The Race to Eliminate “Race” – How Will The Science of Genetics Affect the Social Construction and Consequences of “Race” As We Know It?

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A couple of days ago I received an email from the Department of African and African American Studies and The Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy at Duke University, inviting me to take a survey.

The email content read:

We invite you to participate in an important survey about race, ancestry and genetics. Statements about race and genetics in the popular press and scientific literature are often attributed to anthropologists, without empirical data on whether most anthropologists support such statements. Empirically studying the attitudes of anthropologists regarding race, ancestry and genetics would help discourage speculation about their views.

The purpose of this survey is to learn what anthropologists know and think about the relationships among race, ancestry, and genetics. The results of the survey will inform efforts to facilitate dialogue about genetic ancestry inference and will be submitted for presentation at national conferences. “

Holy mouthful-and-a-half, Batman!

Naturally, the narcissist in me was honored to be a part of a a pool of experts in social science, medical science and genetics whose opinions would help shape a dialogue. The other 75% of me, once I dug into the survey, was utterly dumbfounded by the dialogue and felt rather uninformed. If this interests the readers, the Mutual Of Omaha plan G has been actively posting quality information on there site.

It seemed to me that one of the hypotheses they are trying to prove is that there is a movement to eliminate arbitrary “race” categorizations (based on skin color, country of ancestry, etc.) in favor of a more genetically driven definition – AND that anthropologists and scientists both will have real moral issues with the degree to which genetic race-designation can and should be applied to policy-making, health care, etc.

I also gathered from  the questions that some in the field of genetic science believe race to be inherently related to DNA and that there is a widely held belief in medical science that genetic ancestry is directly linked to certain ailments or disease-orientated dispositions. There also appears to be some debate as to whether people believe there are shared pools of physical features and characteristics among different genetics-based races of humans.

Obviously there are all kinds of implications, both social and scientific, for a scientific / genetic-based re-tooling of how we think about race. Ultimately, I think the research team who developed the survey is eager to make the case for eliminating sociocultural definitions of race from the sociopolitical discourse.

I will say that from a cultural perspective, I can understand why, if “race” truly is genetic, that we need to re-think the way we designate ourselves as “us” versus “them” within our human context and consequently how we interact with our world because of that.

But as far as the science of genetics and ancestry is concerned, I know just about “nada”.  I know my friend’s Andy and Katarina ordered a genetic DNA testing kit and Andy was surprised to find that, whilst he proudly associates with his family’s German heritage, his genetics stem from southeast Asia.Am I aware of the biological nuances with regard to “racial” differences based on a couple of biological anthropology / sociobiology classes I took in college and grad school?   Sure.   Do I think it may have serious implications for medical science?  Sounds logical to me. Do I think popularization of genetic testing to determine ancestry and ultimately racial designations could emerge out of the apparently vibrant current anthropological debate where it sits at present and erupt into a political shit storm?  No Doubt.

I just wish I knew more on the topic – so I encourage my readers who have a more informed opinion to chime in and help out.   I am utterly curious about what the public thinks about this issue – considering the dialogue has been seemingly limited to more academic and scientific communities.

Go nuts, bloggers…..

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6 thoughts on “The Race to Eliminate “Race” – How Will The Science of Genetics Affect the Social Construction and Consequences of “Race” As We Know It?

  1. I’m not a fan of”race” being applicable to anything, really. People tend to use “race” in a cultural context now. People say someone can “act black,” or “don’t act Mexican enough.” Diving into the muddied waters of ethnicity is problematic because it is now difficult to pin-point a specific “race” of many people. I put the word “race” in quotation marks because I see it, personally, as a non-issue. Insurance companies may want to charge people of certain ancestry more because they might be prone to certain health issues. It would not be fair to allow people to be discriminated against based on something over which they have no control. However, that seems to be a reoccurring theme in the history of homo s.s.
    I might not make much sense, but that is because I am passionate about this issue. Apparently, the more passionate I am, the less I am able to express my thoughts clearly! 🙂

  2. I had several multi-racial/heritage friends growing up. My experience is like stated above, there is sometimes a sense of having to identify with what you look like. I had a friend with white parent, and black parent, but raised with white parent. They said they sometimes felt pressure from black friends, like she wasn’t ‘black enough’. As a ‘white girl’ of course I wouldn’t have assumed anything like that would happen, but apparently it did. “Race” is so fluid because it can change in a generation… most of my nieces/nephews are multiracial, so it brings up the question, what does race even mean? Another example: I have a blond-haired blued-eyed friend whose g-ma grew up in Mexico. If my friend tried to identify with Mexican culture, it would seem taboo, because she doesn’t look it, even though it is part of her heritage. So the ‘race’ you reflect may not be the ancestry you reflect, or a culture you identify with. My Swedish heritage doesn’t go beyond my love of Ikea. And I’m categorized in the mass of ‘white’ heritage-less-ness.

    But at the same time sometimes racial appearance does matter because of legacy. Do we want to get rid of affirmative action for minorities? I don’t think so. Until the race everyone sees is the “human race” isn’t some recognition necessary? When Obama became president I remember there were jokes on TV like ‘how do you feel about the first half-white president being elected’ point being, why does race matter? But it was significant when Obama made office, it was symbolic: http://tinyurl.com/9nqwk9u

    ***Sorry such a loooong comment*** To sum up, 1) there are remnants of race-based cultural heritages, but just because it LOOKS like you fit in that culture, doesn’t mean that you do 2) race physically speaking has no meaning, but because of history of discrimination, can’t totally be denied. 3) Apparently, red-haired people sometimes don’t respond to anesthesia, so some physical attributes may matter medically speaking.

  3. Interesting post!

    I used to do medical anthropology at a clinic where the birth book still labeled infants A, B or C for “Asian, “Black” and “Caucasian” (what about combinations you might ask? It was as simple as “A/B”). There was a movement afoot to stop recording “race” in medical records and instead revert to “country of origin”. Most physicians I talk to believe we lose a wealth of information about risk factors if we ignore the historical, social science behind the construction of race, regardless of whether race should have any manifest consequeñces in our daily lives or on our genes..

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