Thursday, February 24, 2005

Genetics and Race in the TLS

The new Times Literary Supplement has a cover review of "Race: The Reality of Human Differences" by Sarich and Miele. The online content only gives a portion of the review, so I'll have to get my hands on a hard copy to see if my previous opinions about Sarich, and the molecular anthropology crowd, still hold.

When I apply to a United States government agency for a research grant, I’m asked to tick a box specifying whether I’m American Indian / Alaska Native, Asian, Black /African American, Native Hawaiian / Other Pacific Islander, or White. While there are people whose mixed ancestry puts them somewhere outside these boxes, in general one’s race – even as categorized on government forms – is self-evident. Nevertheless, immediately below the boxes there’s a disclaimer: “The categories in this classification are social-political constructs and should not be interpreted as being anthropological in nature”. On the basis of biological indicators such as ancestry or skin colour, I’ve specified my race, but now I’m told that all I’ve done is specified membership in a particular “social-political construct”.

Presumably lost on the bureaucrats who create such forms is the irony that America’s geneticists – experts on the biological basis of differences among groups – are being assured that the self-assessment they make on biological grounds is, in fact, not biological. This contradiction captures the tension beneath much of the current debate on race. It also highlights the peculiar American slant on this debate. While my colleagues in the United Kingdom must also specify their ancestry when applying for government funds, they are not subjected to double-speak disclaimers. Racism in the US, courtesy of a society built largely on slavery, has an especially long and sordid history, and remains a divisive hot-button issue. In many discussions of American social policy, racism is the proverbial elephant in the living room: recognized but carefully ignored.

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