Archive for genetics
The academic and policy worlds have been roiled by last week’s announcement that a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform was co-authored by Jason Richwine, who wrote a dissertation on the purported low IQ of immigrants. It beyond belief that, in the year 2013, there are still some that want to posit that there is a genetic basis for race. Even more surprisingly, these arguments come endorsed with a seal of approval by some of the nation’s top universities, like Harvard in this case. As an alumnus of the Kennedy School and a scholar of race and Hispanic identity, I feel obliged to provide a response.
Having spent last week with some of the world’s premier scholars of race at a workshop on “Reconsidering Race” at Texas A&M University, in which we examined the interface of social science and genetics/genomics and health, I am stunned by the lack of rigor and intellectual depth evinced by Richwine’s dissertation. The work makes extremely simplistic assumptions about “race,” immigration, and the link between IQ and genetics. Even a neophyte in matters of genetics/genomics can see the gaping holes in Richwine’s logic. One would have expected his advisors, Professors George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks to have been more cognizant of the complex nature of terms such as “race”, “Hispanic,” and “white,” as well as their tenuous links to genetics (assuming they actually read the dissertation). Richwine claimed in his Harvard dissertation that “the material environment and genes probably make the greatest contributions to IQ differences” (p. 4) and that “today’s immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives” (p. 134).
There are three basic points that have to be made to remind these scholars that such shoddy work should not easily pass at the doctoral level– or any level for that matter. One is the basic idea that “Hispanics” can be of any race (a concept that Richwine references in passing in his dissertation), so that it is not possible to simply oppose “Hispanic” and “white” as if they were mutually exclusive categories (a dichotomy that is crucial to his argument). In fact, Pope Francis is Hispanic; so is Rigoberta Menchu. The term is a politically- and socially-constructed category that has been shaped through historical ties between the US, Latin America, and the Iberian peninsula. There is nothing inherent, natural, or ‘genetic’ in the category of “Hispanic.” There are many people of European ancestry in Latin America, but there are also many of Amerindian origins, African descent, and a vast majority whose origins are a mix of ethnicities, including East Asian, Jewish, Arab, and practically every other group in the world (I myself, for example, am of Aymara, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese origin).
The primitive binary taxonomy of “black vs. white” (emanating from the US one-drop rule) that has somehow become transformed into a spurious “white vs. non-white” Manichean logic is untenable. Not only has racial admixture always been the case (since, as work by Nell Irvin Painter reminds us, there were many ‘white races’ — not just one– at previous historical times), but ‘racial’ mixing has become even more prevalent even in the US in the last five decades as a result of the rapid rise of non-European migration. Even for those who consider “Hispanic” a race, the understanding of this term is cultural and historical, not genetic (for example, in the ideas of the eminent Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos). Race is not a dichotomous variable. The Latin American experience shows us this, and the US would do well to heed that lesson to break down its dualistic racial paradigm.
The second point to be made is that the genetics and genomics revolution of the last two decades or so does have implications for what we understand as ‘race,’ but not in the way that people like Richwine want to argue. Our workshop examined the idea of ‘race’ in light of recent genetics and genomic research in order to see whether it has consequences for our conceptualization of ‘racial’ identities and categories, and also for policies related to health disparities. These are complex and as of yet unresolved questions, but they certainly do not buttress the idea that there are such things as natural entities called ‘’races’’ and that they are rooted in genetic grounds. Recent research shows that humans share about 97% of the same genetic material with orangutans (an animal beloved by visitors to this blog). It also tells us that orangutans are more genetically diverse among themselves than are humans. In other words, people are more alike, across regional populations, than we are different.
And even within the small areas of difference, no evidence exists that such differences make for strictly separate human categories that are essentially discrete. It may be true that some populations share some genetic markers among themselves more than with others, but these differences are minimal. As epidemiologist Jay Kaufman of McGill has argued, the more we learn about the human genome, the closer we are to individuated genetic understanding, not to the construction of broad, essentially-unchangeable human groups. Richwine’s error is to think that IQ is a stable phenotype that reflects universal intelligence. Yes, we should take the genomics revolution as a challenge to simple social-constructivist views of race, but we cannot make the error of thinking that it validates a reification of the complex sociopolitical categories that we call ‘races.’
The last point is that the rudimentary statistical analysis of the kind that Richwine carried out ignores the important interface between social realities and genetics. Besides the problems noted above, we can underscore that even IQ test results are culturally-shaped, and not some measure of a primordial, biological mental ability. Rather, they reflect the intertwining of some aspects of mental capacity with education, life experiences, socioeconomic status, and other contingent contexts. They are not measures of pure intelligence (a dubious concept as well). What we ought to be advocating is not some sort of eugenics-based retrograde Nativist policy that reminds us of the 19th century, but improved educational access for all, and a fair, uniform immigration policy that minimizes discrimination, not enhances it.
It is both morally and intellectually disingenuous to propose what Borjas et al. have been advocating for years now. To claim to favor more immigration of those with “higher IQ’s” or more human capital flies in the face of the fact that low-human capital immigrants contribute profoundly to US economic growth due to their low wages in key industries such as construction, agriculture, and also the service sector. In manufacturing, Hispanics are underpaid relative to their economic value, as sociologist Arthur Sakamoto has shown. Ethically, it is unacceptable for a modern liberal-democratic state to promote high-IQ selectivity in immigration, for this policy advocates unequal treatment rather than uniform standards for all (in this light, Canadian immigration policy, which makes distinctions based on human capital, may be suspect as well, owing to the brain drain that it induces in poorer nations).
As educators, we have a special responsibility to provide non-superficial answers to complex questions. The idea of race is a fraught one. As the Kennedy School is my alma mater, I must say that it is time that policy questions not be treated as merely quantitative or mechanical issues. Public policy schools must also provide coursework that deepens analyses, no thins them down. “Race” is a concept that involves normative, political, historical, cultural, economic, and social forces in a complex interplay. It cannot be bandied about willy-nilly with no sensitivity to them. This idea applies to all racial categories, but it is perhaps most salient for the term “Hispanic,” owing to the rich diversity of ethnic origins that have gone into its making over a long historical period. It is befuddling that no one on Richwine’s committee seems to have been aware of this (in particular Jencks, who has written on these issues in the past).
It is time for antediluvian academics to step aside and give more space to the new generations of scholars that are able to engage in a critique of the all-too-dominant idea that race is merely a social construct but without falling into an antiquated racial essentialism. It is time for a real national dialogue on race that will start new conversations. Our classrooms are a good place to begin these discussions.
Diego A. von Vacano is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and author of The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Hispanic/Latin American Political Thought (Oxford UP) and is writing a new book on immigrant identities.
Scholars have long drawn parallels between laws banning interracial and same-sex marriage. The conversation came full circle Monday morning when Jodie Brunstetter, wife of North Carolina Senator Peter Brunstetter (R), explained that her husband co-authored a recent piece of anti-same-sex marriage legislation to “protect the Caucasian race.” Brunstetter continued, “The reason my husband wrote Amendment 1 was because the Caucasian race is diminishing and we need to uh, reproduce.” Placing “race reproduction” at the center of her argument, Brunstetter advocates for a positive eugenics program, a central element of traditional anti-miscegenation statues.
Jodie and Peter Brunstetter
Faced with increasing interracial contact in the late 19th century, whites turned to the pseudo-science of eugenics to justify racial segregation. Eugenicists argued that both the physical and character traits of individuals are biologically determined, and thus the genetic quality of society can be made better or worse through artificial selection. Whites were attracted to eugenics because they assumed the superiority of the white race and the importance of racial separation, but they feared, and eugenics proved “proof,” that interracial sex would result in future generations dominated by “inferior” racial characteristics. Thus, a positive eugenics program was required to guarantee the longevity of the white race. Central to this program, was legislating the prohibition of interracial intimacy. One of the most notable pieces of anti-miscegenation legislation is Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
Desiring to maintain the “racial integrity” of the nation as well as their dominant position, white Virginians once passed the Racial Integrity Act, a law forbidding whites from marrying anyone of another race. Limiting marriage to persons of the same race, the Virginia law sough to ensure the reproduction of the white race and prevent the “deplorable evil” of interracial sex.
Specifically, “racial integrity” laws were concerned with preventing biracial children. As Justice Brown argued in Scott v. State (1869):
The amalgamation of the races is not only unnatural, but is always productive of deplorable results. Our daily observation shows us, that the offspring of these unnatural connections are generally sickly and effeminate, and that they are inferior in physical development and strength to the full-blood of either race. It is sometimes urged that such marriages should be encouraged, for the purpose of elevating the inferior races. The reply is, that such connections never elevate the inferior race to the position of the superior, but they bring down the superior to that of the inferior. They are productive of evil, and evil only.
This except from Justice Brown’s opinion is indicative of the eugenicist ideology dominating the courts of this time. Primarily concerned with “reproducing the race” and maintaining the “racial integrity of the nation,” anti-miscegenation laws presented a positive eugenics program much like that advocated by Brunstetter. However, such laws also had a damning impact on white women… confining them to the one role of mother.
Fueled by eugenicist rhetoric, whites argued against education and careers outside the home for white women, charged them to reproducing the race. According to eugenicists, changes in traditional gender roles equates to racial suicide and thus women were should be confined to their “birthing duties.” As historian Lisa Linquist Dorr [] explains, “social stability depended on the controlling of women’s sexuality as a means of assuring they were virtuous enough to raise virtuous children.” Dorr continues:
Eugenic supporters of the Racial Integrity Act articulated a central concern: women, intoxicated by the exciting adventures of youth, might ignore the opinions of their elders, their traditions, and, ultimately, their racial pride, which, because of women’s reproductive capacity, was especially important.
Framing white motherhood as a matter of racial pride, eugenicists sought limited white women to the role of mother. Women desiring interracial sexual contact were often met with forced sterilization by white doctors seeking to “protect the white race.”
Reflecting on the eugenicists rhetoric motivating anti-miscegenation law, there are parallels between anti-interracial and anti-same-sex marriage advocates such as Brunstetter. Arguing America was “founded by whites,” Brunstetter is establishing America’s racial genealogy which must be “preserved” through guaranteeing white procreating. Because gay and lesbian couples lack this ability, Brunstetter deems their relationships null and void. Situating reproduction at the center of her argument, Brunstetter also confines white women to their “birthing duties” advocated by eugenicists
Since making the original comments, Brunstetter has insisted her comment “wasn’t anything race related” and “they [democrats] have made it a racial issue when it is not.” However, Brunstetter has not been able to explain her use of explicitly racial rhetoric in an allegedly non-racial conversation. Placing Brunstetter’s comments within a larger sociohistorical context, her arguments against same sex marriage heavily coincide with those used against interracial marriage.
I think that the national discussion about racism and health care reform gets so abstract sometimes that we forget that when we’re talking about health, we’re talking about people’s lives. And, as this short clip (about 4 minutes) demonstrates very powerfully, leading researchers contend that racism plays an important role in infant mortality among African American women, even when controlling for income and education. This clip, from Episode 2, “When the Bough Breaks,” in the video series “Unnatural Causes,” (2007), features UCLA obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Michael Lu. Lu believes that for many women of color, racism over a life time, not just during the nine months of pregnancy, increases the risk of preterm delivery, one of the leading risk factors for early infant death:
And, in an interesting piece of research by one of the experts featured in the full episode, Dr. Camara Jones, concludes that: “being classified by others as White is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status, no matter how one self-identifies.” So, there’s a very real, somatic level at which racism both takes a toll on some and provides an advantage to others.
I think we should keep this in mind as the health care debate rages on. What kind of society do we want to create?
We seem to be pursuing a theme here today, albeit an unintentional one, with race and medicine. In the medical field, there’s something that’s referred to as “personalized medicine.” This is the idea that doctors will (some day) be able to individually tailor medical care to the patient’s needs based on an individual-level analysis of the individual’s genome. Now, some are suggesting that this “personalized medicine” should replace racial classification. Sharon Begley writing in “LabNotes” for Newsweek, says:
…a new paper published online this week by the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, .. concludes that classifying people by the crude category of race—as in, of African, Asian or European ancestry—for medical purposes, as some people want to do, is really, really stupid.
The article Begley refers to, “Individual Genomes Instead of Race for Personalized Medicine,” reports on the results of the sequencing of the genes of two white guys – Craig Venter and James Watson (yes, the same Watson) – to see how they metabolize six different drugs. The results were revealing.
What they found is that these two men, ostensibly of the “same race,” in fact have very different genetic make-ups when it comes to how their bodies process certain drugs. What these geneticists conclude is consistent with what social scientists have been saying for some time: “race” is social category, not a meaningful biological category. In the words of the authors of the study:
“…race/ethnicity should be considered only a makeshift solution for personalized genomics because it is too approximate; known differences may occur within a defined category. …The label “African” or “African-American” is therefore insufficient to determine whether an individual comes from a population with a high frequency of the *17 allele. Even if an individual is known to be, for example, Ethiopian rather than Zimbabwean, the ancestry is less relevant than the true genotype, which could be easily resolved with today’s technology. Even the term “Caucasian” can be deceptive. If a self-identified Caucasian originates from a founder population in which certain disease-specific alleles occur at higher frequencies (e.g., Quebec French Canadians or Ashkenazi Jews), his or her doctor may miss an important aspect of the patient’s medical history. One’s ethnicity/race is, at best, a probabilistic guess at one’s true genetic makeup.“
I have to say, I feel quite vindicated, given the little dust-up back in November 2007 (see the comments) with guys who wanted to argue that the “reality of race is genetic.” Still, it’s deeply ironic that this news should come from Venter and Watson, not known for their forward thinking on race (see my earlier posts about both of them here and here). But hey, I’ll take it.