CHANGING SCIENTIFIC PARADIGMS:
FROM RACE-AS-GENETICS TO THE BIOLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES
OF RACE AND RACISM
by Alan H. Goodman
Dean of Faculty, Hampshire College
Congressional Black Caucus "Discussion on Race and Politics"
in honor of the 25th anniversary of Rev. Jesse Jackson's Presidential campaign.
November 18, 2009
While Americans think obsessively about race, most are dazed and confused about what race is and is not. Is race in our genes, and thus old, fixed and out of our control? Or is race an idea, a brilliantly nefarious human invention to maintain and promote difference and inequality, yet an idea we can use and change? Perhaps even more important: how do we explain and ameliorate the devastating consequences of racial inequalities in wealth and health?
Our eyes and our limited experiences once led us to believe that the earth was flat. Then, sailors saw curves in the earth's surface and scientists discovered that the curve continued and that the earth was actually round. This change in knowledge led to a change in theory, a paradigm shift. This new view of a round earth changed everything—leading to intercontinental trade and conquest. The conquest was, in turn, aided and abetted by a new racist worldview.
Similarly, our eyes and our experiences led us to believe at this time that the "idea of race," of fixed, separate and hierarchically arranged types, explained and was the same as the facts of human biological variation. This old idea of race was everywhere, made real by constant use, and hegemonic fact. Sadly, in many places outside these halls it still is.
However, scientists have known for nearly a half-century that race does not explain human variation. Moreover, thinking of race as genetic is not only scientifically wrong, it is harmful. Why? Because it tells a lie about us, and the lie does harm, and in political terms it diverts our attention and resources from racism and the real sociopolitical causes of racial inequalities.
Because race-as-genetics is bound up in vested interest, specifically the dominant white ideological, sociopolitical, and economic interests, it has not been completely thrown away onto the scrap heap of dead-as-they-could-be scientific ideas. In medicine, genetics is used daily to try to explain differences in health by race.
Examples—Decades of research tried to locate the cause of Native American diabetes in their genes leading to lack of promotion of programs to environments that promote diabetes and to change lifestyles of Native Americans. Decades of research have tried to locate the genes responsible for the persistent high rates of low birth weight and infant mortality of black babies. However, the causative genes have not been found. Rather, removing environmental conditions - underemployment, powerlessness, poor foods, pollutants, stress, and removing racism from the equation, all help to reduce the horrifying loss of life.
In both cases, real people with real diseases suffer because of a faulty, racist theory. When the medical system makes us sick, for example by contracting an infection in a hospital, this is called iatrogenic illness. Race-as-genetics is ideological iatrogenesis. Illness and suffering are caused by a sick theory.
Recent research (in Genetics by Yu et al., 1992) compared 25 thousand Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (or SNPs), the actual genetic code in our DNA, among diverse individuals. Their data shows that two randomly chosen Africans are genetically more different from each other than one of them is from a European or Asian. Comparing DNA letters side by side, one is likely to find more variations between two members of the CBC than a CBC member and me. Why? Human genetic diversity is greatest in Africans (and African Americans) because Africa is old and diverse. Our species was born and built its genetic diversity there.
Europeans and Asians are not genetically distinct races. They are a genetic subset of Africans. Euroasians are genetically like the smaller Russian dolls nested in the larger Russian doll that is Africa.
Of course we differ by skin color and that is important, but not genetically. Rather, as Professor [Michael] Blakey, our next speaker, will elaborate upon, because it has been used to mark white skin privilege.
The liberating paradigm shift is from the myth of race as genetic differences to finally seeing race as the cumulative everyday lived experience of living in a racial society. Spellman College President Beverly Tatum uses the metaphor of racial smog. Living in this smog, from womb to tomb, inexorably seeps into all of our minds and bodies with tragic devastation. Perhaps we are better to think of race as a verb rather than a noun. Race and racism are about actions. Race is racing and racism.
Today, in the U.S., the stark reality of racing and racism is seen clearly in wealth and health inequalities. As is shown in the AAA Museum exhibit, that will come to the Smithsonian in 2011, the average white family has accumulated wealth that is over eight times that of the average black family. Black life expectancies lag behind white life expectancies by nearly six long years. Black babies continue to die at a rate that is twice that of white babies.
Race as genetics might be disproved, but race-as-a-verb—racialization and racism—are alive. The work of race continues and is woven into the fabric of our institutions.
The question is not whether race is still salient, but in what ways we make and will continue to make it so?
Speaking as a scientist, race will no longer be so salient when there is proof in the numbers: in no difference or in racial equality in wealth and health.
Paper presented to CBC Forum on Race and Politics. Not for citation without permission (firstname.lastname@example.org).