Professor looks at prevalent use of race as factor in health diagnosis
Health institute seminar series | Dorothy Roberts says idea of pure race proved false but still accepted in science, medicine, research studies
Although many believe Western society is in a post-racial era, author Dorothy Roberts asserts that the scientific world still views race as a determining variable in research.
Roberts, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke yesterday at the University’s Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research as a part of the institute’s weekly Brown Bag Seminars.
Even though geneticists proved false the idea of a pure race, sciences still accept race as an identifying factor in medicine and research studies, said Roberts.
“Race is not a natural division among human beings,” she said. “It’s a political category that does have staggering biological consequences.”
Roberts, citing a survey conducted in Chicago, said despite having a lower chance of developing breast cancer, black women have higher rates of mortality from the disease than white women.
In 1980, the rate of death for white and black women was the same, but since then a gap developed. Black women’s health did not get worse, but white women’s health got better, she said.
Roberts said the study showed inequity in health care in Chicago and therefore indicated a bigger problem.
Racial myths about breast cancer continue to affect breast cancer treatment, she said.
The genetic mutation that makes people more prone to breast cancer is prevalent in women of all ethnicities, but black women are less likely than white women to get counseling about taking the genetic test to determine their risk, she said.
The fact that race is still commonly misunderstood today shows how easily and unconsciously it is accepted in society, said Shellae Versey, a postdoctoral student at IHHCPAR.
“We associate certain characteristics and differences to race,” she said.
Versey, a specialist in black women’s health as well as stress and aging, said ideas about race affect science, whether scientists think of their research as specifically race-based or not.
“Things hard to measure [like stress factors] get lost in the explanation of health disparities,” she said.
Roberts said widespread scientific proof shows that the invention of race coincided with colonialism, and historical evidence and evolutionary biology prove humans are not naturally divided by race.
Scientists hoped mapping the human genome would lead to a new way of understanding human genetic diversity that did not rely on 18th-century racial typologies, she said.
“There is this intriguing idea that genetic information will overcome our myths about race and our affinity for racial division,” Roberts said.
But such reliance has been difficult to overcome because the concept of race is ingrained in society, she said.
While mapping the human genome proved that every person’s DNA shares a commonality that cannot be distinguished by race, science writer Nicholas Wade wrote shortly after the genetic map that scientists now had to confront the genetic difference that existed between human races.
Roberts said the continued misunderstanding shocked her because she had known race was not natural even as a child.
“I knew that before I went to college — in 1973,” she said.
Race is used as a biological category in science to market medicines and technologies as race-specific. Even sperm and egg donor sites categorize by race, she said.
When she was pregnant with her fourth child, Roberts said she volunteered to participate at a clinical trial that researched whether or not blood tests and ultrasounds could detect Down syndrome and other disorders during the first trimester of pregnancy.
She said before the trial, she needed to fill out a form that required her to indicate her race.
“Race was important to this clinical trial to their statistics, and that just shows you how shoddy this research is,” she said.
Basing research results on race to predict at-risk status made the research irrelevant because she was able to specify which race she identified with, she said.
Some scientists believe racial differences are real at the biological level but constructed on the social level, so studies often look for genetic explanations for health risks, Roberts said.
Roberts said researchers must understand public health problems create these differences, not genetics, especially when studies have a localized pool of subjects.
Societies need to consider the relationship between race and the body, but should not consider race biological when explaining social disparities or success in sports or academia, she said.
“All you have to do is look at genetic diversity in Africa and you’ll see black people aren’t a genetically distinct race,” Roberts said.
Jacob Boersema, a postdoctoral student at IHHCPAR, said people want to address socioeconomic disparities, but get wrapped up debating whether they are caused by genetic factors.
Boersema said he understands the widespread appeal of certain scientific explanations that writers like Nicholas Wade use because they are easier to explain and understand. But it undermines scientific progress because people who want to address socioeconomic issues affecting minorities get wrapped up debating whether it is caused by genetics.
Boersema, who was born in Holland, said he was familiar with the stereotype that black people excelled at sports but did not know it was so widespread.
“I want to ask the other question — why all other sports are white,” he said. “Why is Tiger Woods the only black golfer?”
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