Black Protest, White Backlash, and the History of Scientific Racism

Co-Authored by Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer
Colin Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid kneel in protest during September 12, 2016 game against the Los Angeles Rams
Colin Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid kneel in protest on September 12, 2016 before a game against the Los Angeles Rams (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

“Mainstream culture…defines threats to racial order as a form of madness that is, still, overwhelmingly located in the minds and bodies of black [people].” –Jonathan Metzl

On September 28th, television host Bill Maher tweeted that “#colinkapernick [sic] is a f**king idiot” after the 49ers quarterback voiced his disappointment with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the basis that their campaigns are “trying to debate who is less racist.” Maher’s choice of invective has proven popular among those who disapprove of Colin Kaepernick’s critique of white supremacy.

Delegitimizing black protest by labeling its expressions as “idiocy” is not new. Since the very invention of the ideology of race, white people have struggled to accept black social protest on its own terms. Instead, white people have often marshaled the language of science to attribute black resistance to various forms of derangement, stupidity, and psychosis in an effort to delegitimize its critique of white supremacy. In fact, the endurance of white supremacy rests in its ability to construct, define, and police the boundaries of black pathology in the very moments in which it perceives deep challenges to its stability and legitimacy. When black protest threatens white supremacy, white “science” steps in.

The history of pathologizing black resistance to white oppression has its roots in the practice of U.S. slavery. Nineteenth century medical diagnoses, for instance, often reflected white slave-holding interests in the context of black protest and revolt. In 1851, Samuel A. Cartwright, a New Orleans physician and Confederate loyalist, published his “Report on the Disease and the Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race” in which he argued that high rates of physical and mental illnesses afflicting black persons were products of the supposed biologically inferior mental capacity of the “black race.”

19th-century depiction of a runaway slave.
19th-century depiction of a runaway slave.

In this report, Cartwright introduced what he called “Drapetomania,” known as the “Disease Causing Slaves to Run Away.” He claimed that Drapetomania was curable except in “slaves [who are] located on the borders of a free State, within a stone’s throw of the abolitionists.” Interestingly, Cartwright offered no explanation as to why these particular enslaved black communities could not be “cured” of their “mental “illness” and thereby continued to flee northward toward freedom. While “kindness”—keeping one’s property well-fed, clothed, providing enough fuel to keep the enslaved warm at night, and so forth—was the prescribed antidote to the “disease,” Cartwright nonetheless warned that “if any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer…they should be punished until they fall into [a] submissive state….’” Cartwright, in other words, viewed Drapetomania as a mental “illness” that could be beaten out of those who resisted enslavement.

In the immediate aftermath of slavery, everyone from physicians to scholars and politicians sought to explain the supposed high-rates of diseases, most notably tuberculosis, among black communities. According to historian Tera Hunter, “Race handicapped affluent blacks because they could not withstand the excessive ‘mental strain’ necessary to emulate the ‘higher degree of civilization’ and good health of ‘the better class of their white neighbors.’” The “diseases” of black communities were therefore the black bodies physically breaking down because they could not handle the responsibilities of freedom.

In the early twentieth century, black resistance was described as disease through the eugenics discourse of idiocy. Terms such as “idiot” and “moron” emerged to classify those unfit for civic life and to justify deportation, institutionalization, or sterilization. Both terms were used to police the project of white (Anglo, Nordic) race preservation.

The terms “idiot” and “moron” entered into our nation’s lexicon in 1910. At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded, held in May of that year, racial eugenicist Henry Goddard proposed a taxonomic system—“idiot-imbecile-moron”—for classifying individuals with “mental retardation” based on an intelligence quotient (IQ). Goddard ascribed the term “idiot” to those with a mental age of less than three years. Moreover, he applied the term “imbecile” to those with a mental age of 3 to 7. A “moron,” in Goddard’s estimation, was best reserved for those with a mental age of 7 to 10. All three terms fell under the broad category of “feeble-mindedness.” Goddard’s typology also corresponded with precise IQ ranges:

0-29 = idiot

30-49 = imbecile

50-69 = moron

In 1917, Goddard was tapped to serve on the U.S. Army’s Alpha and Beta Testing Team, a research body that conducted intelligence tests on over 1.7 million soldiers. A few years later, Goddard and his team published the results in their book, Psychology Examining in the United States Army. Whereas Goddard and his cohort found that 47 percent of whites from southern and eastern European countries could be classified as morons, they alleged that 89 percent of black soldiers fell into the same category.

But the timing of the report’s publication is curious especially given the prominent role black veterans played in resisting white lynch mob violence in the immediate aftermath of the war. In 1919, whites who were upset by black migration from the rural south to the urban north began a lynching campaign of near-historic proportions. According to the Library of Congress, at least 76 black Americans were lynched that year alone.

African Americans standing in front of a Walgreens drugstore during the 1919 Chicago race riot.
African Americans congregating in front of a Walgreens drugstore during the 1919 Chicago race riot.

In the war’s immediate aftermath black veterans were often at the forefront of these violent confrontations. During the bloody “Red Summer” of 1919 in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Elaine, Arkansas and again three years later in Tulsa, Oklahoma demobilized black veterans used their combat experience and tactical and organizational knowledge to resist oppression in their communities. Alleging that 89 percent of black soldiers—and therefore black veterans—were morons, one can argue, served as a way of undermining their resistance to lynch mobs and the destruction of black communities.

The delegitimization of black protest was again on display in 1968 at the height of the Black Power era when eminent psychiatrists Walter Bromberg and Frank Simon dreamed up a diagnosis—“protest psychosis”—that described Black power as a form of “delusional anti-whiteness.” Four years later, in “Symbolism in Protest Psychosis,” they forcefully described that malady as “a psychotic illness with strong elements of racial hostility and black nationalism [that entails] the release of previously repressed anti-white feelings, which combine with African ideology and beliefs.” In short, “[the illness is oriented toward] reversing the white supremacy tradition or stating an objection to the accepted superiority of white values in terms of an African ideology.”

During the same period, and in keeping with Bromberg and Simon’s thesis, the idea of schizophrenia shifted from a condition historically associated with “white feminine docility” to that of “angry black masculinity.” In his compelling text, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease, Dr. Johnathan Metzl demonstrated how schizophrenia’s new clinical parameters were signaled in the second edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published in 1968. Schizophrenia, he argued, was reorganized as a “disorder of masculinized belligerence” through the language of hostility and aggression. According to Metzl, the diagnosis “mirrored the social context of its origins in ways that enabled users to knowingly or unknowingly pathologize protest as mental illness [or cognitive deficiency].”

Contemporary attempts to delegitimize black protest as “idiocy” reflects the scientific discourse of pathology that has been evident in white critiques of black resistance for decades. Arguing that black protest is grounded in derangement, stupidity, and psychosis is precisely what allows white people to sidestep the actual content of black activists’ demands.

Perhaps we can begin to understand and to respect black resistance by affirming that Colin Kaepernick is not an idiot; that black veterans fighting lynch mobs were not morons; that enslaved men and women who ran away were not diseased; and that the unwavering demand to be regarded as “fully human” in the eyes of the state does not signal a psychotic break. To the contrary, black protest, in all its forms, fundamentally challenges white supremacy and affirms blackness as fundamental to the fabric of our democratic society in the making.


Christopher Petrella is a Lecturer in American Cultural Studies at Bates College. His work explores the intersections of race, state, and criminalization. He completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Follow him on Twitter @CFPetrella.

Justin Gomer is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University, Long Beach. His work centers on race and representation in the post-civil rights era. He completed a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.


Comments on “Black Protest, White Backlash, and the History of Scientific Racism

  • A fascinating read, but the first-paragraph statement “Maher’s choice of invective has proven popular among those who disapprove of Colin Kaepernick’s critique of white supremacy” doesn’t, I believe, take into account the fact that those with whom it has ‘proven popular’ are willfully misunderstanding Maher’s critique – he was not calling Kaepernick an idiot because of his protest, and he doesn’t disapprove of his ‘critique of white supremacy’. His reason for calling Kaepernick an ‘idiot’ was simply an attack on the false equivalency he was espousing when talking about both candidates, as though they are equally bad or equally racist, which is demonstrably untrue. Certainly not the best choice of words, but in no way was Maher himself ‘delegitimizing black protest by labeling its expressions as “idiocy”’.

    • Thank you, Eric! This times 1,000. Colin Kaepernick has no idea how much that statement about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump being equal has damaged his personal reputation.

      But Colin’s protest is still 100% correct. How I feel about Colin personally has no bearing on his cause. By continuing to kneel, he stands for us.

    • I don’t think we can say that Colin’s statement wad “demonstrably untrue”. Colin was making a point about overt racism versus covert racism. Although for many people, Trump is overtly racist, many people feel that Hillary is covertly racist. Whether you agree or disagree is one thing, but it is a matter of opinion, and not necessarily something that can be measured or proven. His statement comparing Hillary and Trump sent a message that once you are aware of it, covert racism is just as powerful as noticeable as overt racism. Definitely don’t think it damaged his personal reputation. I think that most people who support him and fully understand his message understood the statement he made as well. So yes, I agree that Bill Maher disapproved of Colin’s critique of white supremacy. The way in which Colin identifies racism is likely due to his experiences. Like many black people, has most likely experienced covert racism, the type that he seems to see in Hillary, much more than overt racism. I think his tweet was a reflection of that experience. No need to be called an idiot for it.

      • Excellent. Eloquent statement, & one that needs to be made. The media does a disservice to the public when they fail to report the objective facts, which indicate an easily proven truth: This is all a show. The wealthiest Americans have already ensured that their interests will be seen to, regardless of who is elected.

        The rest of us are arguing over their scraps while they move to receive their next payout.

      • so well said, jarran: the context… I keep forgetting. Delegitimizing kap’s opinions, forgetting his perspective/experiences. Thank you!

    • I don’t think so, Eric. I believe he has been masking his true feelings for Kap’s protest, but is married to the left, so would lose support there if he criticized it (because many liberals are just as racist as conservatives, but it doesn’t fit their narrative, so they mask it well. Until it slips out). Calling Kap an idiot for “not knowing” what “false equivalency” is, is way over the top, even for Maher, who is smart enough to measure his criticism.

    • Oh great, it’s a liberal that thinks because their political party throws some scraps to black people every now and then that they’re somehow better than blatant white supremacists. Black people know that democrats are almost as full of BS as the GOP.

  • A good post and again, I appreciate the History of Science & Medicine that appears here; however, this brief entry does gloss over the vast complexities and contingencies concerning race and idiocy/intelligence/IQ. In its brevity, we miss the importance of class, combined with race, in the construction of these disease/illness categories. What immediately comes to mind is the Carrie Buck case (“three generations of imbeciles is enough”)–she was not black, nor was she involved in protest, yet the case is critical to the history of eugenics. How do we contend with this more complicated history when thinking about idiocy and black protest? How might we marshal this history to promote coalition building in service of black protest?

  • Very interesting and informative read. I was familiar with slaves running away being labeled with a mental illness, yet not the ones close to abolishment states.
    I never knew Idiot,Moron and Imbecile were medical terms. WOW! I also disagree with the Bill Maher statement I didn’t take is a comment on black protesters but that Hillary and Trump are not only the same level when it comes to racism. But , maybe that’s because I am a white male? One a side note NOT a Trump supporter nor Clinton. This election has revealed a lot more white men I have met or I know personally that scare me because they support Trump.

  • Great article. I would like to reach out to the authors and see if they would be interested in expanding this topic in a panel discussion.

  • Thank you for this article. White supremacist thinking and frameworks undergird much of the discourse and policies in this country. Add to that selective amnesia, and we find ourselves in this current and frightening moment.

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