Race and Biology

Algernon Austin presents an excellent, concise, and wonderfully read scholarly examination of the complicated landscape of race, class and popular perception. Besides the prison industrial complex, black strides in education, poverty rates, crime and other indices contradict claims that blacks are “moving backward.”
--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.

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[Will White Rap Fans Help or Hurt Black America?]

Race is fundamentally a sociological phenomenon. For some, recent developments in genetics produce confusion on this matter because it seems that scientists are uncovering the biology of race. But actually the opposite is occurring.

For example,a new discovery suggests that maybe 40 percent of blacks have a natural beta blocker that helps them recover from heart failure. Only two percent of whites appear to have this trait. This is a large and significant racial disparity. Blacks are twenty times more likely than whites to have the beta-blocker characteristic.

Some people take findings of this sort and assume that it shows that race is biological. But this is not the case. Let’s say we simply followed the biology and made a “beta-blocker race” and a “non-beta-blocker race.” Neither of these races map onto the racial categories for blacks or whites. Sixty percent of blacks and 98 percent of whites are of the same “race”—“non-beta-blockers.” We don’t know what the breakdown is for Asians or other racial categories that people have defined. Presumably, these groups would only complicate matters further because some portion of them would likely also fall into the “non-beta-blocker race.”

In recent years, scientists have found many genetic correlates to our sociological racial categories. Most of these correlates have been in what can be called the “junk DNA” in our genetic code and, unlike the beta blocker characteristic, have no apparent usefulness to our wellbeing. With many of these correlates in their toolboxes and some understanding of mathematical probabilities, scientists can use biology to predict a person’s actual race or racial ancestry from their DNA.

This process is akin to someone using a person’s consumption patterns to predict their political affiliation. If you know that 60 percent of people who buy car A vote Democratic. And 55 percent of people who listen to music B vote Democratic. And 68 percent of people who drink beer C vote Democratic. And 75 percent of people who shop at store D vote Democratic. If someone does all four of the above things—A, B, C and D—that Democrats are more likely to do than Republicans, then it is highly likely that they are a Democrat.

Geneticists have found hundreds of bits of the genetic code that are somewhat more likely to be in one racial group than another. They use these hundreds of snippets to calculate the likelihood that someone belongs to a particular racial group. Since these analyses rely on probabilities, the confidence of the prediction depends on the specific methodology and the characteristics of the group. The last time I looked into this matter, scientists found American Indian membership very difficult to predict. Scientists, however, have been constantly working to improve their methodology.

Now to do these predictions, scientists have to start with the racial category and then find the DNA that correlate. They did not simply look at the DNA and then racial categories appeared to them. Going back to the predicting Democrats example, you have to start off knowing who is a Democrat. Only then can you identify which consumption items are important to look at. Similarly, you have to start with racial categories to find the DNA bits that a useful. It cannot be done just using biology. The social category comes first and then scientists try to rig up a system of biology and mathematics to best approximate the social categories.

Using a process similar to this one, geneticists can now identify if someone is black or white. They can even go further and identify if someone’s ancestry is from a specific part of the world, like West Africa as opposed to some other part of sub-Saharan Africa. They also can make fairly accurate assessments of what share of one’s ancestry came from West Africa and what share came from Western Europe. Although scientists are piecing together large numbers of genetic clues to predict a person’s race and ancestry, this assemblage of genetic snippets is not race.

These techniques were only recently discovered. They are probably less than 20 years old, yet race is more than 300 hundred years old. People in the eighteenth century knew the concept of race, but they would be completely dumbfounded by the genetic work scientists are doing today. A person from the eighteenth century and a twenty-first century geneticist could easily talk about race, but they could not immediately talk about genetics.

That scientists can find genetic correlates to racial categories after the fact, should not blind us to the fact that it was not the genes that constructed the categories in the first place. It was people’s social definitions. In the U.S. the one-drop rule in particular highlighted the fact that even physical appearance could be of secondary importance. The U.S. Postal Service reminds us of this with a Black Heritage stamp of Charles Chesnutt. It was not biology that made Chesnutt black.

[Read more about the social construction of race in Achieving Blackness.]

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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