Posted on March 24, 2014

In Research Involving Genome Analysis, Some See a ‘New Racism’

Paul Voosen, Chronicle of Higher Education, March 24, 2014

For a few years, the biological notion of race seemed dead and gone.

It was one of the high points of President Bill Clinton’s speech in 2000 announcing the near completion of research to sequence the structure of human DNA: “One of the great truths to emerge from this triumphant expedition inside the human genome,” he said that day in the East Room, “is that in genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9 percent the same.”

Yet just a few years later, genome scientists began to see that, while humanity’s genome is deeply shared, it is possible to group some DNA segments by their continental origin — African, European, Asian, Native American. Such DNA biomarkers seemed useful in the hunt for the genetic basis of disease. It made little sense for scientists, typically acting out of concern for health disparities, not to take those differences into account to increase their studies’ statistical power.

This awareness that DNA can be so sorted has prompted a crisis in the social sciences, however, where it’s a truism that race is entirely a social construct. The response has been mixed, only just beginning, and is documented in Catherine Bliss’s book Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice (Stanford University Press, 2012).

“The big irony here is that in trying to improve U.S. race relations and minority health, we’ve come full circle,” Bliss, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at San Francisco, said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in February. By using race-aware policies in the hope of ending health disparities in the country, she said, scientists were unwittingly causing a “new racism.” The upshot, she contended, is that research on social and economic causes of health disparities was not receiving enough attention.

Others have taken the argument further. Kathleen J. Fitzgerald, a sociologist at Loyola University New Orleans, argues in a recent paper, published in Humanity & Society, that the “resurgence of biological notions of race” is fueled by a “white perception of a threat to their social dominance.” Her case, however, is painted in broad strokes and engages in a fair amount of mind reading when it comes to motives.

On the flip side, several researchers have taken up the challenge of more accurately describing what this genomic information conveys. In the journal Race and Social Problems, Rick A. Kittles, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, points out that race continues to lack “biological integrity” in light of these discoveries, as most human genomes are made up of DNA segments that traveled across several continents, not just one. Far better to speak in terms of genetic ancestry, he says. (That’s the language used by Barnes, Hernandez, and other researchers mentioned in the accompanying article.) A concept like that does not carry race’s baggage, and points toward productive areas of biological research.