Skip to main content

New Film Series Explores Science’s Role in Fighting Racism

In a new short film produced by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program, researchers discuss the past and present intersections of science and racism. | Fourth Line Films/AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has launched a film series on the intersection of race, history, and science.

The project’s first short film, published Dec. 11 by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) program, features commentary from leading voices in anthropology and evolutionary biology. They discuss topics that the series’ future installments will explore, including human evolution, the history of scientific racism, and the lack of a biological basis for the modern conception of race.

“Anatomically modern humans are a young species with very little genetic variation,” Joseph Graves, professor of biological studies at North Carolina A&T State University, said in the video. “We have less genetic variation than one group of Western African chimpanzees. Our species, in fact, really does not have biological races.”

The new series represents the second phase of “Science: The Wide Angle,” a collection of films designed to spark classroom discussion on scientific topics. The videos are part of DoSER’s Science for Seminaries initiative, which helps seminaries integrate science and technology lessons into their curricula in order to better prepare future clergy for conversations on those subjects.

In addition to being well-received by theological institutions, the project’s films have found a home in high school and undergraduate courses across the United States. In the coming year, John Slattery and Curtis Baxter, DoSER senior program associates and co-producers of the new series, plan to release pedagogy resources to guide the videos’ use in various educational settings.

“The purpose of these is to get information in the classroom,” Slattery said. “It’s for teachers to add to their lessons; to be able to fit a video in when they can’t go talk to someone.”

The idea for the new series on race emerged from feedback on the topics covered in the first 13 “Science: The Wide Angle” films. In discussions with AAAS staff, educators and students expressed a desire to learn more about how science can be used to refute racist ideologies and practices.

“This topic kept coming up, particularly race and particularly this year, in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and those very major events in American history,” Baxter said. “This is an opportunity for us to set the record straight with regard to race and science.”

After establishing the difference between socially defined and biological conceptions of race, the new film delves into the history of science. As a result of the colonialist bias that dominated research for centuries, the scientists in the video noted, American society came to attribute undue significance to superficial, physical traits.

“Science certainly has been responsible for some of the ideas that we have about race, about thinking about human difference — some that have particularly been damaging to too many communities,” Jada Benn Torres, associate professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University said in the film. “So I think science has both a role and a responsibility in mitigating that damage.”

“Once you’ve dispelled the biological underpinning for inequality in this country, you’re then faced with a political, historical, and social reality,” added Agustín Fuentes, professor of anthropology at Princeton University. “As a moral and ethical imperative, you have to deal with that.”

In reflecting on the importance of the new series, Baxter recalled his experience as a child in Canton, North Carolina, a small town in the Appalachian Mountains. When he was growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, his school remained open on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, ignoring its status as a federal holiday. The school also organized field trips to Stone Mountain, the Georgia park named for its memorial to leaders of the Confederacy.

On one occasion, a group of students cornered Baxter in the locker room, hurling racial slurs at him.

“It’s always stuck with me,” Baxter said. “There’s this tinge of hatred out there.”

“One way of hopefully healing some wounds is to talk about race and science and to talk about the history of it,” he added. “These videos are not going to solve everything. It’s just to start a conversation.”