Race and Crisis
Published on: Jun 07, 2006

Brady Dunklee is a recent graduate of Brown University in biology and science and technology studies (STS). 

Jenny Reardon is assistant research professor of women's studies and Institute of Genome Sciences and Policy scholar at Duke University. She is the author of Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in a Genomic Age (Princeton University Press).

Kara Wentworth is completing a bachelor's degree in human biology: race and gender and a high school teaching certificate program at Brown University this year.

Race, it seems, is new again. Every few decades for at least the past six, biologists have come forward with new data that they claim will finally reveal the truth about the biological meaningfulness of race in the human species. Each time a novel and powerful science is behind the purported revelation: population genetics in the 1950’s, molecular biology in the 1970’s, the genome sciences in the 1990’s and today. Armand Marie Leroi, in his March 14th 2005 editorial for the New York Times “A Family Tree in Every Gene,” joins this long tradition with his answer to the question about the biological reality of race in the human species: “races are real.”

We are not concerned that Leroi is going to settle the question and end debate. Nor do we seek here to “correct” Leroi, thereby providing our own answer to the race question in biology. Instead, we want to pose what we believe is the more urgent question at this time: Why is race new again? Why, in 2005, have we returned to the question of the biological meaning of race in the human? Why the cyclical return of these old debates? Focusing on these questions, we argue, reveals a much deeper problem. More than any given answer to the question about the biological meaning of race, even one published in the New York Times, it is how we have posed the question, and thus formed all our answers, that should give us cause for gravest concern.

Since the Nazi atrocities, nearly every effort to address “the race question” in biology has presumed that scientists can and should refine their use of race so as to advance scientific knowledge and exclude “social” discrimination (Reardon 2005). Such endeavors have taken for granted that science can and should be strictly delineated from society. Thus, no matter the particularities of any given claim (race is biologically meaningful when it is used to study human evolution; race is not biologically meaningful when the goal is to understand mental traits; etc.), most assume that science can and should be distinguished from ideology, that natural order exists in a separate domain from social order, and that scientific racism results from the latter (ideology, social order) posing as the former (science, natural order). It is this bifurcated conceptual framework, one that delineates science from society, and not any particular answer to “the race question” itself (e.g., the Leroi op-ed), that presents a great danger to both scientific inquiry and democratic governance. This danger, we demonstrate below, follows from the proclivity of such a framework to produce controversies—such as the ones generated by the 1994 publication of the The Bell Curve, and the one emerging over the Leroi op-ed, in which this essay participates—controversies that give extreme views about race leverage in scientific and public discourse (Herrnstein 1994; Leroi 2005).

Of course, all of the post WWII efforts to erect a protective wall between biology and society were intended to preclude just these sorts of breaches: Herrnstein and Murray’s assertion of innate racial IQ differences; Leroi’s celebration of a racial “gallery,” and so on. Political leaders and scientists alike built institutions and knowledge practices upon conceptual structures that separated biology from society precisely to ensure that social biases did not creep into the potent zone of science and create the conditions for the next biologized legitimation of discrimination (Reardon 2005). Why did their efforts fail?

Because, as much sociological and historical analysis of science has revealed, biology never existed separate from society (see, for example, Haraway 1991, Latour 1993, Jasanoff 2004). Efforts to clarify and delineate these two domains—and contravene racism—created split and distorted vision.

In particular, the effort to separate biology from society encouraged social scientists and humanists alike to turn a blind eye towards science. Thus, while scholars of society became very adept at bringing to light the constructed character of claims about race when they perceived them to have “social” origins, most did not bring these same critical skills to bear when they deemed the claims to be the product of legitimate science. Perhaps the most striking and important case of this oversight is social scientists’ and humanists’ embrace of the claim that gained media prominence in the mid-1990s: “scientists say race has no biological basis” (Alvarado 1995; Flint 1995; Hotz 1995). A closer, critical look at this claim reveals that scientists, like the noted human population geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza, were not arguing in these moments that all concepts of race had no biological meaning, only those concepts of race produced in society (Cavalli-Sforza 1994; Cavalli-Sforza and Bodmer 1999 [1971]); Reardon 2005). But rather than interrogating how scientists (in particular, geneticists) made their claims about the biological meaningless of race, sociologists, philosophers, and historians simply enrolled them in their efforts to prove that race was a social construction (Gates 1986; Appiah 1990; Fields 1990; Gilroy 2000). If scientists proved that race had no biological basis, then it had to be, they argued, social.

This approach to interpreting race encouraged biologists, social scientists and humanists alike to view biology as a distinct realm of knowledge production that should be policed for social and societal taint, but that normally functioned independent from society. Thus social scientists and humanists seldom monitored biologists’ concepts of race, as they fell outside their purview. Neither did biologists attend to the politics or the social embeddedness of their uses of race, for they considered their work scientific, and not social or political. As a result, concepts of race continued to be used in science that received virtually no sociological or humanistic attention; scientists continued to view their uses of race concepts as asocial and apolitical. Thus, the political and social valences of biologists’ work remained invisible to them, while the very existence of this work was unknown to most sociologists and humanists.

This bifurcated system remained viable as long as what it concealed remained palatable. However, once the scientific concepts of race, and the political and social ideas in which they were entwined, became extreme—meaning shared by few, and staking out positions generally taken to be racist—then both the scientific concepts of race, and the politics in which they were entangled, became impossible to ignore. At this point, the system broke down into crisis and controversy.

Over the years, sociologists and humanists have experienced these controversies as the periodic return of the idea of race in science. Biologists have experienced them as the periodic politicization of their work. For both sides, a crisis emerges. For the sociologists and humanists, it is that biological race has risen again. For the biologists, it is that something extreme enough to be recognized as political has emerged within their purportedly apolitical discipline. Both are the direct consequence of a system of thought that delineates the social and the political from the biological. Sociologists and humanists can only encounter race’s return when they fail to see it all along; biologists can only experience a shock of politicization when the ongoing political dimensions of their work are out of view.

Pitfalls of Crisis

These periodic crises of race and science create difficulties both for biologists and social scientists and humanists that extend beyond their subject matter, particularly when the crises spill over into the popular press. Once the politics of race and science reach far enough beyond the sensibilities of most biologists that they become impossible to ignore, and once these politics catch the attention of social scientists and humanists for the same reason, the only responsible course of action seems to be to attack, because the stakes seem too high, and the affront too great. For example, few thought that Herrnstein and Murray’s conclusions in The Bell Curve could be negotiated with. Instead, they were roundly condemned as racist and unscientific.

Such attacks have their attractions. In earlier drafts, we initially took Leroi’s bait and critiqued the antiquated political sentiments, the misrepresentations of current science, misunderstandings of sociological and humanistic knowledge about race, and the severity of medical and ethical implications presented in the piece. But the pleasure of this critique was accompanied by a vague uneasiness derived from our own disciplinary habits. Science and technology studies de-centers debunking and attack in favor of analyses that care for the science they critique. We were caught between our outrage and our training, and worse, found it impossible to make the arguments we wanted to without reifying the division between science and society. In each case we accused the author of biological incorrectness or political offense, thus reinforcing the divisions that enabled this controversy in the first place, and that Leroi’s op-ed seemed to make inevitable.

We have come to the conclusion that these attacks entail great risk. They hide from view the wide range of scientific views and debates about the proper meaning and use of race in science (Lewontin 1972; Marks 1995; Goldstein and Chikhi 2002; Risch, Burchard et al. 2002; Rosenberg 2002; Burchard, Ziv et al. 2003; Cooper, Kaufman et al. 2003; Collins 2004; Jorde and Wooding 2004; Mountain and Risch 2004; Royal and Dunston 2004). Practicing scientists hold a wide diversity of views on this topic, but a claim on one extreme of this range, and the subsequent attack on that extreme position, creates two competing and opposite factions where there were none before.

These two poles of the debate easily become positive and negative. Those expressing the extreme views make positive assertions. Everyone else attacks and attempts to negate these assertions rather than affirming one or proposing an alternative. And negating is always a weaker position.

In his New York Times op-ed, Leroi reinforces this polar model by establishing a false sense of two sides of the debate. In particular, he cites a recent supplement to the journal Nature Genetics as an opening salvo against the purported misguided consensus that human races do not exist in nature. In his depiction, the Nature Genetics authors face the truth and overcome a decades-long denial of the existence of race. But this depiction of the race and genetics debates misrepresents the Nature Genetics supplement at the center of Leroi’s arguments, and the broader context in which it is situated. Nature Genetics, in “Genetics for the Human Race,” does not support Leroi’s claims that “[r]ace is merely a shorthand that enables us to speak sensibly, though with no great precision, about genetic rather than cultural or political differences.” In fact, the Nature Genetics editors say “the use of race as a proxy is inhibiting scientists from doing their job of separating and identifying the real environmental and genetic causes of disease” [emphasis ours] (2004). The authors by and large are highly critical of the validity of the use of “race” in biology, especially in non-medical applications. No one in the supplement claims to be able to “write the genetic recipe” for racial groups, nor advocates “naming the painters” of the human “gallery” (Leroi 2005). Several authors, especially Mildred Cho and Pamela Sankar, in their article on forensic genetics, caution strongly that this sort of thinking is in fact socially and scientifically dangerous (Cho and Sankar 2004). Even Neil Risch, the Stanford geneticist whose controversial 2002 analysis of pre-existing data Leroi celebrates, maintains a commitment to the contingency—or “social construction” if you will—of racial groupings. Risch, writing with Mountain, in the Nature Genetics supplement states: “Racial and ethnic categories are proxies for a wide range of factors, potentially genetic and nongenetic” (Mountain and Risch 2004, S52). He and Mountain stress the limited, but valuable expedience, of these categories in fighting disease disparities.

Thus, any consensus among these Nature Genetics authors that “race is real” is the product of Leroi’s own making—and a very useful product indeed. It fuels the polarization (either you believe “race is real,” or you don’t) that in turn creates the statistical artifact upon which Leroi depends. Once there are two sides, responsible journalism and civil discourse dictate that each side should be given equal time and equal weight—Leroi, for example, should have a chance to respond to this Social Science Research Council website. Further, those who disagree with the instigators of controversy feel pressure to close ranks so that they might present the image of a unified front of opposition. This ends up giving even greater equivalence to the “opposite side.”

Possibly worse, a range of traditional and newer tools becomes newly available to the creators of the controversy, once it is up and raging. One is the Galilean victimization narrative in which a small vanguard group or individual is cast as being persecuted by the powerful Orthodox forces for their/his allegiance to the Truth. Another is a related anti-PC maneuver, in which the provocateurs deride those who disagree with them for having political bias, while they present themselves as politics-free. Both are operative in the Leroi editorial. In this piece, Leroi casts the Nature Genetics authors as a new wave of critical thinkers who are bold and clear-headed, capable of penetrating the ideological veil, despite peer pressure from the “liberal-minded” majority who are mired in political correctness, and thus unable to see the biological reality of race.

The result is a backhanded transfer of the burden of scientific proof, as well as a transfer of questions about credibility: by playing the Galileo and the PC cards, provocateurs put everyone else on the defensive regarding their facts and their objectivity, respectively. Anyone who argues against Leroi risks being labeled political. And in science, where much of one’s credibility hinges both informally and formally on being viewed as apolitical, this presents a serious risk. Indeed, scientists might choose not to respond to Leroi not because they agree with them, but because they do not want to be viewed as stooping to politics. In conversations with genome scientists we have heard evidence to support this impression.

The result of these controversies and the rhetorical traps they present is an oversampling and overweighting of a small vocal minority in scientific circles, both of which are further empowered by the majority’s response to it.

A Way Out

What can we do in the face of this dilemma? We cannot say that those biologists who have taken a position on race opposed to Leroi’s are not informed by politics, or—to rise to Leroi’s red-baiting—ideology. We cannot say this, because all scientists are political beings, and all knowledge production is a political process. We do not mean this in the sense of vulgar Lysenkoism, in which ideology operates as a blindfold. We mean it in the rich tradition of Foucault and critical science studies: at the same time as we produce power and knowledge, knowledge and power produce us (Foucault 1980; Haraway 1991; Rabinow 1996; Hacking 1999; Jasanoff 2004; Reardon 2005).

Instead, we propose that all involved view this entanglement not as an obstacle to overcome, but as the very life of the creative work of scientists. If scientists, sociologists and humanists regularly and rigorously attended to the politics of scientific knowledge production, then they could resist the binary rhetoric upon which Leroi’s very argument is founded and create a new form of discourse that opposes the false crises of race and biology. In so doing, we could change the question at the center of the race and science debates from “Is race real?” or “Who’s right about race?” to ”How does race happen?”

By asking this question, we would account for, and be accountable to, the patterns of language and practice that scientists use to produce race. We would gain a vision and vocabulary of the ways in which scientific production of race is always entangled with the production of subjects in society, and thus a human activity with great consequence for scientists and non-scientists alike.

The benefits of focusing on the engines and gears of scientific racialization, and the human actions such racialization enables, are manifest. Meaningful conversations that do not reduce to yes or no answers, or to polarized statements like “race is genetic” or “race is a social construct,” become possible. Fewer scholars are silenced, and the views of the vocal periphery are situated as several among many, all firmly grounded in their politics (Haraway 1991). A broader sampling of both scholarly and non-academic thought ensues, limiting the artifacts produced by a polarized system.

When “politics” is no longer an accusation, but a subject of inquiry, examination can replace recrimination. As a result, the multiplicity of biological concepts of race, and the human hand in creating, valuing and using them, come into view. Such acts of visualization open up more avenues for intervention. Seeing and acting reflectively heightens our ability to produce knowledge that is effective, while being caring, cognizant of and responsive to the diversity of the human species—not just at the genetic level, but at the cultural and moral level as well.

Lessons from Genomics

Claims about the revolutionary import of genomics are by now commonplace. However, rarely acknowledged are the revolutionary changes afoot in the very words and conceptual structures we use to communicate and interpret genomics. Nowhere is the need to recognize these conceptual shifts more urgent than in the race and science debates. In this domain of genomics discourse, we ignore with peril questions about the meaning and proper use of fundamental categories—such as racist, anti-racist, science, society, ideology, truth. In the past, it may have been possible to credibly sort racist, ideological statements about the biological meaningfulness of race produced in society from objective, scientific ones about the biological meaninglessness of race. But when biologists (including, but by no means limited to, Leroi) insist on their commitments to anti-racism just as strongly as the biological meaningfulness of race, the conceptual grounds for evaluation are no longer stable (Cavalli-Sforza 1994; Risch 2002).

Genome scientists’ frequent appeal to constructivist language can also indicate important conceptual dissonance (Dunklee 2003). It is common to read in genomics writing that race is a social construction. Yet at the same time, and often in the same paragraph, claims are made that race is genetically meaningful (Foster 2003).

Leroi, for example, argues for the biological reality of race while stating that “there is nothing very fundamental about the concept of the major continental races; they're just the easiest way to divide things up (Leroi, 2005).” Is this claim “social” or “biological?” How do these seemingly contradictory statements resolve themselves? How should we understand these juxtapositions?

While we might take this intermingling as instructive to the process of disciplinary integration that we advocate, such patterns of language do not warrant optimism. Without sustained attention to the ways in which categories that order human genetic diversity are produced, invocation of constructivism may amount to tokenism, and may block the very openings for human agency that social constructivist thought was intended to enable. But whatever the shortcomings of this use of constructivist language, it does indicate that a system of thought that divides race into the social and the natural is no longer tenable in a genomic age.

The power of genomics is open to question. Whether this emergent form of technoscience can fulfill its promise to ameliorate human suffering and promote human freedom remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that genomics is remaking the human along changing axes of racial differentiation. A system rooted in the division of biological and social, science and society, is ill-equipped to understand, let alone intervene in these productions.

That system’s dividing walls are already bursting at the seams. Rather than view moments like the current controversy as aberrations—freaks of discipline like the physiological mutants Dr. Leroi chronicles in his book (Leroi 2005)—we hope this might be a moment when scientists, social scientists and humanists can all recognize the limits and dangers of how we pose and answer questions about race and science. In the place of artificial divisions and cyclical crises, we advocate for a new, critical and caring biopolitics.


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