Monday, May 19, 2008

Facing the Re-emergence of Race-as-Biology

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute

That race is socially constructed is widely seen as a truism within academia. Racial meanings, we argue, are not inscribed biologically on the bodies to which racial identities attach, but instead owe to particularities of history, geography, and politics.

Today, the scientific consensus about the relationship between race and biology is fraying. It’s true that we have never behaved as if we really believed that race is “socially constructed.” Within and outside the academy we talk and write about Whites, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans as if these were natural, well-defined groups of people that have always existed as such. The 2000 Census was the first that allowed respondents to “mark all that apply” in identifying themselves racially.

Even as we have continued to act as if race were an objective fact, and a specifically biological one, for some time now that conventional wisdom has lacked the imprimatur of Science. This is changing, and we can expect the effects of that change to ripple increasingly into the cultural mainstream.

In 1994, the publication of The Bell Curve marked popular re-engagement with the relationship between race and genetics and its implications for social outcomes and policy. A decade later, the FDA approved its first race-targeted drug, a heart failure medication for African Americans. Recent developments in genetic science lead some to argue that race remains a useful proxy for genetic variations meaningful in the health context.

Last fall, Nobel Laureate James Watson, who helped discover the double-helix structure of DNA in the 1950’s, said that he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says not really.”

Remarks like these and a long, grim history of scientific authority in the service of racist ideology have sparked concerns about the destructive ends the re-emerging notion of race-as-biology could be made to serve. We must not run from the work or the rhetoric. Instead, we must engage and understand them, ask our own questions, and shape informed, thoughtful responses.

What is the evidence for the biological basis of race? What do we know and what remains to be learned? What is the relationship between “race-as-biology,” and race, defined sociologically? How can we take advantage of the promise of genetic science without falling prey to the pitfalls of biological reductionism?

To be continued.

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