Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

"Race" and ethnicity

A major problem with the way people nowadays talk about health disparities -- and many other areas of inequality -- is confusion about the biological and social meanings of race and ethnicity. The U.S. is still a racist society, by which I mean that people believe in the reality of "race" both as a biological phenomenon and an organizing principle for social advocacy -- whether they are white supremacists or, unfortunately in too many cases, Black academics.

Ethnicity refers to group identity within a larger society, often connected with cultural differences and sometimes reinforced by socially accepted beliefs about the significance of certain physical traits. Such prejudices about physical differences underlie the construction of social “races.” The scientific consensus does not doubt that certain variant genes differed in frequency in different places in ancient times. However, it rejects the socially constructed concepts of race that pervade society. African Americans are a very real ethnic group, but very few African Americans are of exclusively African ancestry, and many people who are not ethnically African American have a higher proportion of African ancestry than many African Americans. Pakistanis, Chinese, and Filipinos are all aggregated into a putative “Asian” race, but this is as nonsensical biologically as it is socially. Examples are endless.

It must also be said that the notion that humanity was once divided into five reproductively isolated, independently evolving groups is obviously false. Native Americans came from Asia in evolutionarily very recent times. Africans, Europeans, and Southwest Asians were never reproductively isolated, rather their genes and populations flowed and intermingled along gradients. The genes of Africans flowed into Europe throughout history, and vice versa. (Remember Antony and Cleopatra, Othello and Desdemona, or Solomon and the Queen of Sheba?) The construction of five races from gene frequencies, physical traits, or anything else, is largely arbitrary. Pick a different set of characteristics as dispositive, and you get a different set of races.

The differences in health status that correlate with ethnicity – or “race,” if one bases analysis on racial categories – have much to do with social phenomena and little to do with genes. These include socio-economic status and access to opportunities, prejudice and discrimination, differing physical environments, cultural differences in diet and other behaviors that affect health, and many other factors including some as yet unknown. Whatever the importance of sickle cell anemia, Black people in the United States do not have shorter life expectancies than white people because of their genes.

Ethnicity, culture, group identity -- these are socially constructed but are real social phenomena. Race, as a biological concept, is also socially constructed but entirely false. Never forget this.


Anonymous said...

Two random comments to back you up:

- There is vastly more genetic diversity between any two housecats than there are between any two human beings. The darkest-skinned man in Africa is genetically more similar to the blondest Swede than two Siamese cats are to one another.

- One of the reasons the Australian Aborigines were (and continue to be) so poorly treated is that it was assumed that they were Africans. Genetic tests now show that not only are the Aborigines in fact Polynesians, but because of their isolation over millennia, genetically they're more distantly related to Africans than our Swedish friend above.

And, of course, we are all Africans in our genes, since the "Out of Africa" theory of human evolution seems to be the most viable one.

-- Mnemosyne

Cervantes said...

Thanks Mnemosyne. (I believe you are one of the muses, correct.) Of course, the assumption that Aborigines are African is due to their pigmentation, which just shows that the criteria used to label the "races" are certain arbitrary physical characteristics. These do not correlate much with other genetic characteristics that have had geographic gradients in the past. Pick different sets of characteristics to use as indicators, you get different races. But people seized on the most visible and simple, which is principally skin color.

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