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The Role of Race in Science

Author Dr. Dorothy Roberts Speaks at UCSB


Speaking to a packed crowd at UCSB’s Multicultural Theater last week, Dr. Dorothy Roberts, drawing from her book Fatal Invention, took on a popular scientific finding that the science community itself seems to be ignoring. That finding: Race is not biological.

In 2000, the Human Genome Project concluded that race did not exist at the genetic level. The Genome Project proved what evolutionary biologists and anthropologists had already proposed, that race is nothing more than a political and social categorization. At that time, many — including Roberts herself — thought the more society understood genotypes, the more society would overcome racism and racial division. However, explained Roberts, the opposite occurred as evidenced by a growth in the biological categorization of race in science and technologies like race-specific medicines, reproduction assistance, and ancestry testing.

It was this trend that made her first ask the question that underpins her book: Why is race still so central in science when science has proven race is not a biological or genomic category?

According to the author, her answer came from the interplay between science and society. Roberts found that the importance of race as a biologic category stemmed from the “convergence of politics, big pharma, biotech companies and scientific research relying on antiquated myths … to create new racial politics in America.”

In medicine, for example, Roberts has seen race used as an easy but unscientific stand-in for genetic differences to help market new or existing drugs such as BiDil, a prescription heart disease medicine made specifically for African Americans. The first and only medicine approved by the FDA for a single race, BiDil’s original patent was ending when the owner of the pharmaceutical company that produces it added a claim that it was designed for African-American patients.

The claim, which proved successful in helping secure a more permanent FDA approval, was made after an all-black clinical trial proved that BiDil lowered the rate of death due to heart failure, cardiovascular disease, and/or diabetes by 43 percent. According to Roberts, the African-American community was delighted when BiDil was billed as an African-American drug as “minority illness” has been marginalized for centuries and the approval of the medicine was considered progress on that front.

Roberts, however, saw it differently. “I look at this and say, ‘You’re telling me that all you needed to look at was my race and you know enough about my individual genotype to prescribe to me something you’re going to call personalized medicine?’” said Roberts. “That is almost like taking a racial stereotype and putting it into medicine.”

High-tech aided reproduction is another biological area often discussed in racial terms. These technologies essentially promise the perfect human, said Roberts, with popular culture, in her figuring, often defining “perfect” as blond-haired and blue-eyed. As genetic testing develops, the responsibility for having a healthy child, or the “perfect human,” is pushed onto the mother, prompting more and more hopeful moms to explore the use of these technologies to avoid having children with disabilities or to simply increase their chances of having a “perfect” baby. “The more babies the better with blond hair and blue eyes. That’s the success,” said Roberts. “When you do hear news stories of black babies [in cases of reproductive technology], it’s always because of some horrible error that happened.”

Another example of race and genetics’ muddled relationship, according to Roberts, is ancestry testing and companies that promise to trace racial roots using genetic tests. Many people use these tests to trace their ancestry back to particular parts of the world or specific populations, but the accuracy of such practices is dubious at best, according to Roberts. “If you sent your DNA into five different companies, you would get five different results,” she explained. “It just doesn’t work.”

Further, at least in a political sense, many African Americans use these tests to overcome the divides created by slavery, but, opined Roberts, these tests merely reinforce the idea that race and citizenship are rooted in genetics rather than social and political ties. She continued that, as a society and at the federal level, many claim ignoring a person’s race creates equality, yet many who agree with this theory also think that race should be attended to on a molecular level to personalize medicines and technologies.

“Race at the molecular level is seen as more important precisely at the time that race in society, many people claim, is no longer important because racism doesn’t exist anymore,” said Roberts. The ultimate trouble, she opined, is that this type of logic and resurrection of race existing at a molecular level and biological level may divert important research from looking at the social causes of inequity — a risk that becomes even more dangerous, she cautioned, during these times of increasingly privatized social services and mass imprisonment.



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