Associate Professor Stephen M. Kajiura was reviewing with his evolution class in GS 120 for a midterm when FAU student Jonatha Carr interrupted him: “How does evolution kill black people?” she asked. Kajiura attempted to explain that evolution doesn’t kill anyone.
And then, Carr became violent.
Another member of the class taped the outburst, though it’s hard to follow much of what’s going on.
A student told the paper that Kajiura “was discussing attraction between peacocks when Carr raised her hand to ask her question… She asked it four times, and became increasingly upset each time Kajiura’s answer failed to satisfy her.” (The article says “her question about evolution.” It wasn’t a question about evolution.)
Kajiura, a member of NCSE’s Project Steve, describes the incident: “She became increasingly belligerent. It was at this point, a highly emotionally charged individual who was no longer capable of responding rationally. She was threatening to kill both me and the students in the class.” As the video shows, and the story describes, students fled the classroom, and a Spanish instructor came in and asked the violent student to leave the room. The student attacked him instead, Kajiura went over to try to intercede, as did several students.
The group ultimately led her from the classroom. Reportedly, police used Tasers on her before taking her to a hospital for an involuntary commitment and mental health assessment.
Some have suggested that this outburst was inspired, in part, by the murder of Trayvon Martin, which is certainly possible. And it’s likely that she’ll be found to have some underlying psychological problem, which news coverage of the Trayvon Martin incident may well have exacerbated.
But I’d also like to lay some blame on creationists. Their persistent and fallacious efforts to link Darwin to eugenics, and even to Hitler’s atrocities, seem like the most plausible inspiration for her initial outburst. There are other instances of institutional racism in science, including the Tuskegee experiment, which may also have helped inspire her, but those wouldn’t bring the link specifically to evolution.
The irony, of course, is that many racist policies originated from creationist arguments and beliefs. The judge who exiled Mildred and Richard Loving from Virginia for their interracial marriage justified that eugenic policy by writing:
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.
Nor should we forget that the Ku Klux Klan rallied in Dayton, TN, to urge the conviction of John Scopes on the charge of teaching evolution, and when Scopes’s prosecutor William Jennings Bryan died shortly after the trial, the Klan burned crosses in his memory, calling him “the greatest Klansman of our time.”
An interesting sidenote about those famous Klan sheets. As Rebecca Skloot discusses in her amazing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the Klan’s sheets originated as a tactic used to scare slaves in the area around the hospitals like that at Johns Hopkins University:
The Lackses aren’t the only ones who heard from a young age that Hopkins and other hospitals abducted black people. Since at least the 1800s, black oral history has been filled with tales of “night doctors” who kidnapped black people for research. And there were disturbing truths behind those stories.
Some of the stories were conjured by white plantation owners taking advantage of the long-held African belief that ghosts caused disease and death. To discourage slaves from meeting or escaping, slave owners told tales of gruesome research done on black bodies, then covered themselves in white sheets and crept around at night, posing as spirits come to infect black people with disease or steal them for research. Those sheets eventually gave rise to the white hooded cloaks of the Ku Klux Klan.
Little wonder, then that many African Americans have concerns about the motives of doctors and scientists. What’s shameful is how creationists play on those fears, which only harms those African American communities. We see this, for instance, with a 2001 bill in Louisiana, which would have declared evolution “the main rationale for racism,” or, as the bill described it, “Darwinian racism.”
Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis, praised that resolution, and has aimed for African American markets with his book Darwin’s Plantation: Evolution’s Racist Roots. And in his various writings, Discovery Institute honcho John West regularly tries to tar Darwin as a racist, and thereby taint modern evolutionary biology and implicitly shore up his preferred form of creationism.
That alone didn’t cause this violence in a shark biologist’s classroom, but how could it not have played a role?