The Realities of Races

The Realities of Races

Is Race “Real”?
A web forum organized by the Social Science Research Council

Jonathan Marks, Professor of Anthropology
University of North Carolina, Charlotte


Anthropologists have been studying race for over 200 years now, and contrary to what seems to be conventional wisdom (at least as articulated in Leroi’s New York Times essay), they have learned quite a bit about it.

Perhaps the most significant discovery is that human groups, however constituted, are fluid, bio-cultural units. They run a broad gamut from more-or-less biological to more-or-less cultural, both in the criteria used to define the groups and in the context or circumstances that make such groups interesting or relevant to define. Thus, a category such as “achondroplastic dwarves” or “albinos” is unified by the possession of a few key phenotypes and genetic features in spite of the overall biological and cultural heterogeneity of its members. A category such as “blondes” or “Italians” is likewise constructed around some aspects of phenotype, genes, geography, or nationality. However, one can become a blonde or an Italian, while one cannot become an achondroplast or an albino.

The Nature of Race

Race was a category devised by scholars of the 18th century to summarize an ostensibly natural set of divisions within the human species. We know when, we know by whom, and we know in what forums. Prior to that time, and even into the 19th century, human variation was always interpreted as varying in local terms, not in para-continental terms. Why did race catch on then? Who knows? It is most likely related to the political economics of the age, involving sea voyage and exploitative relations with people who had more chimeric and fluid political systems than the recognizable, centralized, precisely bordered nation-states with which the Europeans were familiar. It was, in a phrase, a concept that was good to think with.

As long as you did not think too hard…

Racialized Medicine

To understand the possibilities and problems posed by “racialized medicine” we need to distinguish crucially between risk assessment and intervention.

One often hears about Ashkenazi Jews in the context of the value of race for medicine, with elevated frequencies of real alleles for breast cancer, Tay-Sachs, familial dysautonomia, Gaucher’s, etc., not to mention imaginary alleles for intelligence. But what do Ashkenazi Jews have to do with race? If by race we mean a large natural division of people, they are neither particularly large nor particularly natural. And their genetic distinctiveness is the result of demographic processes and events on the scale of centuries, perhaps barely millennia.

All human groups, however constituted, have particular medical risks. African Americans, Ashkenazi Jews, Afrikaners and Japanese, poor people, rich people, chimney sweeps, prostitutes, choreographers, and the Pima Indians all have their particular health risks. And race is not the cause of it, in fact, race will positively obscure it…

…Of what benefit would racialized medicine then possibly be? The therapeutic intervention would have to be based on the genotype, not on any racialized identity. Otherwise it would be far more likely to kill people than to cure them…

…To conclude, ultimately the issue in “racialized medicine” is about diminishing the quality of healthcare through the dissemination of incompetent biology…

Read the entire article here.

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