Reason v Racism

The appointment of Adam Rutherford as Humanist UK’s next president is cheered as an important antidote to the ugly spectre of racism. East London Humanist opinion piece published Barking and Dagenham Post 30.3.22, Newham Recorder 13.4.22.

The scourge of racism has raised its ugly head again in the news. It underlines why the recent appointment of a top geneticist as Humanist UK’s next President is so welcome.

One story concerns a 15-year-old black East London schoolgirl subjected to a particularly degrading police strip-search. A safeguarding report has just concluded that the search was unjustified, and racism was ‘likely’ an influencing factor. Scotland Yard has apologised. The blunt truth is that it’s difficult to imagine a white pupil being treated so badly.

A second story is no less outrageous. Several accounts tell of refugees’ attempts to flee the war in Ukraine being blocked simply because they are non-white. Their sickening treatment flies in the face of the ‘civilised values’ which are at stake in that dreadful conflict. 

Dr Adam Rutherford, who begins his Presidency in June, has been at the forefront of research on race and genetics. He is a brilliant broadcaster and writer and won the David Attenborough Award for public engagement with science last year. His book ‘How to argue with a racist’ is a best seller.

The last few years have seen a surge in knowledge about the genetic material that constitutes living things. Even scientists have in the past been guilty of misusing superficial human characteristics like skin colour, hair type and facial features to categorise human beings and make false assumptions linking these categories to capacity to think, act and feel. The issues are complex, but Rutherford has done a superb job disentangling how inherited genes and social circumstances impact our lives. In short, we now know through scientific advances just how similar all humans are ‘under the skin.’ Rutherford arms and inspires us to address the irrational bigotry and structural bias which blight so many people’s lives simply because of their appearance.

The treatment of ‘Girl Q’ and of black refugees in Ukraine isn’t just down to a few rotten apples.  Prejudice is deep and pervasive. Law has a part to play, but we cannot legislate to change hearts and minds.  We need more champions like Rutherford to persuasively apply reason and evidence in educational and other institutions to win the fight against racial injustice.

Paul Kaufman
Chair East London Humanists

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