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The End of Race History? Not Yet

by Osagie K. ObasogieNew Scientist
December 14th, 2012

HAVE we gone beyond race? Many argue society has now overcome centuries of strife to become "post-racial" - a moment that law professor Sumi Cho of DePaul University in Chicago refers to as "the end of race history".

Two seemingly disparate developments have been used to lend support to this claim. In politics, Barack Obama's 2008 election as the first racial minority-member to become US president has been lauded as a racially transcendent moment. In science, the completion of the Human Genome Project's first draft in June 2000 offered seemingly definitive evidence that race is not real. As geneticist Craig Venter noted at the HGP announcement, "the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis".

Yet this supposed new era of race relations met a backlash on two fronts. The political dimension has been widely publicised; President Obama's first term has been distinguished by elements of hatred and disrespect unquestionably coloured by race.

Another, less well-known dimension has roots within the scientific community. Despite pronouncements that race is genetically meaningless, some researchers insist that there are natural divisions between human groups that align with social categories of race. They argue that taking account of biological differences between racial groups can lead to beneficial innovations such as better understandings of individual ancestry, race-specific therapies, and new tools that can help law-enforcement fight crime.

But science is not on the side of these scientists. It has been widely documented, for example, that the presumption of a biological basis for social categories of race can shape research methods as well as the interpretation of results. Such findings can lead to a troubling re-emergence of biological race in mainstream science that, despite good intentions, is not unlike past versions used to further racial subordination.

Two recent books by legal scholars address these issues. Jonathan Kahn's Race in a Bottle provides a stunning case study of BiDil, the first drug to receive approval by the US Food and Drug Administration as a race-specific therapy. It was designed to treat African-Americans suffering from heart failure - based mainly on a mistaken belief that there are meaningful disparities in heart failure outcomes between blacks and whites caused by biological differences. Although BiDil was initially created as a race-neutral drug, Kahn offers a compelling account of the many influences that turned what is in essence a combination therapy of two widely available generic treatments into a pill "for black people only".

With a meticulous yet accessible and entertaining narrative, Kahn outlines the broader legal and political landscapes that not only allowed BiDil to get as far as it did, but also actively provided an incentive for this approach as the "dream" of personalised medicine marches on. He then shows how an inflexible response from public agencies to these markets and innovations in a genomic age can effectively recreate the notion of biological race.

Dorothy Roberts's Fatal Invention, now out in paperback, extends this insight to examine how the re-emergence of biological race is having a broader impact - not only on innovations such as genetic ancestry-testing and racialised aspects of DNA forensics, but also on how we think about basic notions of racial difference. Advocates of biological race argue that today's use of race in biomedicine is different from past usages within science that supported racism, eugenics and questionable research practices.

Yet Roberts brilliantly identifies the continuity of thought on biological race that links past, present and, perhaps, future. She points out that the continued acceptance of biological race in science and medicine works, for example, to obscure social and environmental causes of the very disparities thought to necessitate race-specific interventions. This reframes minorities' poor health outcomes as a function of their "bad genes" rather than the discriminatory social practices that these groups endure. By identifying this historical thread, Fatal Invention offers remarkable insight into how persistent claims of racial difference as biological difference retain residual notions of racial hierarchy as poisonous today as at any time before.

Taken together, Race in a Bottle and Fatal Invention tackle one of the most important concerns pertaining to race facing our society today. How do we make sense of the re-emergence of biological race amid assertions that race no longer matters? There are no better scholars than Kahn and Roberts to help us think through these issues. The growing acceptance of post-racialism, premature as it may be, is forcing a new conversation on how race is no longer merely a social or political issue, but is becoming a distinctively biopolitical concern that requires us to bring our commitments to racial justice to science. Kahn and Roberts offer an unmatched articulation of this new biopolitical terrain that, regardless of your perspective, is must-read material.

Osagie K. Obasogie is an associate professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, with a joint appointment at UC San Francisco's Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley



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