Breaking the Bonds of Race and Genomics

Breaking the Bonds of Race and Genomics

Volume 25, Issue 1 (January-February, 2012): Genetics in 20 Years

Dorothy Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology; Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights
University of Pennsylvania

Twenty years ago it appeared that mainstream science finally was abandoning the concept of biological human races. From 18th century typologists to 20th century eugenicists, scientists have always been instrumental in justifying the myth that the human species is naturally divided by race. But the rejection of eugenics after World War II and discoveries by human evolutionary biologists in subsequent decades brought hope that a new science of human genetic diversity would replace the old racial science. In 2000, the Human Genome Project, which mapped the entire human genetic code, confirmed the genetic unity of the human species and the futility of identifying discrete racial groups in the remaining genetic difference. Biologically, there is only one human race. Race applied to human beings is a social grouping; it is a system originally devised in the 1700s to support slavery and colonialism that classifies people into a social hierarchy based on invented biological, cultural, and legal demarcations.

But instead of hammering the last nail in the coffin of an obsolete system, the science that emerged from sequencing the human genome has been shaped by a resurgence of interest in race-based genetic variation. Some scientists claim that clusters of genetic similarity detected with novel genomic theories and computer technologies correspond to antiquated racial classifications and prove that human racial differences are real and significant. Others are searching for genetic differences between races that could explain staggering inequalities in health and disease as well as variations in drug response, with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries poised to convert the new racial science into race-specific products. As we wait for the promise of gene-tailored medicine to materialize, race has become an avenue for turning the vision of tomorrow’s personalized medicines into today’s profit making commodities. While uncritically importing antiquated racial categories into research, the emerging racial science has a new twist—it claims to measure biological distinctions across races and “admixed” populations with more accurate precision, and without social bias

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