Race and Genetics: Attempts to Define the Relationship

Race and Genetics: Attempts to Define the Relationship

Volume 2, Issue 2 (June 2007)
pages 221-237
DOI: 10.1017/S1745855207005625

Duana Fullwiley, Associate Professor Anthropology
Stanford University

Many researchers working in the field of human genetics in the United States have been caught between two seemingly competing messages with regard to racial categories and genetic difference. As the human genome was mapped in 2000, Francis Collins, the head of the publicly funded project, together with his privately funded rival, announced that humans were 99.9 percent the same at the level of their genome. That same year, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began a research program on pharmacogenetics that would exploit the .01 percent of human genetic difference, increasingly understood in racial terms, to advance the field of pharmacy. First, this article addresses Collins’ summary of what he called the ‘vigorous debate’ on the relationship between race and genetics in the open-access special issue of Nature Genetics entitled ‘Genetics for the Human Race’ in 2004. Second, it examines the most vexed (if not always openly stated) issue at stake in the debate: that many geneticists today work with the assumption that human biology differs by race as it is conceived through American census categories. It then presents interviews with researchers in two collaborating US laboratories who collect and organize DNA by American notions of ‘race/ethnicity’ and assume that US race categories of classification largely traduce human biogenetic difference.  It concludes that race is a practical and conceptual tool whose utility and function is often taken for granted rather than rigorously assessed and that ‘rational medicine’ cannot precede a rational approach to addressing the nature of racial disparities, difference and inequality in health and society more broadly.

…Race and nominalism
Race is a thing of our world like no other. Americans in general often use the word without much reflection. It might indeed occupy a tiny portion of what philosopher Martin Heidegger amorphously termed ‘the background’, that which just is and does not warrant our reflection until its unity ‘breaks down’. Even when the breakdown of race occurs in many areas of American social life, it is often reconstructed and made ‘whole’ again. One recent example of this was in the 2000 US census race classification that allowed respondents to report themselves as ‘mixed race’. Many African-Americans with mixed ancestry did not choose this option, but simply marked the category that best represented descriptions that they had been raised to understand themselves ‘to be’ in North America—that is ‘monoracially’ black (Lee and Bean, 2004: 233). The decision to mark oneself or not mark oneself as mixed-race differed according to where respondents lived—notably between those who lived in the deep South and those who lived in the ten states where 64 percent of all multiracial identification took place (New York and California among them, as well as Hawaii). In general, those in cosmopolitan centers, with high rates of immigration, diversity, and more demonstrated tolerance of others, were more likely to report racial mixing (Lee and Bean, 2004: 235). Perhaps more telling, when Americans acted on the liberty of marking more than one category, the National Center for Health Statistics created a formula that, in effect, ‘reallocated’ the multiracial population back into a single race group (Wellner, 2003: 2). This move, and the technology permitting it, was presented as an aid to market researchers who were vexed by the 2000 census data, which complicated their traditional formulas of ‘niche’ advertising to racial groups (Wellner, 2003: 2)…

Read the entire article here.

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