Laughing at White Supremacists: Race and Bad Science

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A video has been making the rounds in which Craig Cobb, a white supremacist who was leading the charge to create a neo-Nazi enclave in North Dakota undergoes a DNA test for a talk show, only to find out that he is “14% sub-Saharan African.” As of this post it has 120,000 views on youtube and has been featured on  TheGrio, The Daily Mail, The LA Times and The Huffington Post, where it is described as (maybe) “the best thing ever.”

Of course everyone loves the video. It bears a striking resemblance to what is probably Dave Chappelle’s best sketch of all time, about a blind white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby who doesn’t know he’s black. But in this case it’s a real white supremacist, so there’s the added bonus of social justice schadenfreude at watching him get his comeuppance.

As someone who studies health politics I find this video wildly annoying. Why, you ask?

It’s portraying Cobb as a villain for thinking race is biological and then proving him wrong by using science to tell him what his biological race is. It’s essentially accepting his presumptions of race as biology and racial purity to prove that he isn’t racially pure. But…race isn’t biological. And perpetuating the idea that it is is a way bigger problem than some racist nut out in North Dakota repeatedly being barred from creating an all-white town.

What is biological race? Well, according to the zoological definition, it exists when you can distinguish a group of organisms based on genetic difference. Humans of what we think of as different “races” do not differ anywhere near enough genetically to be distinguished in this way. And even our socially created definitions of race have differed dramatically across time – so a Craig Cobb of 100 years ago might have been even “more” black, because Southern or Eastern European ancestry might have been included in his black tally. As recently as 1930, these results would have made Cobb 100% “negro” according to the US census’s “one drop rule,” which asserted that anyone with “one drop of Negro blood” was considered black. Does it seem like this is getting silly? That’s because race biology is.

This isn’t just an issue of bad science, biological understandings of race do real harm to racial minorities, particularly in the healthcare system. Take for example, spirometers, which are used to measure lung function. They’re actually calibrated to account for a presumed difference in black and white lung capacities (with black capacity presumed to be 10-15% lower). Some even have a switch for “race” built in. The problem? These assumptions are based on bad race-biology science and they aren’t accurate. As a result, black patients have to be sicker to get the same treatment, not to mention to qualify for worker’s comp or insurance/compensation for their illness.

Assumptions about biological race can also lead to delayed or incorrect diagnoses, as in the case of a young black girl whose cystic fibrosis – a disease predominantly associated with Caucasian patients – went undiagnosed for years until a passing doctor, glancing at only her x-ray, asked her primary physician “who’s the girl with cystic fibrosis?”

Thinking about race in this way also shapes how we understand the causes of disease. With the rise of genetics, biological/genetic race is increasingly studied as a possible cause or risk-factor for disease. This goes on despite the fact that – and here I have to quote someone who understands genetics better than I do – “the environmental conditions that interact with putative polymorphic variations to trigger the onset of disease, not those variations themselves, would likely be the targets of intervention (or the cause of disease per se).”

Not surprisingly, this focus on genetics can obscure the social and environmental causes of many race-based disparities in health. As Dorothy Roberts explains:

“A renewed trust in inherent racial differences provides a convenient but false explanation for persistent inequalities despite the end of de jure discrimination. It is also the perfect complement to social policies that implement the claim that racism has ceased to be the cause of African Americans’ unequal status.” (Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention, 64)

The acceptance of race biology via genetics also means money is spent on finding race-specific genes when it could be more effectively spent treating the condition or addressing known (often social/environmental) causes and risk-factors. Conditions like hypertension and asthma for example, have repeatedly been linked to racial minorities’ greater exposure to stress and pollution. Still, genetics labs are established purely to identify the gene that’s causing high rates of asthma among black and Puerto Rican youth. Peer reviewed studies in medical journals have linked postpartum depression to poverty, lower levels of education, a lack of social support, and stress, all of which are more common among women of color. So of course in 2013 the National Institute of Mental Health funded a million dollar study aiming to identify the “biomarkers” for postpartum depression in African American women.

To wit, race isn’t biological, let’s stop talking/acting/researching/funding as if it is.

For much much more on this check out one of my favorite books by one of my favorite scholars: Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts

For a shorter read on race Biology, check out this May 2013 article by Merlin Chowkwanyun in The Atlantic

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6 thoughts on “Laughing at White Supremacists: Race and Bad Science

  1. I’m not sure how the argument “using genetic determinants excessively in medical practice may lead to suboptimal allocation of resources and medical misjudgment” has anything to do with whether “race” is biological or not.

    Both are arguments that I largely agree with. They’re just orthogonal to each other. You can hold that race is biological and think it’s still inefficient to focus on racial genes. And you can believe that race is a largely cultural construct and still think that humans have different genetic makeups and that this is important to understand for medical practice.

    1. The argument isn’t about using genetic determinants excessively, it’s about using race + genetics excessively, to find race-based causes of disease etc . You can certainly believe that race is largely a cultural construct and still think that humans differ genetically (though in many more diverse and interesting ways than according to race) and that genetic research is worthwhile (I do). But if you believe that race is largely a cultural construct, that there aren’t a lot of significant genetic differences between “races,” and understand the harm that thinking of race as biological does (the main points I’m trying to make here), you would probably caution against genetic research that presumes race is biological and attempts to identify raced genes.

  2. I remember reading something about rates of asthma being higher among people who live on bus routes (which are likely double-lane and main roads in cities, so not just from busses). Has any of the asthma work controlled for geography as such?

    1. Absolutely – I added some links in text but I’ll add them here as well: http://www.stateoftheair.org/2013/health-risks/health-risks-disparities.html which suggests that asthma is more about socioeconomic status (which clusters around race) than about race.

      There’s also been a lot of interesting asthma/geography work on the higher rates of asthma among residents of public housing, where outdoor pollution is often a factor, as are indoor exposure to mold, old carpeting, cockroach and rodent infestations (and consequently pesticides), and cigarette smoke. In response to skyrocketing rates of asthma in their public housing, Boston created the “Healthy Pest Free Housing Initiative” which reduced the number of roaches and rodents and provided safe pesticides, and cut asthma incidences almost in half.

      Research here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10741842
      Bostin initiative here: http://www.bphc.org/programs/cib/healthyhomescommunitysupports/healthyhomes/healthypestfreehousing/Pages/Home.aspx

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