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When Racism and Sexism Trump Science

By       Message David R. Zimmerman     Permalink

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The African Burial Ground, a national monument in downtown Manhattan, has much to teach us about the tragedy of racism and sexism. Sadly, these lessons are not limited to the distant past. 
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In 1991, excavators digging a foundation hole for the Ted Weiss Federal Building on lower Broadway stumbled on human bones. Few New Yorkers knew then that black people had been enslaved here before the Revolutionary War, by Dutch and English colonialists.

Conflict arose between scientists who wanted to study the bones, and African-American New Yorkers who sought to prevent further desecration of their long-suffering ancestors by respectfully reburying their remains. In the eyes of some black leaders, the scientists--pathologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists--had one important deficiency: not one of the team was black.
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In 1992, Michael Blakey entered the fray. A young anthropology Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts employed at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Blakey presented himself as an advocate for the black community and their forebears, whom, he charged angrily, were being demeaned by the federal government and the white scientists working with it. 

The Metropolitan Forensic Anthropology Team (MFAT) hoped Blakey would join their research effort in New York. But he soon made it clear that he wanted to bring the bones to Howard, a black university, for study. Only a black scientist, he said, was qualified to study and interpret these long-forgotten black bones. 

The General Services Administration (GSA), the federal funding agency, yielded to pressure from black leaders and appointed Blakey the project's scientific director. He began to assemble a research team, and planned to move 400 sets of remains to Washington. 

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But MFAT didn't want to let go of the bones. The conflict grew ugly. "Over time, what might have been merely an academic squabble, a dispute over scientific and historical methodologies, has deepened into a bitter conflict," one observer reported. "[O]ne of the issues is race."  The black community, nurtured by Blakey, felt that MFAT was holding the bones hostage in its bid for the $9 million research contract. 

MFAT asked colleagues to assess Blakey and his proposal. Their responses indicated that the research plans were weak, especially as he planned not to perform tests on the bones to confirm they were in fact from black people. (Some Native Americans reportedly had been buried in the cemetery, as well as whites from the nearby gallows.) Blakey estimated that eight percent of the burials sent to Washington were non-black. But he never determined which ones.

Anthropologist Alexander Sonek, Ph.D., acknowledged that "race" is harder to identify than age, sex, and other variables. But, since it influences the analysis of the other variables, an estimation of "race, if at all possible, must be made prior to other analyses." This was just one of the flaws colleagues found in Blakey's research plans. 

The struggle over the research became a battle for power. Archeologist Nancy Demyttenaere wrote: "It is no secret that a certain level of academic conflict has evolved between Dr. Blakey and MFAT, but I was not prepared for the blatant animosity and power choreography of his attempts [to] remain isolated as the dominant scientific authority over the remains. His slanderous claims of cultural, racial, and academic/scientific bias were wholly inappropriate." 

Nevertheless, the remains were packed up and shipped to Howard. Some $8 million in federal funding flowed through GSA to Howard and Blakey over the next dozen years.

Though he had insisted that the project called for black scientists, Blakey hired a white woman to lead the hands-on research. Mary Cassandra Hill had wide experience disinterring and studying long-buried human bodies. But Blakey soon found himself unhappy with Hill and her work. He claimed she was trying to take over. 

In part, Blakey grew frustrated with Hill for what she had failed to find. In the 18th century, two slave revolts had occurred in Manhattan. Fifty of the purported rioters had been arrested, condemned, and executed by burning or hanging. Blakey wanted to discover their martyred bones--but Hill said she had found no badly burned remains, and no hangman's fractures. When Hill's employment contract ran out, Blakey didn't renew it. She says he denied her scientific credit for her work. 

The GSA, meanwhile, covering for Blakey and for itself, stone-walled reporters seeking information.

In 1998. Blakey submitted a massive preliminary first draft of the research to GSA--more than 2,000 pages. After a full year, GSA rejected it as inadequate, incomplete, and rife with errors. There was much data, but little text and essentially no analysis. 

Blakey replied that GSA's scientific reviewers had misunderstood his method. He blamed delays and denials of funding by GSA for the report's shortcomings. But he promised to revise the draft as the reviewers recommended. However, GSA cut off further funding and told Blakey to lock up and leave the lab. "What was there to show for the $5 million that was spent?" an agency official asked. "That was GSA's biggest problem. There wasn't a lot there."

Blakey left Howard. Embarrassed by the time and money wasted, the promises unkept, all parties kept quiet.

Eventually, GSA recruited a new leader, archaeologist Michael K. Trimble, Ph.D., to coordinate work on the project. While Blakey blamed problems on Hill's unsound treatment of the bones, Trimble's team said "the measurements are sound," but that the conclusions based on them--Blakey's responsibility--were not. 

Nevertheless, Blakey continued to blame racism for the project's failings. In 2002 he said, "GSA has demonstrated from the beginning a pattern of disrespect and disregard for the expertise of black people." A former GSA official, Brian A. Jackson, who is black, labeled the accusations "hogwash." 

In 2003, the remains were returned to New York. Amid moving "Rites of Ceremonial Return," they were reburied next to 290 Broadway, where a walk-through monument run by the National Park Service has been built. (A visitors' center was opened in the Weiss Building in 2010.) 

Early in 2005, Blakey and Howard University submitted their final technical report to GSA. It was accepted, a dozen years after work had begun--nine years overdue. It had little significant new information.

The scientific task, Blakey had insisted early on, was to "restore" the buried slaves' "identities." But so far, not one of the 400 bodies has been identified by name or by family, and direct descendants have not been traced--though some still might be, since DNA samples have been saved. 

Even the sankofa used as a symbol at the national monument may be a wrong. A pattern of several dozen metal tacks found in a rotting coffin lid was interpreted by Blakey as a sankofa, an African mourning symbol, supposedly connecting those buried in Lower Manhattan to their African forebears. But this may be an overreach: historian Erik R. Seeman, Ph.D. has described 18th-century coffins in a wealthy white family's tomb in Connecticut that are adorned with similar heart-shaped designs.

Sadly, this detail serves as an apt symbol of this entire disappointing research project.

The bodies unearthed in 1991 were the victims of brutal racism--slavery--in their lifetimes. Now, much of the potential historical knowledge their bones could have yielded has been squandered. This is what can happen when race is allowed to trump science.

 

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David R. Zimmerman is an investigative science reporter and author of the new book SANKOFA? How Racism and Sexism Skewed New York's Epochal Black Research Project. He was the medical columnist for Ladies' Home Journal for many years, and has written (more...)
 

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When Racism and Sexism Trump Science