Race is a Social Construct

Back to back on my to read list were two articles that made an odd juxtaposition. First up was Race Is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue in the once great Scientific American. Here’s a representative blurb:

More than 100 years ago, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was concerned that race was being used as a biological explanation for what he understood to be social and cultural differences between different populations of people. He spoke out against the idea of “white” and “black” as discrete groups, claiming that these distinctions ignored the scope of human diversity.

Science would favor Du Bois. Today, the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning. And yet, you might still open a study on genetics in a major scientific journal and find categories like “white” and “black” being used as biological variables.

The article goes on as a confused mish-mash, and includes a comment that one researcher feels that

modern genetics research is operating in a paradox, which is that race is understood to be a useful tool to elucidate human genetic diversity, but on the other hand, race is also understood to be a poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relationship between ancestry and genetics.

Of course, when people think “race” they think ancestry. Ask a random person to classify people whose ancestors lived in what is now Japan, Sweden, and Uganda 2,500 years ago and he/she will, with little difficulty in most cases, classify those people as “Asian,” “European” and “Black,” respectively. Other objections to discussing race include the fact that people travel, and sometimes procreate after they’ve moved. Additionally, the fact that not all White people are exactly alike, and not all Black people are exactly alike, etc.,  is also viewed as problematic.

Next up on my reading list was Impact of common genetic determinants of Hemoglobin A1c on type 2 diabetes risk and diagnosis in ancestrally diverse populations: A transethnic genome-wide meta-analysis in PLOS Medicine. Here are a few quotes:

Blood glucose binds in an irreversible manner to circulating hemoglobin in red blood cells (RBCs), generating “glycated hemoglobin,” called HbA1c. HbA1c is used to diagnose and monitor diabetes…. About 11% of people of African American ancestry carry at least one copy of this G6PDvariant, while almost no one of any other ancestry does. We estimated that if we tested all Americans for diabetes using HbA1c, about 650,000 African Americans would be missed because of these genetically lowered HbA1c levels… This work supports a role for a precision medicine application to reduce race-ethnic health disparities using HbA1c genetics to improve T2D diagnosis and prediction and to inform screening strategies for T2D across the African continent where the prevalence of the G6PD variant can reach 20%.

From what I can tell reading medical and genetic literature, there is a collage industry in which scholars tell us that “race is a social construct without biological meaning.” But there is a second cottage industry in which a different group of scholars looks for genetic manifestations that strongly correlate with that particular biologically meaningless social construct.

The first cottage industry also warns us (to quote the Scientific American article again) that:

Assumptions about genetic differences between people of different races have had obvious social and historical repercussions, and they still threaten to fuel racist beliefs.

Meanwhile, members of the second cottage industry seems hell bent on trying to save lives. It is all very odd.


Update, 10/18/2017, 5:48 AM PST – minor grammatical error corrected by removing the word “with” following the word “mish-mash.”

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