Heather Mac Donald

On Race and Crime, a Counterfactual Narrative

Millions of blacks are walking around believing that whites hate and fear them so much that blacks are at daily risk of their lives from that hatred. This belief is the rankest fiction. Yet it is embraced and amplified by almost every mainstream American institution.

The shooting of a teen-ager in Kansas City, Missouri, has added “knocking on the door while black” and “existing while black” to the list of activities that allegedly put blacks at daily risk of their lives in white supremacist America. Meantime, the actual configuration of interracial violence is assiduously ignored.
On April 13, 2023, at around 10 P.M., 16-year-old Ralph Yarl went to the wrong address in a Kansas City residential neighborhood to pick up his younger brothers. Yarl rang the doorbell, summoning the 84-year-old homeowner, Andrew Lester, from his bed. Lester, who lived alone and who appears from photographs to be in the early stages of dementia, grabbed his handgun and went to the door. He became “scared to death,” he told the police, when he saw the larger Yarl pulling at the exterior storm door handle. (Yarl denies trying to open the door.) Lester shot Yarl, once in the head and once in the arm, through the storm door. Thankfully, Yarl will likely survive the horrifying attack.
Every news outlet that covered the shooting led with the race of Yarl and of Lester. Yarl was inevitably identified as a “Black” teenager and Lester as a “white” homeowner. The Kansas City district attorney validated the race narrative. The shooting had a “racial component,” the prosecutor said, without offering evidence. (The DA has charged Lester with assault in the first degree because the potential maximum sentence—life in prison—is higher than that for attempted murder.)
President Biden weighed in with his usual trope about black parents living in daily fear for their children’s lives in racist America. “Last night, I had a chance to call Ralph Yarl and his family,” Biden tweeted. “No parent should have to worry that their kid will be shot after ringing the wrong doorbell.” For once Biden left out “black,” but his formula by now is so routine (“Imagine having to worry whether your son or daughter came home from walking down the street, playing in the park or just driving a car,” as “Brown and Black parents” have to do, Biden asked in his 2023 State of the Union address) that he doesn’t need the descriptor to get his racial message across. Biden invited Yarl to visit the White House when he had recovered.
Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas made no effort to defuse the race angle that the press, the president, and his fellow Democrats had instantaneously imposed on the incident. Yarl was shot because he was black by someone who “clearly, clearly fears Black people,” Lucas said. The incident shows why “Black people and Black parents” are concerned that merely “existing while black” can get you shot by a white person, Lucas said. The ubiquitous fomenter of racial resentment, attorney Benjamin Crump, demanded that “gun violence against unarmed Black individuals must stop. Our children should feel safe, not as though they are being hunted.”
Race protests took the same line. “They killin [sic] us for no reason,” read a protest sign in Kansas City. The public was enjoined to “say his [i.e., Yarl’s] name.” This naming injunction is now a standard component of the claim that white America suppresses awareness of its anti-black violence and that it relegates such alleged civil rights heroes as Michael Brown and George Floyd to obscurity.
A professor of African American Studies and a faculty associate with the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Jazz Studies at Princeton University further ratcheted up the racial bathos. Imani Perry recounted in The Atlantic the “terror and grace of raising Black children in the United States.” Millions have protested the “premature deaths of Black innocents,” Perry wrote, without having any effect on the suffering of “Black folks.”
Two days after the Yarl shooting, on April 15, a 20-year-old girl was fatally shot when a car she was in entered the wrong driveway in upstate New York. Three days after that, on April 18, two cheerleaders were shot, one critically, in a Texas supermarket parking lot after one tried mistakenly to get into a stranger’s car. There were no protests around those shootings, invitations to the White House, or injunctions to say the victims’ names, because the decedent and the other victims were all white. But the fact that all three victims were white still did not dislodge the idea that “knocking on the door,” in Mayor Lucas’s words, was a particular threat to black people. Press accounts of the incidents continued to mention Yarl’s race, while staying mum about the female victims’ race.
A Chicago Tribune story on the Texas cheerleaders shooting was typical: “The attack [on the cheerleaders] comes days after two high-profile shootings that occurred after victims went to mistaken addresses. In one case, a Black teen was shot and wounded after going to the wrong Kansas City, Missouri, home to pick up his younger brothers. In the other, a woman looking for a friend’s house in upstate New York was shot and killed after the car she was riding in mistakenly went to the wrong address.”
A frontpage article in the New York Times on April 21 discussed other mistaken-house shootings that had come to light, also outside of the black-victim-white perpetrator paradigm. Only in the Yarl case did the Times continue to give the race of the victim and perpetrator. “Andrew Lester, the 84-year-old white homeowner in Kansas City, Mo., accused of wounding Ralph Yarl, who is Black, has been charged with assault and armed criminal action,” wrote the Times, while “Kevin Monahan, 65, the upstate New York homeowner accused of killing Kaylin Gillis [who had mistakenly entered Monahan’s driveway], has been charged with murder.”
There was a black victim in one of the other mistaken-house shootings discussed in the April 21 Times article: Omarian Banks, killed in March 2019 after ringing the wrong doorbell in an Atlanta apartment complex. Banks’s girlfriend heard one shot and then heard Banks yell: “I’m sorry, bro. I’m at the wrong house.” The tenant allegedly responded: “Nah, nigger, you’re not at the wrong house,” before firing two more times. The Times omitted the race of Banks and of his killer, Darryl Bynes, because Bynes was black. There was thus no possible “racial component” to the shooting, in the Times’s ideology. The initial contemporaneous reporting on the Banks shooting also omitted the race of the victim and perpetrator.
Despite the numerous trespass shootings that have been reported on since the Yarl shooting, the Times remains staunchly committed to its racism narrative. On April 24, the paper ran an article on how the Yarl shooting revealed the persistence of racism in Kansas City. Never mind that the city’s majority-white population had thrice elected a black mayor and had sent a black representative to Congress. That cross-racial voting just shows how “like this veil of [white] nicety and smiles . . . kind of overlays microaggressions and all kinds of crazy stuff,” the founder of a nonprofit that seeks to empower black women told the paper.
The narrative that blacks are at elevated risk for “existing while black” is true, but not because whites are killing them. Their assailants are other blacks, which means that these black victims are of no interest to the race activists and to their media and political allies.
Kansas City’s black-white homicide disparity is typical. In 2022, blacks made up 60 percent of homicide victims, though they are 26.5 percent of the population. Whites were 22 percent of homicide victims, though they make up 60 percent of the Kansas City population. A black Kansas Cityean was six times more likely to be killed in 2022 than a white Kansas Cityean. So far this year, blacks make up 75 percent of homicide victims.
The toll on black children has been particularly acute. In the first nine months of 2020, 13 black children were killed in shootings in Kansas City. Those child victims included one-year-old Tyron Patton, killed when someone riddled the car in which he was riding with bullets, and four-year-old LeGend Taliferro, fatally shot while sleeping in his father’s apartment. No Black Lives Matter activist showed up to “say their names.” Imani Perry did not weigh in on the “terror and grace of raising Black children in the United States.” Their deaths were again of no interest to the race advocates because their killers were black. In 2022, ten children aged 17 and younger were killed in Kansas City, also without racial protest, because those children were not killed by whites and thus did not matter from a racial PR perspective. The maudlin dirge that blacks are victims of lethal white supremacy is ludicrous, in Kansas City and every other American metropolis.
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The Corruption of Medicine

Tragically, when it comes to the contention that racism is the defining trait of the medical profession and the source of health disparities, opposing views have been ruled out of bounds and are grounds for being purged. The separation of politics and science is no longer seen as a source of empirical strength; it is instead a racist dodge that risks “reinforcing existing power structures.” 

The post–George Floyd racial reckoning has hit the field of medicine like an earthquake. Medical education, medical research, and standards of competence have been upended by two related hypotheses: that systemic racism is responsible both for racial disparities in the demographics of the medical profession and for racial disparities in health outcomes. Questioning those hypotheses is professionally suicidal. Vast sums of public and private research funding are being redirected from basic science to political projects aimed at dismantling white supremacy. The result will be declining quality of medical care and a curtailment of scientific progress.
Virtually every major medical organization—from the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) to the American Association of Pediatrics—has embraced the idea that medicine is an inequity-producing enterprise. The AMA’s 2021 Organizational Strategic Plan to Embed Racial Justice and Advance Health Equity is virtually indistinguishable from a black studies department’s mission statement. The plan’s anonymous authors seem aware of how radically its rhetoric differs from medicine’s traditional concerns. The preamble notes that “just as the general parlance of a business document varies from that of a physics document, so too is the case for an equity document.” (Such shaky command of usage and grammar characterizes the entire 86-page tome, making the preamble’s boast that “the field of equity has developed a parlance which conveys both [sic] authenticity, precision, and meaning” particularly ironic.)
Thus forewarned, the reader plunges into a thicket of social-justice maxims: physicians must “confront inequities and dismantle white supremacy, racism, and other forms of exclusion and structured oppression, as well as embed racial justice and advance equity within and across all aspects of health systems.” The country needs to pivot “from euphemisms to explicit conversations about power, racism, gender and class oppression, forms of discrimination and exclusion.” (The reader may puzzle over how much more “explicit” current “conversations” about racism can be.) We need to discard “America’s stronghold of false notions of hierarchy of value based on gender, skin color, religion, ability and country of origin, as well as other forms of privilege.”
A key solution to this alleged oppression is identity-based preferences throughout the medical profession. The AMA strategic plan calls for the “just representation of Black, Indigenous and Latinx people in medical school admissions as well as . . . leadership ranks.” The lack of “just representation,” according to the AMA, is due to deliberate “exclusion,” which will end only when we have “prioritize[d] and integrate[d] the voices and ideas of people and communities experiencing great injustice and historically excluded, exploited, and deprived of needed resources such as people of color, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+, and those in rural and urban communities alike.”
According to medical and STEM leaders, to be white is to be per se racist; apologies and reparations for that offending trait are now de rigueur. In June 2020, Nature identified itself as one of the culpably “white institutions that is responsible for bias in research and scholarship.” In January 2021, the editor-in-chief of Health Affairs lamented that “our own staff and leadership are overwhelmingly white.” The AMA’s strategic plan blames “white male lawmakers” for America’s systemic racism.
And so medical schools and medical societies are discarding traditional standards of merit in order to alter the demographic characteristics of their profession. That demolition of standards rests on an a priori truth: that there is no academic skills gap between whites and Asians, on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics, on the other. No proof is needed for this proposition; it is the starting point for any discussion of racial disparities in medical personnel. Therefore, any test or evaluation on which blacks and Hispanics score worse than whites and Asians is biased and should be eliminated.
The U.S. Medical Licensing Exam is a prime offender. At the end of their second year of medical school, students take Step One of the USMLE, which measures knowledge of the body’s anatomical parts, their functioning, and their malfunctioning; topics include biochemistry, physiology, cell biology, pharmacology, and the cardiovascular system. High scores on Step One predict success in a residency; highly sought-after residency programs, such as neurosurgery and radiology, use Step One scores to help select applicants.
Black students are not admitted into competitive residencies at the same rate as whites because their average Step One test scores are a standard deviation below those of whites. Step One has already been modified to try to shrink that gap; it now includes nonscience components such as “communication and interpersonal skills.” But the standard deviation in scores has persisted. In the world of antiracism, that persistence means only one thing: the test is to blame. It is Step One that, in the language of antiracism, “disadvantages” underrepresented minorities, not any lesser degree of medical knowledge.
The Step One exam has a further mark against it. The pressure to score well inhibits minority students from what has become a core component of medical education: antiracism advocacy. A fourth-year Yale medical student describes how the specter of Step One affected his priorities. In his first two years of medical school, the student had “immersed” himself, as he describes it, in a student-led committee focused on diversity, inclusion, and social justice. The student ran a podcast about health disparities. All that political work was made possible by Yale’s pass-fail grading system, which meant that he didn’t feel compelled to put studying ahead of diversity concerns. Then, as he tells it, Step One “reared its ugly head.” Getting an actual grade on an exam might prove to “whoever might have thought it before that I didn’t deserve a seat at Yale as a Black medical student,” the student worried.
The solution to such academic pressure was obvious: abolish Step One grades. Since January 2022, Step One has been graded on a pass-fail basis. The fourth-year Yale student can now go back to his diversity activism, without worrying about what a graded exam might reveal. Whether his future patients will appreciate his chosen focus is unclear.
Every other measure of academic mastery has a disparate impact on blacks and thus is in the crosshairs.
In the third year of medical school, professors grade students on their clinical knowledge in what is known as a Medical Student Performance Evaluation (MSPE). The MSPE uses qualitative categories like Outstanding, Excellent, Very Good, and Good. White students at the University of Washington School of Medicine received higher MSPE ratings than underrepresented minority students from 2010 to 2015, according to a 2019 analysis. The disparity in MSPEs tracked the disparity in Step One scores.
The parallel between MSPE and Step One evaluations might suggest that what is being measured in both cases is real. But the a priori truth holds that no academic skills gap exists. Accordingly, the researchers proposed a national study of medical school grades to identify the actual causes of that racial disparity. The conclusion is foregone: faculty bias. As a Harvard medical student put it in Stat News: “biases are baked into the evaluations of students from marginalized backgrounds.”
A 2022 study of clinical performance scores anticipated that foregone conclusion. Professors from Emory University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of California at San Francisco, among other institutions, analyzed faculty evaluations of internal medicine residents in such areas as medical knowledge and professionalism. On every assessment, black and Hispanic residents were rated lower than white and Asian residents. The researchers hypothesized three possible explanations: bias in faculty assessment, effects of a noninclusive learning environment, or structural inequities in assessment. University of Pennsylvania professor of medicine Stanley Goldfarb tweeted out a fourth possibility: “Could it be [that the minority students] were just less good at being residents?”
Goldfarb had violated the a priori truth. Punishment was immediate. Predictable tweets called him, inter alia, possibly “the most garbage human being I’ve seen with my own eyes,” and Michael S. Parmacek, chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Medicine, sent a schoolwide e-mail addressing Goldfarb’s “racist statements.” Those statements had evoked “deep pain and anger,” Parmacek wrote. Accordingly, the school would be making its “entire leadership team” available to “support you,” he said. Parmacek took the occasion to reaffirm that doctors must acknowledge “structural racism.”
That same day, the executive vice president of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System and the senior vice dean for medical education at the University of Pennsylvania medical school reassured faculty, staff, and students via e-mail that Goldfarb was no longer an active faculty member but rather emeritus. The EVP and the SVD affirmed Penn’s efforts to “foster an anti-racist curriculum” and to promote “inclusive excellence.”
Despite the allegations of faculty racism, disparities in academic performance are the predictable outcome of admissions preferences. In 2021, the average score for white applicants on the Medical College Admission Test was in the 71st percentile, meaning that it was equal to or better than 71 percent of all average scores. The average score for black applicants was in the 35th percentile—a full standard deviation below the average white score. The MCATs have already been redesigned to try to reduce this gap; a quarter of the questions now focus on social issues and psychology.
Yet the gap persists. So medical schools use wildly different standards for admitting black and white applicants. From 2013 to 2016, only 8 percent of white college seniors with below-average undergraduate GPAs and below-average MCAT scores were offered a seat in medical school; less than 6 percent of Asian college seniors with those qualifications were offered a seat, according to an analysis by economist Mark Perry. Medical schools regarded those below-average scores as all but disqualifying—except when presented by blacks and Hispanics. Over 56 percent of black college seniors with below-average undergraduate GPAs and below-average MCATs and 31 percent of Hispanic students with those scores were admitted, making a black student in that range more than seven times as likely as a similarly situated white college senior to be admitted to medical school and more than nine times as likely to be admitted as a similarly situated Asian senior.
Such disparate rates of admission hold in every combination and range of GPA and MCAT scores. Contrary to the AMA’s Organizational Strategic Plan to Embed Racial Justice and Advance Health Equity, blacks are not being “excluded” from medical training; they are being catapulted ahead of their less valued white and Asian peers.
Though mediocre MCAT scores keep out few black students, some activists seek to eliminate the MCATs entirely. Admitting less-qualified students to Ph.D. programs in the life sciences will lower the caliber of future researchers and slow scientific advances. But the stakes are higher in medical training, where insufficient knowledge can endanger a life in the here and now. Nevertheless, some medical schools offer early admissions to college sophomores and juniors with no MCAT requirement, hoping to enroll students with, as the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai puts it, a “strong appreciation of human rights and social justice.” The University of Pennsylvania medical school guarantees admission to black undergraduates who score a modest 1300 on the SAT (on a 1600-point scale), maintain a 3.6 GPA in college, and complete two summers of internship at the school. The school waives its MCAT requirement for these black students; UPenn’s non-preferred medical students score in the top one percent of all MCAT takers.
According to race advocates, differences in MCAT scores must result from test bias. Yet the MCATs, like all beleaguered standardized tests, are constantly scoured for questions that may presume forms of knowledge particular to a class or race. This “cultural bias” chestnut has been an irrelevancy for decades, yet it retains its salience within the anti-test movement. MCAT questions with the largest racial variance in correct answers are removed. External bias examiners, suitably diverse, double-check the work of the internal MCAT reviewers. If, despite this gauntlet of review, bias still lurked in the MCATs, the tests would underpredict the medical school performance of minority students. In fact, they overpredict it—black medical students do worse than their MCATs would predict, as measured by Step One scores and graduation rates. (Such overprediction characterizes the SATs, too.) Nevertheless, expect a growing number of medical schools to forgo the MCATs, in the hope of shutting down the test entirely and thus eliminating a lingering source of objective data on the allegedly phantom academic skills gap.
Meantime, medical professors need to be reeducated, to ensure that their grading and hiring practices do not provide further evidence of the phantom skills gap. Faculty are routinely subjected to workshops in combating their own racism. On May 3, 2022, the Senior Advisor to the NIH Chief Officer for Scientific Workforce Diversity gave a seminar at the University of Pennsylvania medical school titled “Me, Biased? Recognizing and Blocking Bias.” Senior Advisor Charlene Le Fauve’s mandate at NIH is to “promote diversity, inclusiveness, and equity in the biomedical research enterprise through evidence-based approaches.” Yet her presentation rested heavily on a supposed measure of bias that evidence has discredited: the Implicit Association Test (IAT).The IAT’s own creators have acknowledged that it lacks validity and reliability as a psychometric tool.
Increasing amounts of faculty time are spent on such antiracism activities. On May 16, 2022, the Anti-Racism Program Manager at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles hosted a presentation from the Director of Strategy and Equity Education Programs at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai titled “Anti-Racist Transformation in Medical Education.” Mount Sinai’s Dean for Medical Education and a medical student joined Mount Sinai’s Director of Strategy and Equity Education Programs for the Los Angeles presentation, since spreading the diversity message apparently takes precedence over academic obligations in New York.
Grand rounds is a century-long tradition for passing on the latest medical breakthroughs. (Thomas Eakins’s great 1889 canvas, The Agnew Clinic, portrays an early grand rounds at the University of Pennsylvania.) Rounds are now a conduit for antiracism reeducation. On May 12, 2022, the Vice Chair for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Medicine gave a grand rounds at the Cleveland Clinic on the topic “In the Absence of Equity: A Look into the Future.” Afterward, attendees would be expected to describe “exclusion from a historical context” and the effects of “hierarchy on health outcomes”; attendance would confer academic credit toward doctors’ continuing-education obligations.
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Distort the Present, Rewrite the Past

Whether art museums or classical music organizations, those institutions have sacrificed their comparative advantages—connoisseurship, scholarly knowledge, and devotion to the highest expressions of culture—in favor of a partisan political program that distorts both present and past.

Like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has redefined itself as an antiracist “agent of change.” In July 2020, its director Max Hollein and CEO Daniel Weiss announced that the museum will henceforth aim to overcome the racism still perpetrated by our “government, policies, systems, and institutions.”
What such a political mandate means for an art museum may seem puzzling, but two exhibits currently running at the Met provide an answer. They suggest that the museum will now value racial consciousness-raising over scholarship and historical accuracy. Double standards will govern how the museum analyzes Western and Third World art: only the former will be subject to the demystification treatment, while the latter will be accorded infinite curatorial respect. The Met will lay bare European art’s alleged complicity in the West’s legacy of oppression, while Third World violence and inequality will be chastely kept off stage.
The first show, “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met,” arranges the Met’s own seventeenth-century Dutch canvases in thematic categories, such as still life and landscape. (The content of those categories is sometimes hard to discern underneath such mannered academic rhetoric as “Contested Bodies.”) Highlights of the show include Franz Hals’s portrait of Paulus Verschuur, a bravura performance of spontaneous brushwork and psychological acuity that captures the Rotterdam merchant’s modern irony, and Johannes Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep, which anticipates Paul Cézanne in its treatment of decorative pattern and geometry.
The Dutch Baroque formed the cornerstone of the Met’s first holdings; subsequent bequests created one of the world’s great assemblages of Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and their peers. The antiracist museum, however, understands that it is not just Western art that needs deconstructing; the collecting and donating of art does, too. Thus, the commentary accompanying “In Praise of Painting” wearily notes that “of course” there are “blind spots in the story these particular acquisitions tell. Colonialism, slavery, and war—major themes in seventeenth-century Dutch history—are scarcely visible here.” It is hard to know who is more at fault, in the Met’s view: the artists or the art lovers who collected their work. Few seventeenth-century Dutch paintings treat of “colonialism, slavery, and war,” and fewer still approach the technical mastery of the Dutch canon. “In Praise of Painting” contains a Brazilian landscape by Frans Post that shows members of an Indian tribe gathered in a clearing. The painting is included in the exhibit as a synecdoche for a Dutch colony in northern Brazil; its interest is purely ethnographic. What other paintings about “colonialism, slavery, and war” do the curators think the Met should have acquired? Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum recently mounted a self-flagellating show called “Slavery,” intending to atone for Holland’s former holdings in Indonesia, New Guinea, and elsewhere. Even the royally endowed Rijksmuseum assembled few canvases with colonialism subject matter; as a second-best solution, it was left to attribute luxury items in portraits and still lifes to slavery and racism.
“In Praise of Painting” adopts that strategy as well. “Still life paintings pictured the bounty provided by newly established Dutch trade routes and the Republic’s economic success, while omitting the human cost of colonial warfare and slavery,” the accompanying wall text points out. The curators do not reveal how a still life painter should portray the “human cost of colonial warfare and slavery.” As even the curators admit, a still life by definition focuses on “things without people.” The Dutch masters, who brought the nascent genre to peak gorgeousness, may have delighted in the dragon-fly translucence of grapes and the somber radiance of silver and cut glass; they may have taught us to see beauty in a kitchen’s bounty. Not good enough. They should have anticipated twenty-first-century concerns about racial justice and revised their subject matter accordingly.
The museum’s benefactors also receive a feminist whack. “Only one picture painted by an early modern Dutch woman has entered the collection over the course of nearly 150 years,” the curators scold. Which Jacob van Ruisdael or Gerard ter Borch would the curators forego for a painting chosen on identity grounds? There simply weren’t as many females as males painting in the seventeenth century. Today, there are; women have unfettered access to art schools and galleries. The Met’s founders bought its female-painted Dutch Baroque canvas—a towering arrangement of peonies, tulips, roses, and marigolds—in 1871. Sexism did not prevent that addition to the museum’s original holdings, but sexism, we are to believe, prevented follow-up purchases.
Having been instructed to see oppression behind portraiture and to hear silenced voices in tableaux of oysters and lemons, the chastened Met visitor may wend his way to “The African Origin of Civilization,” another show drawn from the Met’s own collections. He will find himself back in a world of prelapsarian innocence, where art, if not the collecting of it, is unencumbered by a debunking impulse and where the culture that gave rise to that art is accepted on its own terms, not measured against present values.
“The African Origin of Civilization” pairs artefacts from ancient Egypt with those from modern (from the thirteenth-century A.D. forward) Sub-Saharan Africa to demonstrate their alleged “shared origins,” as the Met puts it, and to “recenter” Africa as “the source of modern humanity and a fount of civilization.” A timeline runs around the walls noting significant moments in African history, such as the receipt of Grammy awards by pop stars from Benin and South Africa.
The show is based on the writings of Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop (1923–1986). Diop held that ancient Egypt was black, that ancient Egypt and modern Sub-Saharan Africa are part of a unified black civilization, and that this black African civilization, not Greece or Rome, is the source of Western civilization. The exhibit opens with a covertly doctored quote from Diop: “The history of Africa will remain suspended in air and cannot be written correctly until African historians connect it with the history of Egypt” (more on that doctoring below). The exhibition “pay[s] homage” to Diop’s “seminal” 1974 book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, the Met explains.
So who was this “influential Egyptologist, scientist, [and] activist,” as the Met describes him? Diop came from an aristocratic Muslim background in Senegal. In the 1950s, he participated in Paris’s anti-colonial student groups. Diop’s research aims were unapologetically political. He hoped to accelerate Africa’s independence movements by “reconquer[ing] a Promethean consciousness” among the African peoples, he wrote in The African Origin of Civilization. Such a task would be impossible so long as the proposition that ancient Egypt was a Negro civilization “does not appear legitimate.”
In Diop’s telling, in prehistoric times, black Africans moved into the Nile Valley from the South, merged with the blacks already living there, established the ancient Egyptian dynasties, then migrated back across the Sahara into the South. The less demanding conditions those black Egyptians found south of the Sahara discouraged the further development of science and engineering that had begun under the pharaohs. “The Negro became indifferent towards material progress,” Diop writes. Rather than pursuing scientific knowledge, the southern Africans concentrated on perfecting their political arrangements. Those political structures were and have remained superior to those of the West, in Diop’s view. Africans also far exceeded the Europeans in the “social and moral order,” which was on the “same level of perfection” as their political order.
Scientific progress may have come to a standstill back in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the gains made in black Egypt during the Pharaonic period, Diop argues, were so great as to serve as the basis for all subsequent developments in the West. “The Black world is the very initiator of the ‘western’ civilization flaunted before our eyes today,” Diop alleged in The African Origin of Civilization. “Pythagorean mathematics, the theory of the four elements of Thales of Miletus, Epicurean materialism, Platonic idealism, Judaism, Islam, and modern science are rooted in Egyptian cosmogony and science.”
Diop’s intellectual history is as shaky as his demographic claims. Leave aside for the moment the question of whether Egypt was black. Graeco–Roman science and philosophy were a different enterprise from Egyptian learning. The Egyptians developed the calendar, the calculation of time, and some medical cures in the second millennium B.C. Their funerary architecture attests to their engineering skills. But the Egyptian numeration system did not provide the basis for Western mathematics. And though the Greeks admired Egyptian accomplishments, the principle of grounding scientific conclusions on logic and empirical evidence—the hallmark of Western science—began with Aristotle, not with the Egyptian dynasties.
As for Diop’s arguments regarding ancient Egypt’s black racial identity, they rest on Old Testament myth, cherry-picked images of Egyptian sculpture, a reference to “black” Egyptians by Herodotus, and a few alleged similarities between Egyptian and African words. According to DNA analysis from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, mummies from the New Kingdom were most closely related to peoples of the Levant (Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon, among other countries). Modern Egyptians share just 8 percent of their genome with central Africans. As small as that share is, it is much more than that between ancient Egyptians and central and southern Africans; that common 8 percent developed only over the last 1,500 years. The ancient Egyptians, notorious xenophobes, did not believe themselves related to the peoples of the south, with whom their relations were often imperialistic.
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