Racial Health Disparities: It’s Inequality, Not Genes

Posted by Jessica Cussins April 23, 2015
Biopolitical Times

Heart disease is the single biggest contributor to the racial mortality gap in the US, which, in case you didn’t know, is still really bad. Many hoped that advances in genetics would help explain and ultimately close that gap.

So Jay Kaufman, Professor in Epidemiology & Biostatistics at McGill, recently led a study to systematically review six years’ worth of genomic research to see if there is any evidence that genetic differences explain this major racial-health disparity.

What he found is incredibly important. He found, effectively, nothing.

A wonderful article in The Atlantic by Jason Silverstein gets right to the heart of it with its title: “Genes Don't Cause Racial-Health Disparities, Society Does.”

Silverstein reminds us that an explicit goal of the Human Genome Project was to close health disparities, and that we’ve invested more than $1 billion in the field every year since. But given the results of efforts to understand racial health disparities by looking at our DNA, it might be argued that pretty much anything else would have done better.

You’d think that educated people knew this, right? That race is a social construct with the same scientific legitimacy as “grouping raccoons, tigers, and okapis on the basis that they are all stripey?” Some researchers seem to acknowledge this, and recommend studying “ancestry” rather than “race.”

But Silverstein points out that “ancestry” tends to be merely a proxy for race, masquerading with “a phony moustache and glasses.” Moreover, the lack of precision in the use and definition of “ancestry” has rendered it nearly meaningless scientifically.

The bigger take-away, he argues, is that no matter how you cut it up, biological difference simply isn’t a major driving force behind health disparities. Social inequality, racism, and injustice are. Given what we know now about the ineffectiveness of this research, he suggests that “[looking] for the cause of racial disparity in genetics isn’t only scientifically flawed. It is morally flawed as well.”

For more on how biotechnological advances have worked to re-construct social categories of race as biological phenomena, the following is a list of some essential reading:

Previously on Biopolitical Times: