It brought me so much joy that when I shared on Instagram that I was teaching a class this semester at Notre Dame on the history of race and racism in science, so many people asked if they could tune in to one of my lectures or access my syllabus. Like many of you, I wasn’t taught about the ways in which scientific knowledge was used to create, reinforce, and further ideas about race in high school, and barely covered the topic in college. It was not until I started graduate school that I began to learn about how race has been embedded in modern science and medicine, and once I read one book, I became fascinated with the contradiction: a field that is often viewed as objective, science, could be so important in the discussion of something that has historically been subjective, race. I continued reading and studying more, and now I research and write about scientific knowledge production about race, particularly in health and medicine. You can learn a bit more about my work here.
Below I’ve put together a list of books that have addressed some aspect of race or racism in science and medicine from the 17th century to the present. I have organized it topically rather than chronologically, in case there is a specific area of science that you are more interested in.
A few caveats: This list is technically a historiography of the field, as I include all secondary source books about the history of race in science, rather than primary source works where these ideas were put forth in the first place. Even still, this list is in no way meant to be exhaustive — many of the most seminal works on this topic have been published as scholarly journal articles and not books, meaning that they are traditionally not available to the public for free. If you have access to journal articles or know someone with a university account who can get the articles for you, you can check out my course syllabus here, which primarily consists of journal articles and is a mix of primary and secondary source documents. The below list also heavily focuses on histories of scientific ideas about Blackness specifically, though there is a growing body of work on racial ideologies in science about Latinx, Indigenous, and AAPI peoples.
Last thing before we get into the full list. There are some foundational theories that shape the way I understand the history of race in science, and also inform the creation of this reading list. All research is biased in some way, so here are my intellectual biases:
- Science is never truly objective. Because scientific knowledge is created by people, who are a product of their society, science itself is a product of its society. Thus, scientific knowledge can and should be interrogated, but more importantly, understood in the context of the social and historical moment when the knowledge was produced.
- Race is a social construct built on a belief that there are distinct groups of people with innate and immutable differences who are organized in a hierarchy, in such a fashion that those groups at the top of the hierarchy have power over the groups at the bottom. It is a construct because race has no material existence — there is no one way to measure race, and because of this, the ways that science has understood race have changed over time for various social, legal, and political reasons.
- Race is neither a passive byproduct of nor a peripheral category in scientific inquiry. Race — what it means, how to measure it, what its implications are for social and political life, etc — has been central to the development of modern science, particularly in America, since the 1600s.
Ok now that you know where I’m coming from and all my caveats, here is a reading list for the history of race and racism in science!
I’ll be adding more books over time as I come across them, but feel free to check out this reading list put together by a few of my colleagues specifically on anti-Black racism in medicine. If you have any additional suggestions, please share them in the comments!