The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Anthropology’s Racist History

Aug 21, 2023

A recent Washington Post investigation of the Smithsonian Institution revealed its so-called racial brain collection. This collection includes 255 human brains that were removed primarily from dead Black and Indigenous people without their consent and without their families’ consent or knowledge. These brains, as well as 30,000 other body parts, were collected mostly in the first half of the 20th century at the behest of the head curator of the Division of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian, Ales Hrdlicka. He was widely viewed as an expert on race, evolution, and human variation. When he started at the Smithsonian in 1903, Hrdlicka created a massive network of physicians and scientists that would collect these brains and body parts on his behalf.

These brains and other body parts were stolen from graveyards, battlefields, hospitals, and morgues in more than 80 countries. Hrdlicka was a racist who believed in white superiority. He was also a longtime member of the American Eugenics Society. He was collecting these “specimens” to research race and prove his racist ideas. But the Washington Post investigation was unable to find any studies that Hrdlicka actually did. But the fact that he had no real scientific evidence did not stop him from making these racist claims on the front pages of newspapers, that white brains show superiority to black brains. "There are differences of importance between the brains of the negro and European, to the general disadvantage of the former," he wrote in a 1926 letter to a University of Vermont professor. He never even specified what the differences were!

Hrdlicka’s ideas were not new or isolated. Going back as early as the 1600s, naturalists like Linnaeus were categorizing human beings into hierarchical races, with white at the top and black at the bottom.

Hrdlicka was a curator for the Smithsonian, which meant they funded his collection. His own racist beliefs were featured in the Journal of Physical Anthropology, which was affiliated with the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. He helped found both organizations. His colleagues at the museum celebrated his birthday—after he was dead. Hrdlicka was like a god to them. He advised the American Eugenics Society on how to gain support from doctors for forced sterilization, which the Supreme Court legalized in 1927. The Nazis later embraced his now-discredited theory on selective breeding improving the gene pool.

He felt justified in stealing all those brains and body parts because to him they were sub-human, just specimens. And these ideas of biological white supremacy have been used to justify all sorts of atrocities from slavery to genocide to forced sterilizations and more.

These ideas serve another purpose for the ruling class and the capitalists. They hide the class nature of society. Racism and white supremacy can make it appear that poor and working class white people are the same as the white ruling class and have the same interests. This is the big lie which got the stamp of “science” on it. Native-born white workers have the same class interests as black workers and immigrant workers. That is the fact that the capitalists wish to obscure with racism and racist ideology.