With some regularity, students in my sociological theory course will ask why we should even entertain arguments about the biological reality of race. They note, correctly, that this topic is controversial. They suggest it is too morally and politically risky to pursue, given historical examples of pseudoscience that have provided fodder for egregious moral and political practices.
So, why must we ask these questions? Well, there are some cogent reasons.
We know, for example, that some diseases are specific to populations with a given ancestral ecological history and not to others. Even if they are not neatly reducible in all cases to being “race-specific” (for example, Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jews as well as in some French Canadians and Cajuns; sickle-cell anemia in people with African, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean ancestors), they are confined to particular regional populations (and their descendants) with long shared histories in given ecologies. Knowing who is most at risk is tremendously helpful for screening for these diseases.
There is evidence, too, that certain populations will face health risks not faced by others in a given environment. In these cases, understanding genetics may help prevent and treat the disease. I give my students the example of vitamin-D deficiency in black Americans. Whereas over 40 percent of Americans are vitamin D deficient, this number jumps to over 80 percent for black Americans.
And while some of this vitamin deficiency is related to diet, as it is for others in the population, when it comes to the increased rate in black Americans, skin color does in fact play a role. Compared to the ecology in sub-Saharan Africa, North America is a very different part of the world, and the North American climate provides lower levels of sunlight exposure. This means that because of the higher levels of melanin in their skin, which would protect their skin from overexposure to sunlight in sub-Saharan Africa, black Americans may not get enough sunlight to make adequate amounts of vitamin D on their own.
By understanding this, we also have a better understanding of other important medical topics when it comes to black Americans. For example, we know that vitamin D deficiency can increase the risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain cancers—all health problems with elevated rates among black Americans. As a result, vitamin D supplementation is being investigated as a way to mitigate these risks for black Americans.
If our goal is to understand what truly causes particular outcomes in human society, whether those outcomes entail differing burdens of disease or disparities in social outcomes among various groups, why would we prohibit viable modes of inquiry? Isn’t that a bad moral move, in addition to being a bad scientific one?
There are many possible and probable causal factors for differences that can be mapped along racial lines. Some of them are social and cultural. But what the mainstream in my discipline of sociology does regarding this is to assume that the social and cultural causes are de facto the only ones possible. They want to cut off any investigation of the contributions made to this by different long histories of ancestral populations in different ecologies.
The advantage we have over the past, when one has to admit that grave errors emerged in discourses that called themselves “scientific,” is that we have recognized a good number of the reasons why that pseudo-science of the past happened and why it was accepted. We now have societies that are sensitive—some would say overly sensitive—to any discrimination along racial lines. Indeed, we have for half a century actively promoted affirmative action and other policies to try to correct for this history, with plenty of limitations and unintended consequences. We also now have institutional review boards in science to catch problematic research, however imperfectly.
If we systematically shut down scholarly inquiry by presuming that all of the disparities we see among groups must have purely social or cultural causes, what happens if it turns out we’re wrong in that presumption?
What if we proceed on that presumption and we find, to our dismay, that group disparities do not go away?
We’ll certainly be told by many proponents of this way of thinking that it’s not because their theory is wrong. It’s just because we haven’t tried hard enough yet. We haven’t spent enough money. We haven’t sufficiently probed with governmental mechanisms into the private lives and consciousness of everyone in the country to make perfect equity materialize.
The advocates of such top-down draconian efforts to enforce (as best they can) equal outcomes along group lines have plenty of methods dreamed up to take decision-making power away from individuals and families. This is not a recipe for social harmony, to say the least, and so long as families have ways of refusing to participate in such plans, many will do so. How much are we willing to stretch the already-strained fabric of social harmony in this country to pursue goals that may well be unachievable?
All things considered, I see truth as the better option here.
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