Capital and the Biologization of Race

Contemporary invocations of Racial Determinism

Perhaps the most recent and influential invocation of genetic racial determinism is Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance. Considered a scrupulous challenge to the ‘orthodox’ notion that races – and the immaterial (cognitive, behavioral) differences between them – remain largely socially constructed, Wades’ book argues:

that there is a genetic component to human social behavior; that this component, so critical to human survival, is subject to evolutionary change and has indeed evolved over time; that the evolution in social behavior has necessarily proceeded independently in the five major races and others; and that slight evolutionary differences in social behavior underlie the differences in social institutions prevalent among the major human populations.

Wades’ book has already cultivated positive reviews. Says one Wall Street Journal review (from which Wades’ above quote is taken):

It is hard to convey how rich this book is. It could be the textbook for a semester’s college course on human evolution, systematically surveying as it does the basics of genetics, evolutionary psychology, Homo sapiens’s diaspora and the recent discoveries about the evolutionary adaptations that have occurred since then. The book is a delight to read—conversational and lucid. And it will trigger an intellectual explosion the likes of which we haven’t seen for a few decades (Murray).

Despite the positive reception and the confidence with which Wades makes his assertions, others are not so easily convinced. Jonathan Marks, an Anthropologist and professor at the University of North Carolina, offers the most tendentious published critique as of this paper’s writing: ‘There is little to recommend here. This book is as crassly anti-science as any work of climate-change denial or creationism.’ Andrew Gelman, a Columbia University statistician and political scientist, offers: ‘I see naivete [sic] in Wade’s quickness to assume a genetic association for any change in social behavior,’ insinuating the book represents a timeless racist ‘paradox,’ where ‘at any given moment the racism of the day seems reasonable and very possibly true, but the racism of the past always seems so ridiculous.’

Wade’s book is representative of a long tradition, especially in the United States, of ascribing observed variety among seemingly discrete human populations to innate or genetic markers in terms of behavior, capacity, and cognition. To those skeptics casting doubt over the likes of Wade, his book reminds them of Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994), which argues that genetic information, sometimes with environment, shape intelligence, job performance, and deviance rather than intergenerational social mobility or one’s access to education, for example. The Bell Curve alerted Americans that the influx of less intelligent immigrants would further alienate those elites with ‘high intelligence’ from the rest of society, producing a Latin-Americanized institution of inequality. New York University evolutionary biologist and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, was among many scientists, both social and technical, to attack the book and its social-darwinian implications:

The penultimate chapter presents an apocalyptic vision of a society with a growing underclass permanently mired in the inevitable sloth of their low IQs. They will take over our city centers, keep having illegitimate babies (for many are too stupid to practice birth control), and ultimately require a kind of custodial state, more to keep them in check—and out of high IQ neighborhoods—than to realize any hope of amelioration, which low IQ makes impossible in any case. Herrnstein and Murray actually write, “In short, by custodial state, we have in mind a high–tech and more lavish version of the Indian reservation for some substantial minority of the nation’s population, while the rest of America tries to go about its business.”

Echoing the conclusions of The Bell Curve, Frederick Goodwin, an eminent psychologist and head appointee to the Federal Violence Initiative was infamously known to have remarked, at a 1992 meeting of the National Mental Health Advisory Council:

If you look, for example, at male monkeys, especially in the wild, roughly half of them survive to adulthood. The other half die by violence. That is the natural way of it for males, to knock each other off, and in fact there are some interesting evolutionary implications of that because the same hyper-aggressive monkeys who kill each other are also hypersexual, so they copulate more and therefore they reproduce more to offset the fact that half of them are dying … Maybe it isn’t just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities ‘jungles,’ that we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all of the social controls that we have upon ourselves as a civilization over thousands of years in our evolution (Smith, 20).

Likening urban black males to oversexed primates landed Goodwin in a ‘demoted’ federal position: head of the National Institute of Mental Health. Even more interesting (or alarming), however, was Goodwin’s defense to which commentators rushed. One outstanding of these defenders was sociobiologist and science journalist Robert Wright, who wrote a piece to Goodwin’s defense in a March issue of The New Yorker in 1995. Lending credence to one of Goodwin’s arguments (that low seratonin levels among inner city black males produced inner city violence), he asserted that

Goodwin is a victim of a vestigial feature of the American liberal mind: its undiscerning fear of the words ‘genetic’ and ‘biological,’ and its wholesale hostility to Darwinian explanations of behavior. It turns out, believe it or not, that comparing inner-city males to monkeys isn’t necessarily racist, or even necessarily right-wing. On the contrary, a truly state-of-the-art comparison yields what is in many ways an archetypically liberal view of the ‘root causes’ of urban violence.

The rest of Wright’s piece discusses Goodwin’s attempts to identify those genetic and environmental confluences which induce violence, and whether or not treating serotonin levels to this effect would help attenuate the problem of inner city crime. In all fairness, Wright does treat conflicting views (he deems as ‘liberal’) and complicates the discussion with other opinions. However, one picture in his treatment of the issue remains without much qualification or criticism: inner city youth vying for territory and respect are like to primates, who navigate their social ladders by way of fighting each other and engaging in sexual competition, social processes conscribed by the pressures of natural selection. Wright’s piece suggests that because ‘serotonin is one chemical that converts poverty and disrespect into impulsiveness or aggression or low self-esteem, then it, along with other chemicals, may be a handy index of all these things – something whose level can be monitored more precisely than the things themselves.’

The above statement is most useful for the purposes of this paper, aside from much else. An unsettling strategic notion predominates, un-countered. As a solution to social ills, perhaps we can monitor and manipulate those biological processes, genetic materials and endogenous chemicals which mediate an individual’s interaction with her environment. This unsettling piece of the puzzle takes two important directions: (1) while it remains true that serotonin levels very well might relate importantly to violence and the like, Goodwin, et al obfuscate the social forces which give rise to their salience; (2) relatedly, the solutions genetic racial determinists prescribe to attenuate social ills (such as inner city violence) relegate the explanatory usefulness of understanding society’s social organization to secondary importance, instead focusing on individual actors or specific populations and their seemingly discreet natures and biological informations.

This paper will establish several arguments: (1) Race is useless for socially addressing root causes of, and potential enhancements/correctives to qualities such as deviance, behavior, and intelligence, (as qualified by the bio-racial determinists); (2) Race’s most salient function constitutes the ideological product of a historically unequal society, which has instrumentalized racial difference to reinforce its multivariate and intersecting inequalities; (3) Genetics carries the historical ‘imprimatur’ of the history described in (2), and is thus alienated from its own, and very promising, potential.[1] 4. The fundamental force which induces (1, 2, 3) is capitalism, its laws of motion and social-organizing strategies.

What does the Science Say? An Overview

Especially since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, a great deal of material has been written on race and genetics. Even more broadly, the quest to ascribe every detail of human variation to genetics commands an omnipresence so profound, every-day conversations are subtly steeped in genetic determinism. Expressions such as ‘so-and-so won the genetic lottery’ or ‘it’s in so-and-so’s nature to be such’ generalize. As well, lay assumptions about talent, genius, laziness, preference and the like contain a determinist hue, rendering the process of socialization invisible: ‘he was born playing the guitar;’ ‘you get your kindness from your father;’ ‘Jews love food;’ ‘black people are so good at the bass, because they are inherently rhythmic and groovy;’ the list can continue endlessly. Even prior to the ascendance of genetics, American intellectuals have made a concerted effort to ‘discover’ those qualities and variations, which comprise human diversity, as ‘natural’ or ‘inherent.’ This is a point to which to return, however. Importantly, the specific science on race, genetics, and variation speaks clearly for itself.

Jonathan Marks’ chapter in Human Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge Press, 2010) summates much of the scientific research regarding race and genetics in ten usefully straightforward arguments: ‘human groups distinguish themselves principally culturally;’ ‘human biological variation is continuous, not discrete;’ ‘clustering populations is arbitrary;’ ‘populations are biologically real, not races;’ ‘populations also have a constructed component;’ ‘there is much more variation within groups (polymorphism) than between groups (polytypy);’ ‘people are similar to those nearby and different from those far away;’ ‘racial classification is historical and political, and does not reflect natural biological patterns;’ ‘humans have little genetic variation;’ ‘racial issues are social-political-economic, not biological’ (266-272). There is a great deal to unpack here, and Marks’ chapter serves only as a starting point for the 108 scientific sources he employs, over the course of eleven pages. What is useful here is Marks’ treatment of counterpoints and countervailing assumptions. A handful of his ten arguments will prove useful.

Human groups as distinguished principally by culture. Perhaps the most overlooked factor explaining human variation is socialization, and the vast cultural and historical systems which produce differing socialization-processes:

In distinguishing our group from others, in these socially transmitted, historically constructed, and symbolically powerful ways, we structure most of our daily lives. What makes us group members also renders all of our sensory input and experience meaningful. We think and communicate using the metaphors and symbols of our group. We groom and dress ourselves according to the conventions of our group; indeed the decisions we actually make during the course of our lives are rigidly constrained by the relatively meager options culturally available.

If humans principally differ in this way, genetic variation tells us much less about differences between culturally discrete groups, than it does about variation within groups. The example Marks uses illuminates this point. Consider ‘an imaginary neuropeptide[2] whose variant allele might make its possessor slightly more aggressive.’ The manner in which this successor navigates a slightly higher genetic propensity for aggression will necessarily be dictated by the social, cultural constraints and the tools around her. On the other side of the same coin, ‘culturally mediated responses to [her] aggressive behavior’ would vary greatly, depending on the social environment in which she finds herself (267).

Variation: continuous, not discrete. The task of taxonomizing human variety, for Marks, is ‘a classic square-peg/round hole problem,’ though its pervasiveness in the history of science remains (268). In the 1800s, when ‘race’ was coined, its use as classificatier was employed colloquially, referring to outward appearance (265). Early naturalist GLL Buffon (who coined the term, ‘race’) remarked in Natural History, General and Particular (1749): ‘on close examination of peoples who compose each of these black races, we will find many varieties as in the white races, and we will find all the shades from brown to black, as we have found in the white races all shades from brown to white’ (267). Contemporary of Buffon and fellow naturalist JF Blumenbach wrote in 1755: ‘one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other that you cannot mark out the limits between them.’ Despite Buffon’s and Blumenbach’s focus on continuity, their profession as taxonomists paradoxically compelled them to discrete-ize their observations, a legacy which ‘inheres in the work of population geneticists over two centuries later’ (268).

The alternative to taxonomizing biological groups was suggested in 1938 by biologist (and eugenicist) Julian Huxley, who was studying animal taxonomy. His argument was that ‘since a large component of the variation [existing] within a species is structured as geographical gradients … why not simply describe them that way?’ In the 1950s, zoologists such as FB Livingstone were ready to deny the biological existence of human races, extending Huxley’s ideas to human study.[3] Indeed, it became difficult for evolutionary biologists to taxonomize the variety and gradation they encountered among human populations. In 1899, WZ Ripley divided the ‘races of Europe’ thus: ‘Teutonic (Nordic), Alpine, and Mediterranean. By 1933, Carelton Coon’s revision, The Races of Europe,identified over a dozen (267).

The point is that the ‘clinal pattern’[4] in humans has to do with natural selection and gene-flow, both mediated by, and interacting with, varying environmental and socio-cultural dynamics and contexts. The discreteness with which biologists have classified human races has fluctuated over time, and is deeply informed by ‘a peculiar view of human variation adopted by biologists from the 17th to early 20th centur[ies].’ The gradational view not only contradicts the discrete; it explains, setting aside the political and historical leftovers of antiquated biology, the manner in which human taxonomies have varied intensely over time.

Populations: biologically real. Races: not really. By the end of WWII, evolutionary biologists and anthropologists ‘coined the word deme to refer to the local population that exists as an ecological and social unit in nature.’ Not only did this approach permit scientists to avoid the complications and vagueness of race, the local population, as a proposed unit of analysis, proved extremely effective. On the other hand, generalizing from local populations to race proved to lack cohesion and time depth (268). The question becomes: to what extent do local populations represent ‘anything other than themselves? (ie: races).’ The answer is somewhere along the lines of: they don’t. Despite this and employing microevolutionary study on local populations, scientists have sometimes assumed they represent races which are also assumed to be discrete, which they are not.

Much more variation within groups than between. Perhaps the most useful scientific fact, this shatters the assumption of discreteness. In 1972, Richard Lewontin, a biologist who pioneered the use of electrophoresis in genetic evolution, calculated that there are six times more within-group variation than between groups. Put scientifically: there is far greater polymorphic diversity than there is polytypic diversity. Scientists have found similar results in nuclear DNA in 1997 and 2002. Put simply, ‘the point of a theory of race was to discover large clusters of people that are principally homogeneous within and heterogeneous between contrasting groups’ (270). And that which startles racial determinists underpins the importance of this finding: such groups (principally homogeneous within and heterogeneous between) do not biologically exist among humans. To add, Lewontin’s findings indicate that behavioral and cognitive diversity ‘tend to be localized at the borders of human groups … and are the sort we call cultural.’

Racial classification: historical-political, NOT reflective of natural biological patterns. The racialization of Hispanics in the United States is one contemporary example which speaks to the ‘politically salient’ nature of race-as-classification. ‘Hispanic’ effectively refers to anyone deriving from just south of Brownsville, Texas to the southernmost tip of Ushuala, Chile. In between those two points is an entire region comprised of over 40 countries, peppered with distinct linguistic and culture-systems, indigenous populations, and complicated political histories with countries from other parts of the globe.  Another example: ‘black’ in the United States refers to those of African descent, while in the UK, it referred to those of South Asian ancestry. Anecdotally, a Peruvian friend of mine who’d be considered ‘white’ in Lima was astonished to find out she could identify as a person of color in the United States. Her amazement quickly turned to doubt, and she argued with me that such could not be the case. She was proven wrong, however, over the course of her time in the United States. The point is that race-as-category over-generalizes, glossing over genetic admixture, interrelated-ness, distinctiveness (where it does exist), and so on. The discussion of ‘local populations’ as effective units of analysis (as opposed to races) for microevolutionary study here is useful.

But an even larger, political point must be made. Marks terms race as ‘a sense-making system imposed upon the facts of difference,’ establishing distinctions to appear ‘rooted in nature, rather than in history or politics’ (271). ‘The pervasive tendency for racial classifications to see sub-Saharan Africans as a single group, for example, has far more to do with the politics and history of slavery than with the gene pool of Africans.’ Despite this pervasive tendency, ‘the genetic diversity [of sub-Saharan Africans] is considered to harbor the ancestral gene pool of the rest of the world … thus encompass[ing] more genetic diversity than other ‘races’… constitute[ing] a paraphyletic[5] category, [rendering them] not even taxonomically comparable to other ‘races’’ (272). Over time, not only have the ideas of race changed, the very names with which specific races are invoked have changed as well.

Humans? Little genetic variation. Any two (non-twin) humans share 99.9% of their respective 3 x [10^6] DNA base pairs. Undeniably, ‘biochemical individuality’ thus arises in that 0.1%.[6] Chimpanzees and gorillas, our closest ancestors, in fact possess a ‘greater degree of heterogeneity’ in their mitochondrial DNA and vary more between groups than we do, despite their comparably restricted range. As such, ape taxa ‘represent very different entities than human races.’ The desire to reconstruct human evolution as a ‘series of cladogenetic[7] events’ therefore proves useless, as recent research indicates that a more accurate model of human populations (spanning time) would appear more as a ‘trellis, capillary system, or rhimzome’ rather than a tree, with clearly defined, terminal boughs, branches, and twigs (268).

Racial issues are not biological, but political, social, economic. For the purposes of this paper, this final argument of Marks is the most salient. If ‘white’ and ‘black’ denote huge and overlapping populations as science has established, ‘there can be little justification for ascribing great biological meaning to the perceived discontinuities between them’ (272). Regardless, the reality is that social inequalities are categorically racialized. Reducing inequalities to biological causes functions in two ways: (1) ‘[it] minimizes the role of political-economic factors in producing and maintaining social inequality;’ (2) it implies that ‘biological causes require biological remedies’ (a la, Troublesome Inheritance) (273). Here enters ‘racial pharmacogenomics,’ BiDil, and the like.

The eugenic imprimatur

Some history of Eugenics. Troy Duster is perhaps the most vocal thinker on race and genetics who has demonstrated that eugenics has left its hegemonic imprimatur on the study of genetics. His work illuminates the history of race in the United States, with deep implications for the way in which genetic research is discussed and executed. One such example is the case of drapetomania, a diagnosis developed by Samuel Cartwright, which sought to gauge the tendency and willingness with which slaves opted to escape the plantations on which they worked. Implicit in Cartwright’s work is an assumption about the naturalness of black violence and aggression, a trait he encouraged masters to mediate (Duster, 4). Cartwright advised owners that ‘with the advantages of proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented.’

Despite that drapetomania gained little medical prescience, it embodies the racial history of the United States and its interaction with science in several crucial ways. The Supreme Court had by then decided it was illegal to abscond from service and that ‘negroes’ were not at all entitled to the rights reserved for ‘we the people.’[8]  Writes Duster, ‘under the imprimatur of science, medical and legal ideas converged with the convenient idea that whites had a superior evolutionary status’ (5). To justify racial inequality, and the slave-productive mode in the American south, it was imperative to illegalize absconding. However, on top of this illegality was the designation that absconding itself was a medical aberration, stemming from the naturalness of being a ‘negro.’

Around this time, Darwinian evolutionary theory gained preeminence. While Darwin did not propose a scientific justification for racial stratification, ‘evolutionary theory recast the issue of racial stratification into a systematic scientific framework.’ It was Herbert Spencer[9] who developed a ‘hierarchy of cultures’ based on the ideas proposed by Darwin: ‘as humans can be stratified in evolutionary development, so can cultures’ (6). The imprint Spencer left on then-budding anthropology was enormous. He argued that any culture could be placed on continua of savageness and civility, simplicity and complexity; those considered savage had a limited sense of time based on bird migration or the passing of seasons, where ‘civilized’ denoted the ability to plan and accumulate commodities and productive tasks. Spencer argued that ‘black children in the United States could not keep up with whites because of the former’s biological and genetically endowed limits.’ In his own words: ‘[Blacks’] intellects [are] apparently incapable of being cultured beyond a particular point.’ This conclusion stems from his own continua, which suggest that savageness and civility are not just historical markers, but genetic ones as well.

As biomedical research expanded in the 1900s, physicians experimented with humans to determine racial difference. One such experiment remains among the most horrific: The Tuskegee syphilis experiment (beginning in the 1920s) enlisted African-Americans with syphilis to see if it ‘coursed through black and white bodies in different ways.’ Under the impression they were receiving free health care, the enlisted African-Americans were not given the available ameliorative drugs for the scientists to come to a conclusion. The study was terminated as recently as the 1960s. A similar experiment, conducted in Puerto Rico, was directed by Legion of Merit award-winner and physician Cornelius Rhodes, who knowingly infected Puerto Ricans with cancer to see how they would respond. Rhodes was exonerated of the deaths of his patients.

A similar book, Controlling Human Heredity written by zoologist Diane Paul surveys the history of eugenics in the United States from 1865 to present day. A huge focus of her fourth chapter, ‘The Menace of the Moron’ is the manner in which science sought to segregate the richer, ‘purer’ class from an expanding subset of lowly ‘imbiciles,’ moving into cities at the turn of the century (Paul, 77). The words ‘imbicile’ and ‘moron’ became standard medical terminology, classifying those with mental illness and a history of criminality as such. This was the basis for developing rather extensive asylum and custodial institutions, which became ‘colonies’ for the ‘feebleminded’ in the 1880s. As time progressed, sterilization surgeries such as castration, vasectomies, and spatial exclusion were employed to control the lowly populations and instrumentalize more efficiently prison labor (81). Pictures included in Paul’s book from this time period show the clear and disheartening racialized composition of these custodial institutions.

Crime in the Genes. Duster’s book Backdoor to Eugenics remains a go-to resource for anyone delving into the complicated history of race and genetics and the modern invocation of genetic explanations for deviance, crime and the like. The most alarming pages explore the ‘appropriation of genetic explanations’ by some intellectuals, seeking to root out the causes behind criminal behavior, IQ scores, and mental illness (93-111).

As governor of California, Ronald Reagan supported the creation of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of California at Los Angeles. ‘An important feature for the center’s work, which Reagan endorsed, was the early identification of violent-prone individuals’ (97). Their studies, as well as others, operationalized incarceration numbers, correlating race with criminality. Given the highly disproportionate skew with which black and white people are incarcerated in the United States (whites: 65 per 100,000; blacks 544 per 100,000), their conclusions necessarily suggested there was something distinctive about black genes, as they relate to deviance and criminality (99). This flies in the face of research done nearly 30 years prior, which sought to ‘lay to rest’ these sorts of conclusions.

In 1960, Paul Bohannan wrote a book entitled African Homicide and Suicide, which found that the African homicide rate is lower than the American, approximating that of the European (100). Moreover, the incarceration patterns in the United States have changed drastically since the early 1900s, expanding vociferously into Black and Latino populations, especially since the 1970s and the inception of the War on Drugs. Michelle Alexander’s excellent book The New Jim Crow discusses the reality of this hyper-racialized system, its ‘revolving door’ dynamic for poorer people of color, the collateral damages it proliferates in black and brown communities, and the colorblind ideologies with which Americans discuss criminality. Duster problematizes the genetic-criminality studies even further, arguing that they excluded the already underrepresented criminality of those from higher economic strata. The designations: white-collar crime, black-on-black crime, and the like stem from this era of criminality studies. Even though blacks are overrepresented in white-collar crimes (fraud, forgery, embezzlement, etc), they are still outpaced by whites by a factor of 3. Despite this, Duster writes, there remains a very clear bias in how people generally think of criminality: ‘when whites commit more crimes at the top, [people] attribute this to opportunity structures; when blacks commit more crimes, it is implicitly more a feature of their race’ (101).

BiDil: the first racial medicine. Moving over to medicine, the foremost example of arbitrary racial invocations is BiDil, the only officially explicit race-directed medicine in the world (at least for now). Pamela Sankar and Jonathan Kahn are among the foremost scholars exploring this issue. In June of 2005, ‘the US Food and Drug Administration granted formal approval to BiDil as a race-specific drug to treat heart failure’ (455). They argue that ‘BiDil’s success … [despite what its proponents say] is one not of personalized medicine, but of exploiting race to gain commercial and regulatory advantage in the pharmaceutical marketplace’ (455). The very first patent for BiDil was nowhere near race-specific, but after its rejection for an NDA (New Drug Application) by the FDA, the developers of BiDil scrambled to make their drug more marketable and relevant. Based on their tests in the 1980s, which tried to gauge BiDil’s success among veterans, the brains behind BiDil revisited the 49 African-American subjects and their response to the drug (457).

Following a hunch that they could successfully pass an NDA if they remarketed and re-patented BiDil as race-specific, the developers of BiDil tested 1,000 African Americans through the New York Heart Association. These subjects remained on their current heart medication and were randomized to receive BiDil or a placebo, additionally. The tests were so successful that the study was terminated, on the grounds that it was unethical to continue, given its success. The FDA changed its mind, and BiDil’s projected market opportunity tripled ‘to $3 billion as NitroMed announced BiDil’s pricing at $1.80 per pill … dwarf[ing] the estimated costs of generic equivalents at $0.25 per pill’ (458). All of these developments rested on ‘tenuous’ purported racial differences in cardiovascular disease rates and drug responses. For example, a colleague of the BiDil developers, Daniel Dries, reported that ‘overall mortality from heart failure was approximately twice as high for blacks as for whites, when, in fact, the best available current data showed the disparity to be approximately 1.08 to 1 (that is, negligible)’ (459).

The grand success of BiDil was not just its lucrative returns, but its developers’ ability to secure ‘market exclusivity’ by invoking racial specificity: ‘the race-specific patent will still prevent anyone else from marketing the generic component drugs as a method to treat heart failure among African Americans until 2020’ (461). For Duster, the story of BiDil is ‘poised to exert a cascading effect – reinscribing taxonomies of race across a broad range of scientific practices and fields.’ Shortly before the FDA approved BiDil, Duster advised that ‘it [only do so] under the condition that further research be conducted to find the markers that have the actual functional association with drug responsiveness – thus assuring the drug be approved for everyone with those markers, regardless of their ancestry’ (1051). BiDil was not approved with that qualification.

The Role of Environmental Racism. But even if mortality and prevalence rates are disparate among black and white heart disease patients, the source does not have to be genetic. The manner in which populations are spatially organized in gentrifying cities, and the continuing history of spatial segregation along racial lines in the United States creates all sorts of problems aside from some of the issues we’ve discussed already. It is well established that, in New York City, for example, higher asthma rates among children correlate spatially with wherever black and brown children tend to live.[10] What sociologists have come to call ‘environmental racism’ provides a social basis for explaining health discrepancies among black and white populations,[11] relating those issues to the legacy or racism.

Kelly Happe’s The Material Gene takes genetics and ideology even further into environmental politics. Very similar conclusions that we’ve drawn with regards to race she extends to the environmental realm. In part, her chapter, ‘Genomics and the Polluted Body’ sheds light on environmental racism, citing ‘evidence surface[ing] in the mid-1980s that industry strategically targeted communities marked by poverty and political disenfranchisement.’ Even further: ‘industry also sought communities with documented antiregulation attitudes; it was effectively looking for communities with no history of economic justice social movements, itself a sign of political alienation’ (163). The result, with asthma rates as one example, was that industry’s costs became externalized to predominantly poor, African American communities. One example she cites is Convent, Louisiana. The population in 2002 was 21,000 ‘of whom 51% could not read or write, 61% were unemployed, and over 65% lived below the poverty line.’ A total of 12 industrial plants operated within 30 square miles, with Convent as the center. ‘While on average, 7 pounds of toxic materials were released nationwide into the air for every person living in the United States as a whole, 2,227 pounds of pollutants were released into the air for every person living near Convent’ (164). Undoubtedly, these sorts of forces play a huge role in black-white health discrepancies, over which genetic racial determinists are too ready to gloss.

Torturous Textbooks. Race as an erroneous and obfuscatory organizing and explanatory category moves even beyond the fields of law and medicine and into secondary school textbooks. Ann Morning’s The Nature of Race demonstrates that ‘the notion of race as a cultural product and not a biological one is disseminated only in a few social science curricula and [remains] the least-taught social sciences at that. At the same time, material reinforcing an essentialist interpretation of race can be found in both biology and social science textbooks’ (100). Her overview of the history of textbooks shows that racial discreteness is still taught, without much qualification or regard for the wealth of sociological and biological materials which complicate racial discreteness. Morning’s study of dozens of biology, geography, psychology, sociology, and anthropology textbooks reveals that ‘textbooks still regularly present race as a characteristic of the human body’ (102). One of the many cringe-worthy examples she cites is a caption of a 1995 textbook, reading: ‘one well-known racial classification system sorts individuals into Caucasoid (left), Negroid (center), and Mongoloid (right) groups’ (79). Recalling our discussion of taxonomy, this classification system is almost identical to the view naturalists held in 1899.

Ideology and Capital

Lewontin discusses in his book, Science as Ideology (1993) the broader social role science commands. Science does not conduct its affairs outside the forces that design society. As such, it is ‘completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions’ (3). Science, its procedures, results, and questions ‘are all deeply influenced by predispositions that derive from the society in which we live’ (3). Because ‘it is a human productive activity that takes time and money … [it is] guided and directed by those forces in the world that have control over money and time’ (3). Science employs and creates commodities, pays, and is thus deeply influenced by powerful social and economic forces. Such forces

have the power to appropriate from science ideas that are particularly suited to the maintenance and continued prosperity of the social structures of which they are a part. So other social institutions have an input into science both in what is done and how it is thought about, and they take from science concepts and ideas that then support their institutions and make them seem legitimate and natural (4).

All this in mind, Lewontin’s view that science is shaped by society’s productive forces is just as much a description of science and society as it is an explanation for the kinds of biases in science, popular culture and lay understandings of race we’ve explored. Underpinning the capitalist productive force are the following bedrock dynamics: (1) commodities are sold for exchange-value (rather than use-value), (2) capitalists own the means and tools of production, (3) to capitalists, workers sell their capacity to work for a wage. So long as our society prioritizes profit over need, elites who possess the investment function (by default) will bifurcate those who produce for them, so as to continue the inequalities capitalism inheres. The ascendant ideologies that rest upon this social machinery serve to justify, naturalize, and explain why the world works the way it does. Race is but another of these compelling ideologies in which we are immersed.

BJ Fields likens the role of ideology in capitalist society to a ‘certain social terrain, whose map [people] keep alive in their minds by collective, ritual repetition of the activities they must carry out in order to negotiate the terrain’ (113). She continues, ‘racial ideology supplied the means of explaining slavery to people whose terrain was a republic founded on radical doctrines of liberty and natural rights; and, more important, a republic in which all but a minority lived … race explained why some people could rightly be denied what others took for granted’ (114). But the picture, for Fields, is far more complex: ‘if race lives on today, it does not live on because we have inherited it from our forebears in the 17th century or the 18th or 19th, but because we continue to create it today’ (117).

Operating beneath these restraints, genetics is appropriated to ‘create race,’ to explain-away inequalities by pathologizing crime and poverty, by rendering outwardly differing bodies to be more different than they truly are, and – more generally – by generalizing that difference into society where social difference, normatively, should not exist. Just as unfortunate, genetics becomes alienated from its own scientific, and medical potential as a field that can treat, prevent, and assess cancer, multiple-sclerosis, and an unending range of illnesses.


Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. Free Press. 2012.

Duster, Troy. Backdoor to Eugenics. Routledge. 1990.

Duster, Troy. ‘Lessons from History: Why Race and Ethnicity have Played a Major Role in Biomedical Research.’ Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. 2006. 2-11.

Duster, Troy. ‘Race and Reification in Science.’ Science. 18 February 2005. Vol 307. 1050-51.

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[1] ‘Imprimatur’ is T. Duster’s language, to which we’ll return later.

[2]  ‘An endogenous peptide that influences neural activity or functioning’ (Merriam-Webster).

[3] In 1962 FB Livingstone wrote an article for Current Anthropology titled: ‘On the Non-Existence of Human Races’

[4] ‘A  gradient of morphological or physiological change in a group of related organisms usually along a line of environmental or geographic transition’ (Merriam-Webster)

[5] ‘Of, relating to, or being a taxonomic group that does not include all descendants of a common ancestor’ (Merriam-Webster)


[7] ‘Evolutionary change characterized by treelike branching of taxa’ (Merriam-Webster)

[8] The supreme court ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford maintained the constitution’s 3/5s compromise, ruling that no ‘negro,’ free or enslaved were therefor entitled the rights of US citizens such as the right to sue in federal court.

[9] Also coined the term ‘survival of the fittest.’


[11] I took this term from a lecture given by Colin Jerolmack in an intro to sociology course.


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