Amidst the fury of scattered postings on West Campus, an anonymous black-and-white flyer chanced across my view.
Your Race? Your Gender? Your Religion? Your Ethnicity? Your Sexuality? What is your Identity?
Notice the common word is not Race… or Gender… or Religion… or Ethnicity… or Sexuality…or even IDENTITY. The common word is YOUR. How do you identify YOURself? And how do others identify YOU. Don’t reduce yourself to a check in a box. Go beyond, find out who you are. Don’t resign to being identified.
The idea: fairly conventional. The vision: a tad underdeveloped. The medium: just slightly unorthodox. But the message is particularly apropos, at this juncture in history.
In 1998, the American Anthropological Association deemed race a social invention, asserting that racial beliefs are myths fusing “behavior and physical features together in the public mind, impeding our comprehension of both biological variations and cultural behavior, implying that both are genetically determined.”
With the deciphering of the human genome, scientists have determined that 99.9 percent of our 3 billion nucleotides are identical from one person to another. What little variation remains can in part be attributed to group differences. But what many scholars both fear and hope is that racial identity will be able to explain them.
A new medical treatment illustrates the crux of the problem. Now expected for approval by the Food and Drug Administration, BiDil—a combination of two older drugs that, when taken together, reduces blood pressure and protects against heart disease—was initially rejected for use in the general population because it was ineffective in the treatment of heart failure.
In 2001, however, NitroMed, the manufacturer, asked permission to test BiDil exclusively in African Americans, whose heart failure tends to be more severe and harder to treat. With the support of the Association of Black Cardiologists, investigators embarked on a clinical trial that was cut short last summer; BiDil worked so effectively it seemed unethical to deny the drug to the control group.
Thus, racial differences selected a subgroup within the population at large to receive a certain treatment. To students of medical history, this story raises the specter of eugenics—how supposedly innate differences among human beings were used for the exploitation and extermination of certain groups. For example, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina continued its controlled program of sterilization for the “feeble minded” through the early 1970s.
Scientists remain interested in this dicey subject because it may provide insights into the persistent problem of racial health disparities. In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, Huntington Willard, director for Duke’s Institute of Genome Sciences and Policy, asserts the difficulty of pinning down genetic differences between the races as the definitive reason for BiDil’s selectivity.
While geneticists may explain heart disease in terms of genes, social scientists would counter that factors like low income, lack of health insurance, poor diet, exposure to pollution, discrimination and stress are the true causes. Willard suggests that, although the FDA may be justified in approving BiDil for African Americans, the use of race in clinical medicine is at best an interim and unfortunate result of our collective ignorance.
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But other race-based drug candidates already exist. People known as slow acetylators, for instance, take a longer time than fast acetylators to clear toxins from the liver. And—big surprise—the fraction of slow acetylators in different racial groups ranges from a low of 14 percent among East Asians to a high of 54 percent among whites. Therefore, whites may benefit from different types of medications that are processed through the liver.
Once we are able to sequence individual genomes in a cost-effective way, using race as a shortcut for understanding people may become outmoded. But, in a country where physical features have come to mean so much, race’s grip on American culture is likely not to be relinquished so easily.
Companies like GeoGene, AncestryByDNA and Roots for Real are in the business of “recreational genomics,” helping customers trace genetic linkages back several generations to a particular geographic location. Their custom DNA fingerprints, however, have not been without the requisite share of surprises.
In 2003, DNAPrint Genomics indicated that the genome of a 50-year-old Californian male, who self-identified as black, was actually 57 percent of what the company called Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian—and 0 percent African. The obvious question: if this man is what he has been socialized to be, or what his DNA supposedly says he is.
Perhaps the most telling piece of data is that, after receiving the test results, the man still identifies as black. So, then, is race a social construct, or not? What should all this mean to us?
Junior Angelica Agishi may have some answers. Of Nigerian and Filipino ancestry, Agishi is understandably frustrated by the racial classification system imposed in the United States. Our hierarchy of skin color slotted her immediately as African American, but when school officials discovered she spoke Tagalog, her race “changed” to Asian American. When college admissions time rolled around, counselors re-identified her as African American. She never quite understood the choices that were being made on her behalf. “Sometimes I just want to be human,” she said.
Since 1967, when the Supreme Court overturned anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, multiracialism has been on the rise. Duke undergraduates are currently spearheading an initiative called Duke Mosaic, a group for biracial and multiracial students. Perhaps from within these fringe communities will emerge a new racial consciousness. Certainly, in years to come, it will be increasingly difficult to identify individuals within our comfortable racial pecking order; more and more, our ability to make snap judgments will be confused and impaired.
While DNA may hold solutions to the problems of difference, it cannot change history. More complex than black and white, race is a lived reality in America, a composite representation of individual experience. In order to get back to the individual, we must start allowing for self-identification without boxes, beyond a strictly genetic understanding of race. This will involve sacrifice, on all our parts, of some deeply held social beliefs. In the distant future, race may no longer be something you have, or even something imposed, but rather something you choose. Until the genome convinces us otherwise, this may be the only humane conclusion.
Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior. His column appears Mondays.