Friday, August 05, 2011

Race doesn't exist

SOYMB thinks it is worth re-posting this interview.

Dorothy Roberts is the author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century where she argues despite centuries of efforts to treat race as if it's a biological category, it is no more than social construction -- created to oppress people -- that changes with place, time and perspective.

The Root: Fatal Invention is an attempt to correct major misunderstandings and myths about race. Explain what race is and what it isn't.

Dorothy Roberts: I can say very definitively that race is an invented political system; it is not a natural biological condition of human beings. The human species is a single race. It is not biologically divided up into distinguishable races.

TR: If there's no biological basis, why do the groups that we think of as different races look different?

DR: Race is a political grouping that uses various biological demarcations that help distinguish who belongs to one or another. But those -- skin color, hair color, the shape of the nose or the lips -- are only part of what we use to determine what race someone is. We also historically have looked at their behavior, we've looked at who their friends are, where they live, to also help determine it. So there's a grab bag of biological, physical, social and cultural clues that we use every day to decide who belongs in what race.

TR: You say that science, politics and big business are all working hard to make sure we continue to think of race as a biological category. How? And why?

DR: It's such a deeply embedded belief system that I think many scientists just automatically use it in their research. They can't imagine another way of doing research because of how they were taught -- not only as scientists but as citizens who were taught by their parents growing up. Our whole society teaches this. So they're just uncritically importing assumptions about the biological nature of race into their research.

TR: So no conspiracy theory? Just a deep-seated misunderstanding?

DR: That's part of it. But also, today, more than ever, profit motivates many scientists, and their research is influenced by the production of commodities that will sell on the market. An example of that is the first race-based drug approved by the FDA, which is a heart failure therapy called BiDil that's targeted to black patients. But I would argue that it was targeted to black patients not for any scientific reasons, because it was developed as a drug for anyone who could benefit from it without regard to race. It was not developed as a drug for black people. And it also had no genetic research associated with it. It morphed into a drug for black people only after its investor needed something to add to the original patent, which was going to expire, in order to get an extension of the patent. In the first patent for BiDil, there's no mention of race. The second patent adds that it is a drug for African-American heart failure patients.

TR: Talk about other findings about the real-life consequences in medicine of treating race as if it were a biological category.

DR: The HIV medication Abacavir can cause a fatal reaction that is thought to differ by race [with higher rates of reactions shown among people who identify as black Americans]. Aid agencies have taken this into account in deciding whether to provide this treatment to Africans. But one study found, for example, that among the Masai in Kenya, the form of the gene that predicts a severe reaction is 13 percent; it's only 3.3 percent among another tribe in Kenya; and it's virtually nonexistent among the Yoruba in Nigeria. So if you were to make a claim that you could determine whether someone had this [gene form that determines whether a reaction to the drug will occur] based on their race, you would make a mistake in many cases.

T R: How do we talk about the very real issues surrounding race today without perpetuating harmful misunderstandings about what race is?

DR: I don't think it's that confusing. Some people think there's a contradiction in saying that race is not a biological category but we have to pay attention to race. But race as a political system. We can make a clear distinction between accepting a false view of race as an inherent biological category written in our genes and race as a political system of governance that was invented to perpetuate racism.

TR: So the fact that race was invented and has been perpetuated for reasons that we don't like doesn't mean we want to get rid of it or not talk about it anymore?

DR: Yes, not talking about it doesn't do anything to eradicate it. We know now that intending to be color-blind only leaves in place and allows to expand the institutional inequities that are based on race and continue to affect every aspect of people's lives in this country. Yes, even their health -- but it's affected by race because the political division of race affects institutions that treat people unequally, not because there is some natural genetic division among us.

The World Socialist Movement have always considered it an absurd claim that people's behavioural, physical and cultural traits conform to a certain fixed and immutable pattern; and this determines the superiority or otherwise of a group in relation to others. This is an outlook that has been used to justify some of the most unspeakable and horrendous crimes against humanity, sometimes leading to killings of genocidal proportions. Where are those people who conform to racial purity, let's say in terms of colour? You will meet a lot of dark-skinned people in Africa, but you will no doubt also come across light-skinned types in southern Africa and eastern Nigeria. How can one also argue that the Yanamani Indians or the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert are less intelligent than people in Norway or Japan. The two groups live in different material conditions, and these varied environments impose on them tasks and solutions that respond to their peculiar circumstances. Some people share genetically inherited features which are passed on through human reproduction. Genetic features, though, can be mixed and changed by the same process – there is no essential correlation between, say, skin colour and some disease. Merely, there is a chance that the genes for these two separate features will be passed on from parent to child. Just as there is no specific correlation between skin colour and facial features, or eye colour and hair colour. That these features seem to belong together is an effect of the fact that each parent passes on half their genetic characteristics to their off-spring, and that historically people of similar appearance (and roughly common descent) have tended to breed with one another in similar climates. The fact of the matter is that we are all members of the same republic of genes, all related very closely to one another no matter what part of the globe we hail from. We are the surviving descendants of some less than 20,000 early humanoids. We share a common genetic trait, traceable back through the ages to just one female, many thousands of years ago.

It's clear to the WSM that the ideas surrounding race are bunkum, un-supported by the scientific facts. We can point to the history of the development of capitalism, to show how the misapprehensions surrounding race developed along with the needs of capital to expand and control the globe, and to build loyal armies in pursuit of such conquest. Yet, they continue to do harm and deny our common humanity in the modern world. But why do such mistaken ideas continue to exist in the world today, in the face of the evidence of the facts? We would point to the mutually re-enforcing tendencies of today's modern world. On the one hand is the continued existence of poverty fed by ignorance, which nurtures the desire for people to cling onto what little they have, instilling in them a fear of a threat from apparent strangers. Also capital's drives for efficiency, the need to cut out anything that interferes with or reduces the profit-making capacity of the industrial machine, which means that worker's whose needs cause costs (such as dealing with language and cultural differences) are squeezed out in a “one size fits all” approach. In short, socialism will allow us to be treated as unique individuals, rather than as a bureaucratically allocated “race” on an equal opportunities monitoring form.

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