics.
Why, then, is Carver one of the very first pictures Google yields when you search “famous American scientists?” The answer, as always, lies in our collective psyche: the interplay between white Americans who, haunted by guilt of the past, are desperate to flatter black Americans to prove they are not racist, and blacks, who embrace the flattery to feel content that their historical accomplishments are on par with those of whites in every last realm.
Both whites and blacks thus have a vested interest in lying about the past—and the present. Both get angry at those who call out the lies. The number and magnitude of the lies they tell will only continue to increase until well-intentioned Americans of all races take a firm stand against the racial demagoguery that now defines our public life.
David Azerrad is an assistant professor at Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington, D.C.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.