The mutations are found in other racial and ethnic groups as well, but it is not known how common they are," unintentionally
accepting the premise that traits and characteristics of bounded racial and ethnic groups might contribute to differences in disease incidence among them.
The medical literature (and uncritical reporting about it) is replete with other examples that perpetuate the notion of biological race as a key factor in
disparate disease outcomes. (Elsewhere, NYU sociologist Ann Morning, in her fascinating The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach about Human Difference, has documented other channels through which biological notions of race
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.