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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

November 13, 2007

Written by C.N.

New Research on Race and Genetics

As we all know, race, race relations, and racial discrimination are all very complicated and controversial issues. Up until about 50 years ago, the overall consensus (particularly among “average” Americans) was that different racial groups were biologically and genetically very different from each other. Further, most people believed that these genetic differences also included intelligence — i.e., some racial groups were genetically more intelligent than other groups.

Since that time however, as we began to learn more about the actual science of genetics, we as a society gradually came to a new consensus — that from a biological or physiological point of view, the idea that there are genetically distinct racial groups actually has no scientific validity at all.

That is, we now know that over 99% of any given person’s genes are identical to that of any other person on earth and that there are no distinct “racial” groups as we know them — there are just too many variations and exceptions to each “rule” about which person belongs in which racial group. In other words, the idea of “racial groups” is socially constructed, not scientifically-based.

However, new, emerging research is starting to challenge some of these consensus beliefs. As the New York Times reports, recent studies based on the latest advances in human genome mapping suggest that there might be something to the idea that genetic differences may exist between different racial groups after all:

Scientists, for instance, have recently identified small changes in DNA that account for the pale skin of Europeans, the tendency of Asians to sweat less and West Africans’ resistance to certain diseases. . . .Ancestry tests tell customers what percentage of their genes are from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. The heart-disease drug BiDil is marketed exclusively to African-Americans, who seem genetically predisposed to respond to it. Jews are offered prenatal tests for genetic disorders rarely found in other ethnic groups.

Such developments are providing some of the first tangible benefits of the genetic revolution. Yet some social critics fear they may also be giving long-discredited racial prejudices a new potency. The notion that race is more than skin deep, they fear, could undermine principles of equal treatment and opportunity that have relied on the presumption that we are all fundamentally equal. . . .

Though few of the bits of human genetic code that vary between individuals have yet to be tied to physical or behavioral traits, scientists have found that roughly 10 percent of them are more common in certain continental groups and can be used to distinguish people of different races. They say that studying the differences, which arose during the tens of thousands of years that human populations evolved on separate continents after their ancestors dispersed from humanity’s birthplace in East Africa, is crucial to mapping the genetic basis for disease.

But many geneticists, wary of fueling discrimination and worried that speaking openly about race could endanger support for their research, are loath to discuss the social implications of their findings. Still, some acknowledge that as their data and methods are extended to nonmedical traits, the field is at what one leading researcher recently called “a very delicate time, and a dangerous time.”

New American Media has another article that summarizes many of the latest research findings on race and genetics. This NY Times article goes on to describe that, according to many scientists who are at the leading edge of this kind of genetic research, it is pretty much inevitable that many people (particularly nonscientists) will try to extend these emerging genetic differences into the conclusion that different racial groups are genetic more or less intelligent than others.

At the same time, these scientists are quick to point out that even if genetic differences in intelligence exist, the influence of institutional and socioeconomic factors are still much more important in explaining social inequalities between racial groups. As Dr. David Altshuler puts it, “[L]iving in America, it is so clear that the economic and social and educational differences have so much more influence than genes. People just somehow fixate on genetics, even if the influence is very small.”

In other words, at this point, the overriding message from scientists is that genetics still does not validate or legitimate prejudice or discrimination against different races.

But where does that leave liberals like me? As also noted in the NY Times article, many liberals largely dismiss these genetic findings and instead argue that, as noted above, even if such genetic differences exist, social and economic factors have a much more significant effect on achievement in society.

On the other hand, other liberals argue that we should use such genetic findings to tailor programs specifically to the needs of particular racial group involved in an effort to compensate for any inherent disadvantages.

To be honest, I’m not sure which side of the argument I agree with more at this point. For now, I will take a “wait and see” approach and see what other findings come up. A the same time, there is one thing that I do know for sure — regardless of the scientific details, extremist ideologues and racial supremacists will use and spin such findings however they want to suit their own agenda.

That point is for certain — we should expect the debate and controversy to get worse before it gets better.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "New Research on Race and Genetics" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2007/11/new-research-on-race-and-genetics/> ().

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