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Rivers: Blame Jefferson for Ferguson?

Caryl Rivers

What do Thomas Jefferson and Harvard University have to do with racist emails sent by the Ferguson, Missouri, police?

The Justice Department recently completed an investigation of the department after a shooting in the city resulted in the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black youth.

The probe uncovered a series of racist emails sent by members of the department, one of which pictured President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.

What could that have to do with Thomas Jefferson, the renowned champion of liberty? Jefferson, a Virginian, was a lifelong slave-owner and also had a long-term relationship with a female slave, Sally Hemmings, who bore him at least one and perhaps six children.

In his book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson asks if slavery should be ended and if blacks are inherently inferior to whites.

Audrey Smedley, professor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Race in North America: Origins of a Worldview,” has written extensively about Jefferson and his attitudes on race. She says that he “actually says he’s not sure, but hazards the guess that Africans are naturally inferior.”

Jefferson writes, “It appears to me, that in memory they (blacks) are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.”

Smedley says, “Jefferson’s statement in ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’ is seen by many historians as not only the major statement about black inferiority, but as the first statement that really propels the colonies into trying to justify slavery.” Jefferson concludes, “We will not be able to know this until science gives us the answers.”

And so, Smedley says, “He calls on science to examine human populations and determine that blacks are naturally inferior.”

And that’s exactly what science did. “Within a generation after Jefferson writes this, scholars are writing about the natural inferiority of Africans.” Jefferson, who famously penned the words that “all men are created equal,” became the progenitor of racist science.

Dr. Samuel Morton, writing in the 1840s, collected skulls from around the world and filled them with mustard seeds to measure them. He announced that African skulls were smaller on average than European skulls and that blacks were thus inferior.

“Of course, intelligence has nothing to do with brain size,” Smedley points out.

Morton’s disciples, Josiah Clark Nott and George Robins Gliddon, argued in “Indigenous Races of the Earth” (1857), that “Negroes” ranked on a hierarchy of creation between “Greeks” and “chimpanzees.” The link between black humans and chimps was thus cemented by science.

The renowned Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz became convinced by these arguments that Africans were a separate species and, says Smedley, “He became the most active spokesman for separate creations of the races. ... He came to Harvard. He became part of the upper crust society in Cambridge. He was Harvard’s most prominent professor. He founded the Museum of Paleontology. He founded all of the biological sciences at Harvard. He was touted as a great man. He gave lectures all over the place. But most importantly, he trained the next generation of scientists in America. And these scientists spread out over America teaching the same kinds of attitudes about racial differences to other people.”

In 2014, former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared Obama to a “trained ape” in a discussion on Fox about the administration’s Afghanistan’s policy.

Will the Obama-Ape comparisons vanish soon? Probably not. Obama is going to be president for another year and a half. The blacks-are-like chimps remarks won’t disappear in the near future either.

They have a very long history.

Caryl Rivers teaches race, gender and media at at Boston University and is the co-author of “The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy.”