Approaching race as a social rather than biological construct

Approaching race as a social rather than biological construct

The Daily Pennsylvanian
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Laura Anthony

The Program on Race, Science and Society will examine the role of race in scientific research at upcoming symposium

In 1851, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine graduate Samuel Cartwright delivered a report to the Medical Association of Louisiana claiming that blacks’ health was improved by slavery.

He theorized that forced physical labor improved blacks’ inferior lung capacity, so slavery was actually a necessity to bettering their health.

Penn Law School professor Dorothy Roberts first heard this anecdote from a talk by Brown University professor Lundy Braun detailing the history of the spirometer, a medical device used to measure lung capacity.

Some spirometers historically, and even in modern medicine, adjust the measurements according to the race of the patient. Cartwright used the device to justify the need for continued slavery to protect blacks’ health. Braun’s presentation included a picture of a modern spirometer with a button labeled “race,” and through numerous conversations with medical students, Roberts has found that some medical students are still trained to use spirometers based on patients’ race.

For Roberts, this is a major problem. “My definition of race is that it is a political system to govern people based on invented biological demarcation, and it is not a natural division of human beings,” she said. “So it is much more plausible that inequities in health that fall along racial lines are caused by social determinants.”

Braun’s talk sparked an idea for a future project in the new program she developed at Penn this year called the Program on Race, Science and Society…

Read the entire article here.

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