Why an Unremarkable Racist Enjoyed the Backing of Billionaires
You’re reading the Jamelle Bouie newsletter, for Times subscribers only. Historical context for present-day events.
In 1923, Princeton University Press published “A Study of American Intelligence” by Carl Campbell Brigham, a eugenicist and professor of psychology at the university.
Brigham, like many men of his class and station at the time, believed in race hierarchy — of a natural order of humanity, with some groups at the top and others at the bottom. He was part of a national effort, among elites and ordinary citizens alike, to improve the “racial fitness” of the American people by restricting immigration and removing the undesirable through sterilization.
As one like-minded eugenicist, Robert M. Yerkes, wrote in his foreword to Brigham’s book, “The author presents not theories or opinions but facts. It behooves us to consider their reliability and their meaning, for no one of us as a citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration or the evident relations of immigration to national progress and welfare.”
As a scientist, Brigham would bring the laws of heredity and the study of intelligence to bear on the question of race hierarchy. He would purport to show, with scientific precision, the inherent superiority of so-called Nordic Americans above all others.
“His four major groups consisted of native-born whites, total whites, foreign-born whites, and Negroes,” explains the historian Nell Irvin Painter in “The History of White People.” “Within these groups, Brigham differentiated between the above-average foreigners and the below-average foreigners. Turks and Greeks just barely improved on the foreign-born average, while men from Russia, Italy, and Poland ranked at the bottom with the ‘Negro draft.’ Northwestern Europeans topped the chart.”
It was the traditional Anglo-American race hierarchy, illustrated with the charts, graphs and calculations that elevated the claim from everyday, casual prejudice to an objective account of society. And it served its intended purpose: to naturalize inequality of status and resources in an era defined by its yawning gaps between haves and have-nots.
It should come as no surprise to learn, as Adam Cohen notes in “Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck,” that “John D. Rockefeller Jr., the world’s wealthiest man, funded scientific research into how what he called the ‘defective human’ could be bred out of the population.” Or that, as Edwin Black explains in “War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race,” eugenicists drew from “almost unlimited corporate philanthropy to establish the biological rationales for persecution” of the so-called unfit.
I mention all of this as context for Richard Hanania, a rising star among conservative writers and intellectuals. For years before appearing in the pages of newspapers and publications like this one, Hanania wrote articles for white supremacist publications under a pseudonym. According to a recent investigation by Christopher Mathias of The Huffington Post:
[Hanania] expressed support for eugenics and the forced sterilization of “low IQ” people, who he argued were most often Black. He opposed “miscegenation” and “race-mixing.” And once, while arguing that Black people cannot govern themselves, he cited the neo-Nazi author of “The Turner Diaries,” the infamous novel that celebrates a future race war.
Hanania no longer writes for those publications. And though he may claim otherwise, it doesn’t appear that his views have changed much. He still makes explicitly racist statements and arguments, now under his own name. “I don’t have much hope that we’ll solve crime in any meaningful way,” he wrote on the platform formerly known as Twitter earlier this year. “It would require a revolution in our culture or form of government. We need more policing, incarceration, and surveillance of black people. Blacks won’t appreciate it, whites don’t have the stomach for it.” Responding to the killing of a homeless Black man on the New York City subway, Hanania wrote, “These people are animals, whether they’re harassing people in subways or walking around in suits.”
Hanania sees his claims as uncomfortable truths. “The reason I’m the target of a cancellation effort is because left-wing journalists dislike anyone acknowledging statistical differences between races,” he recently wrote. But his supposedly transgressive views are little more than the warmed-over dogmas of the long-dead ideologues who believed in the scientific truth of race hierarchy. Of course, those men, their peers and their followers lost their appetite for that talk in the wake of the Holocaust, when the world got a firsthand look at the catastrophic consequences of state-sponsored racism, eugenicism and antisemitism.
But more interesting than either Hanania — whose recent notoriety has not lifted him too far from his previous obscurity — or his rancid views are his backers. According to Jonathan Katz, a freelance journalist, Hanania’s organization, the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, has received at least $700,000 in support through anonymous donations. He is also a visiting scholar at the Salem Center at the University of Texas at Austin — funded by Harlan Crow.
A whole coterie of Silicon Valley billionaires and millionaires have lent their time and attention to Hanania, as well as elevated his work. Marc Andreessen, a powerful venture capitalist, appeared on his podcast. David Sacks, a close associate of Elon Musk, wrote a glowing endorsement of Hanania’s forthcoming book. So did Peter Thiel, the billionaire supporter of right-wing causes and organizations. “D.E.I. will never d-i-e from words alone,” wrote Thiel. “Hanania shows we need the sticks and stones of government violence to exorcise the diversity demon.” Vivek Ramaswamy, the Republican presidential candidate, also praised the book as a “devastating kill shot to the intellectual foundations of identity politics in America.”
The question to ask here — the question that matters — is why an otherwise obscure racist has the ear and support of some of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley? What purpose, to a billionaire venture capitalist, do Hanania’s ideas serve?
Look back to our history and the answer is straightforward. Just as in the 1920s (and before), the idea of race hierarchy works to naturalize the broad spectrum of inequalities, and capitalist inequality in particular.
If some groups are simply meant to be at the bottom, then there are no questions to ask about their deprivation, isolation and poverty. There are no questions to ask about the society which produces that deprivation, isolation and poverty. And there is nothing to be done, because nothing can be done: Those people are just the way they are.
If some groups — and really, if some individuals — are simply meant to be at the top, then there are no questions to ask about their wealth, status and power. And as my friend John Ganz notes in his newsletter, the idea of race hierarchy “creates the illusion of cross-class solidarity between these masters of infinite wealth and their propagandist and supporter class: ‘We are of the same special breed, you and I.’” Relations of domination between groups are reproduced as relations of domination between individuals.
This, in fact, has been the traditional role of supremacist ideologies in the United States — to occlude class relations and convert anxiety over survival into the jealous protection of status. The purveyors of supremacist ideologies have worked in concrete ways to bound the two things, survival and status, together; to create the illusion that the security, even prosperity, of one group rests on the exclusion of another. (The history of segregated housing in this country is testament enough to the success of that ideological project.) With enough time to grow and take root, these ideologies branch out with a life and logic of their own, reproduced by people who believe they have something new, novel and forbidden.
Why are billionaires backing an unremarkable racist as he tries to find a place in polite society? Because his interest in a hierarchical society built on racism serves their interest in a hierarchical society built on class — and ruled by capital.
It’s the same, then, as it ever was.