The Risks of Turning Races Into Genes

From 22-25 August, sociologists from around the nation and world will descend upon the Windy City of Chicago to discuss sundry issues as they participate in the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. One issue, however, is quite controversial: do genes or the social environment determine our behavior and health? Precisely, does nature or nurture determine the outcome of racial differences and racial inequality found throughout society?

Many readily acknowledge scientific advances are a necessary part of an improving society. From making cars more efficient on the road and beaming pictures from Pluto across the solar system to Earth, to developing new medical procedures to help us live better and making a longer lasting light bulb. Despite the many improvements science affords, cultural bias and normative assumptions can undergird the scientific methods and lead us down a dangerous path that has plagued American society for centuries. This path relies on a logic about race and difference that was and continues to be shared by many: from Thomas Jefferson to Dylan Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine African American churchgoers in Charleston this summer. What may be even more surprising is that a variation of this same logic can infiltrate science and influences how we understand who achieves better jobs and even who succeeds at professional sports.

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In the just released issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science we edited, I have gathered (with Professor W. Carson Byrd) an array of experts on race, science, technology, and society to explain how the fiction of "race" can have very real consequences. By exploring both biological determinism and racial essentialism together--what I and Professor Byrd call the "ideological double helix"--we explain how misunderstandings of race, genes, and inequality frequently creep into supposedly an objective science.

First, some explanation of our terms: "Biological determinism" is the belief that race is a genetic reality that regulates how we behave. Correspondingly, "racial essentialism" is the belief that people of different racial and ethnic groups have specific behaviors that are unique to their group. When these two beliefs intertwine--similar to the double helix of DNA--they provide a powerful faith that distorts reality, even among our best and brightest. Many then interpret racial inequality as a "natural" set of differences and outcomes, and can be dismissive of how the unequal lives we lead are powerfully shaped by the social environment.

The recent expansion of genetic and genomic research offers many advances in understanding possible human differences and lived experiences. With a swab of your cheek, you can find out your ancestry; possibly filling-in blanks about your family's origins and connections with other people. With a few tests in a lab, you can have a set of medicines tailored to your personal needs and purportedly tied to your racial identity. Through an analysis of a DNA sample left at a crime scene, scientists and law enforcement can create an artist rendering of the suspect down to their supposed racial group. You can even file a lawsuit because your baby does not have the same skin color, facial features or hair as you would expect someone of a particular race to have at birth after using artificial insemination, as was literally the case made in Cramblett v. Midwest Sperm Bank, LLC (2014). At the heart of this lawsuit is the belief that people of different races have meaningful genetic differences that result in different outcomes, which is similar to the beliefs shared by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes On the State of Virginia (1787), mass-murder Dylan Roof's online manifesto, and among everyday people on the street discussing why some children learn more readily than others, why some people vote particular ways in elections, and why professional athletes are seemingly more likely members of one racial group compared to another.

What the contributors to our volume discuss is how science and society continue to produce the myth that races are real human differences that are too-often immutable and lead to natural inequalities. After the human genome was mapped after a decade-long international project in 2000, leading scientists and former President Bill Clinton announced that race at a biological level did not exist. This did not stop the belief, among scientists and non-scientists alike, in genetically-derived racial differences. In fact, a major pursuit of contemporary science is to investigate how race exists in the minute differences that distinguish people from one another.

While it is true that geneticists have mapped clusters of genetic material within the global population, these groupings are not so much "natural," objective subpopulations that we could call "races," but are rather collectives that analysts construct using computer programs. That is, when looking for race at the genetic or genomic level, we can come away with research findings that are consistent with any "racial" classification scheme one wishes to find. If we believe there are five racial groups, we can then find five clusters of genetic material to match up with those five racial groups. However, if we believe there to be fifty racial groups, we can also then discover fifty clusters of genetic patterns that seemingly validate the fifty-race assumption.

"Race" is man-made, and much of the scientific enterprise has traditionally supported the myth that racial differences accurately represent real, biological differences among humans. These beliefs limit how scientists, policymakers, and everyday citizens can work together to tackle the real racial inequality of today. By increasing the dialogue of how we can tackle racial inequality regardless of whether we work in a laboratory or not, we can continue to deconstruct the myth that race is found in our genes, and begin to search in earnest for the legal, policy, economic, political, and social forces that make the effects of race all too real.