The science and myth of race

By Michelle Chen Jul 22, 2009

Recent advancements in medicine and technology might give the impression that we’re moving toward a belief in shared human potential and societal progress. But when it comes to race, the fruits of modernity could easily be used to promote the theory of biology as destiny. The Center for Genetics and Society has detailed the promise and peril of genetic science in a report about race, science and health. Though genetics has helped dispel some racial myths, author Osagie K. Obasogie cautions that instead of helping people recognize our common humanity, science could further distort ideas about what separates us:

Drug companies are begin­ning to offer medicines for specific racial groups, suggesting that genetic differences between races are significant determinants of health disparities. Genetic tests are being marketed to provide an­swers about our ancestry that were thought to be lost forever due to past geopolitical conflicts. And biotech companies are offering law enforcement agencies high-tech tools with which to profile and catch criminals.

Fashionable DNA ancestry tests illustrate how commercial interests could capitalize on hyped-up notions of racial categorization. Similarly, the drug BiDil was billed as a treatment for heart problems among Blacks, promoting the claim–which eventually turned out to be scientifically dubious–that heart failure in Black patients was a simple matter of biology. The drug’s marketing campaign was built on a theory that race-specific medicine would benefit Black patients. But the problem, the report explains, is that racialized health disparities often stem from social and economic inequalities that no drug can cure. That reductivist approach could spread to the public’s broader analysis of race and privilege:

A key concern is the temptation to use the notion that “racial disparities in health are genetically linked” to explain racial disparities in other areas such as employment, education, and crimi­nal justice. These disparate outcomes might then be attributed to people’s genes rather than to the treatment groups are afforded and their access to resources. Discussion of Blacks’ unemployment rate, educational underachievement, and grossly disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system becomes detached from society’s long history of discriminatory practices, and can become intertwined with assumptions about groups’ inherent (and inheritable) tendencies. This may allow old theories of racial minorities’ biological inferiority to be legitimated in new and different terms, shaping how we understand inequalities in other fields.

The report recommends that the scientific community conduct racial impact assessments to weigh the social ramifications of their research. It also urges law enforcement to establish policies to prevent DNA from being misused for racial profiling. People who care about social equity should work toward a new bioethical framework as well. The anxiety and excitement surrounding our genetic map reflect a yearning for a scientific compass in a terribly irrational world. And nowhere is the desire stronger than in communities that have historically been robbed of history and uprooted by displacement. But as we grapple with a slippery conception of social identity, biology is a double-edged sword. Science matters, just as race and culture matter. But whatever the studies and statistics tell us, our destiny, biological or otherwise, is still what we make of it. Image: Phrenological chart, Samuel Wells