Race Is Not Biology

In the past decade, a small but growing sub-field, anchored in multiple disciplines, has begun criticizing the unthinking racial essentialism that finds its way into scientific research more frequently than one might think, especially in medicine and public health orbits. One exemplar is the article "Racial Categories in Medical Practice: How Useful Are They?" which appeared in PLOS Medicine. Its authors first review the degree to which common conceptions of race have in fact historically shaped by administrative imperatives (not biological reality). They then issue a warning on the use of race as a proxy, writing that "once race is presumed, the ways in which multiple genetic inheritances interact with the environment within that individual seem to disappear. Clinical clues can become invisible."

The dangers are not hard to see. Belief in innate racial predisposition to a disease may short-circuit examination of non-genetic factors behind a racially classified individual's condition, or in the population at large, health disparities between commonly understood racial groups. At its worst, it may lead to compromised patient care. The PLOS Medicine writers warn that for clinicians specifically, "rapid racial assessment is an attractive means to figure out what to do with a presenting patient. But we argue that even if there are short cuts for the medical interview, race is not a good one. There is, in the end (in addition to noting physical symptoms), no substitute for an inquiry into family history, an assessment of current circumstances, and knowledge about the biological and cultural histories of specific populations serviced by a particular treatment center."

The critique has not been easy to mount as biological notions of race are embedded in American thought. Drexel University's Michael Yudell and Brown University's Lundy Braun (one of the authors of the PLOS article) have completed two important forthcoming books showing just the extent. Yudell traces the notion throughout the twentieth century, demonstrating its remarkable resiliency even in the face of periodic challenges inside and outside formal scientific worlds. (A distilled article version of his book is here). Braun's work, meanwhile, examines a specific case: the history of lung function measurement and the entrenchment of different diagnostic criteria for different "races" - a practice called "race correction," in turn premised on the belief in biological race. In a recent disturbing review of almost a century's worth of pulmonary research, published in the European Journal of Respiratory Research, Braun and her colleagues found that biological-racial explanations for differences in lung faction are common, though they also found a fair share of articles with environmental explanations as well. The biological-racial strand of explanation, they note, is not just history:

While the view that races and ethnic groups differ in the capacity of their lungs is widely accepted in pulmonary medicine, the continued practice of explaining racial and ethnic difference in lung function as rooted in inherent and fixed anthropometric difference has important health policy implications. Importantly, it could divert attention from much-needed research into the physiological mechanisms by which specific social and physical environments influence lung function.

In the end, calling Jason Richwine a scientific racist may be morally satisfying and justifiable intellectually. But it doesn't begin to touch on the wider and much more common commitment to biological race that is necessary in the first place before one argues for "racial" superiority or inferiority. Scientific racism, in other words, requires scientific race.

In and of itself, the biological race concept does not necessarily lead to claims of racial superiority or inferiority. But it certainly can lead there, or less malevolently, can obfuscate a complex litany of explanations for explaining observable population differences. Those condemning Harvard over Richwine would do better to avoid low-hanging fruit and instead turn their attention to those around them who accept common assumptions about race and biology. The latter have much more in common with Jason Richwine than might appear at first glance. And given the pervasiveness of talking in terms of "race," we all may be more complicit than we think.

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Merlin Chowkwanyun is a doctoral candidate in history and public health at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an Institute of Education Sciences fellow. He is an upcoming Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholar at the University of Wisconsin.

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