The scientific conversation about race gets horribly warped in translation to the public — in general, a few right-wing crank sites are loud in their assertions that race is a biologically useful parameter, that it can be simplified into a few ‘obvious’ categories that somehow magically fall into perfect alignment with the assessment of bigots, and that culture is a relatively minor component that cannot overrule basic human nature…whatever that is. I highly recommend this article in which Agustín Fuentes and Carolyn Rouse talk about race — this is the biologically/anthropologically informed perspective.
One of the weird things I see over and over again is how recognizing the importance of human diversity is shoe-horned into simplistic categories. Rather than appreciating the complexity and ubiquity of genetic variation, it has to be mapped onto 18th and 19th century colonial perspectives, and it really doesn’t fit at all.
Agustín: There remains a strong desire to see that 0.1 percent as the “real” important part of the genome. In the United States, difference is always more important than similarity — the well-known “one-drop” racial classification categories. This is tied to the resilience of genetic determinism as an explanatory frame to make sense of social difference. There is an erroneous assumption that the variable genetic patterns in humans underlie relevant differences in health, behavior and even aptitude. This leads smack dab into the “race” issue.
Yes, different populations vary in some of the 0.1 percent of the genome that makes up much of human genetic diversity, but this variation does not represent biological races no matter how one manipulates/packages/represents it. Wade and others love to use standard data sets and compare the 0.1 percent variants in clusters of people from Nigeria, Western Europe, Beijing and Tokyo, and so on. Doing this does yield some patterned differences, but these populations do not reflect the entire continental areas of Africa, Europe and Asia, the classic “races.” A comparison of geographically separated populations within the continental areas also yields easily measurable variation of similar magnitude. Comparing 60 Nigerians to 60 European-descendant Americans to 60 people from Beijing and Tokyo gives the same level of differences in genetic variation as does comparing such clusters of people from Siberia, Tibet and Java (Asia) or from Finland, Wales and Yemen (“Europe”) or even Somalia, Liberia and South Africa (Africa). None of these comparisons give us races. Identifying a few genetic variants that are more common in some populations in some parts of some continents than they are in other populations in other parts of other continents does not come close to any biologically valid demonstration of race.
Then there are the academics that misrepresent the broader view that environment and genetics interact in complex ways that can’t be reduced to simple biological determinism. For decades, that’s been touted as the “blank slate” model, which is a total strawman, but it’s really easy to write popular essays and books that mock other academics for essentially recognizing the complexity of human behavior.
Carolyn: Some of these beliefs have been promoted for years by well-funded racist organizations such as the Pioneer Fund; this group had among its members the late Philippe Rushton, who believed that there is an inverse relationship between penis size and IQ. But there is also the more mainstream Heterodox Academy, an online forum dedicated to pushing the academy to the political right because, the group’s members believe, liberal scholars teach orthodox ideas “without any real evidence.” Listed among the entrenched, unsubstantiated orthodoxies held up for critique by the Academy is this one: “All differences between human groups are caused by differential treatment of those groups, or by differential media portrayals of group members”  They don’t like the idea that scholars question what actually constitutes human behavior. Notables listed on the Heterodox Academy’s advisory board in 2016 include Steven Pinker of Harvard, John McGinnis of Northwestern and John McWhorter of Columbia. It is fascinating that some scholars think evolutionary biologists who challenge the idea that humans can be neatly sorted into racial groups are doing so for political reasons.
It’s actually a pretty good recipe for getting well-known — conform to human biases, claim scientific justification, and write lots of reductionist tracts that pander to “common sense” attitudes about race. It’s especially successful in the US, I think, and then the people who know better have to write more complex dissections of reality that get ignored.
And then the lies simmer in the public consciousness and ooze up into academia. This is shocking:
While the compassion driving attempts to find genetic causes for racial health disparities can be celebrated, the insidiousness of the discourse must be noted. This can be seen in a 2016 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article that indicates many medical students think blacks and whites have significant physical differences based on their genes . The authors interviewed first-, second- and third-year med students as well as residents about biological difference. The research showed, for ex- ample, that 63 percent of first-year students believed black skin is thicker than white skin. 46 percent of first-year students believed black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than whites’. The authors conclude, “A substantial number of white laypeople and medical students and residents hold false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites and demonstrate that these beliefs predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendation accuracy.” Science historian Keith Wailoo wrote a response to the article in The Daily Beast, where he noted, “The UVA study turns our gaze to one important place where race problems are manifest — medical training and physician perceptions” .
While I agree that the findings are horrifying, I would like to highlight two things. First, the statistics seem to point not to medical school per se, but to undergraduate preparation and to public health discourses about race and biological difference. Notably, the data show that first-year and third-year students have vastly different beliefs about race. For example, 33 percent of first-year medical students said “Blacks have stronger immune systems than whites,” whereas only 5 percent of third-year students held this belief. Similarly, 42 percent of first-year students believed “Black people’s blood coagulates more quickly than whites,” whereas 5 percent of third-year students agreed. Again, about 13 percent of first-year students believed “Blacks’ nerve endings are less sensitive than whites,” whereas 0 percent of third- year students held this belief .
I’ve encountered a few students who enter undergraduate studies with the idea that men have one fewer rib than women, which is a horrifying level of ignorance. That can get corrected quickly the first time they’re shown a display skeleton, though.
But medical students — they’ve already completed 4 years of undergraduate work, usually with a biology major, and they come out of it with those gross misconceptions? I’ve been trying to readjust religiously warped brains in the introductory biology class I teach with two whole lectures on creationism and misunderstandings of basic evolutionary biology, but I think I’ve been missing an entire vast category of bad folk biology assembled around misunderstandings about race. I’m going to have to drop one of my creationism sessions and replace it with a biology of race session, instead. A discussion about that PNAS article might be a good place to start.
Or we could just require every college student to take an anthropology course.