Race, Part 2

By Carla Bell
November 13, 2017

We opened this series with discussion of race as structure – a web of restrictions, obstacle, and hindrances for some; but a position of power, privilege, and entitlement for others. In studies and in firsthand experience, race as structure has been tested and proven to be in operation.

But what about race as biology? Are there distinct biologically markers? Certainly there are. We don’t doubt what we can see with our own eyes. But science has also shown a variety of ways in which we’re all the same.

What’s the Difference?

Through what started out as an “experimental gimmick” using a little ground up fruit fly, extracted proteins and electricity, geneticist Richard Lewontin, former Professor of Zoology at Harvard, and associates were eventually able to measure variance in genetic difference.

In over twenty years of use, this methodology has been improved and relied upon. Now we know that “85% of all the variation among human beings is between any two individuals within any local population”. This makes sense when we consider the typically small geographic regions in which we marry, bear children, and live our lives. The remaining 15% roughly split 50/50 shows a variation between nationalities of what used to be considered major races, e.g. African peoples such as Ewee, Ki-kuyu, and Zulu; the Swedes, Italians, French, and so on. The other approximately 7% of variance is ascribed to “major groups – blacks, browns, yellows, red, and whites.” So, interestingly, this science shows a high degree of gene similarity by locale, with low percentage of differences noted by nationality and skin color within a given race.

From this, many would conclude that there’s simply not enough difference here to really make a difference.

The Bell Curve

Even so, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in America (1994), written by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray begins with “This book is about differences in intellectual capacity among people and groups and what those differences mean for America’s future.”

To succinctly capture the message of those 845 pages, Murray, who holds a doctorate in political science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Herrnstein, a Harvard Professor who died just prior to publication, conclude that people of color, specifically, “Latino and black immigrants are, at least in the short run, putting some downward pressure on the distribution of intelligence.” Murray has become known over the years as a racial pseudo-scientist and eugenicist.

Eugenics is a philosophy and a social practice of encouragement or discouragement of reproduction based on the presence or absence of “desirable” traits, positive and negative eugenics, respectively. Other well-known eugenicists were Charles Darwin, Adolf Hitler; and Margaret Sanger, who formed The American Birth Control League, now Planned Parenthood.

Sanger, in her 1912 paper The Eugenic Value of Birth Control Propaganda, writes –

“…the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit though less fertile parents of the educated and well-to-do classes. On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective”.

Sanger was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 and, despite calls for its removal over recent years, a bust of Sanger remains on display at the Smithsonian Institute.

Human Resources

Henrietta Lacks, a black woman, wife, and mother of five, succumbed to cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. The subject of the book and movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Lacks is a fascinating and heroic American figure. At the time of her death, with permission from neither Lacks herself nor her family, Johns Hopkins physicians stole Lacks’s DNA for study and testing. When they discovered that her cells would reproduce in vitro, unlike the cells of others tested before, the doctors began to clone and distribute worldwide the so named HeLa cell line, at a profit!

The HeLa cells have been foundational to multiple scientific studies and is credited in development of Jonas Salk’s Polio vaccine, and HIV medicine. Before the Lacks family was notified of the HeLa cells in 1970, Henrietta had already made a lasting and profound, though not consensual, impact on medical science. For context, Lacks’s DNA was stolen and distributed four years before the Civil Rights movement began.

Much earlier, in the 1940s, during WWII, Edward Rollins and other enlisted Army men of African and Japanese descent, were made test subjects to the effects of toxic gas. “They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins,” Edwards says.

Race as Biology

So, now we know that race is unlikely to be distinguishable by genes alone. On one hand race as biology doesn’t exist. On the other hand, we’ve also seen ways in which race has been the determining factor and reasoning for inhumane treatment in the name of science. Race, and racism, in biology does indeed exist.

Call to Action

Let’s do more than shake our fists though. This exploration is for our preparedness – to learn and share. Parents, be aware of the function and operation of reproductive health clinics in Seattle Public Schools. Review medical consents you’ve given to the school. Understand the reasons and frequency for school nurse visits. And why not randomly request a copy of your own medical records ever so often? Let’s exercise our rights and use our voices in recognition and honor of the many who went before us and had no choice.

Up next, ethnicity. Follow the discussion.

Carla Bell is a Seattle-based writer and abolitionist engaged in restorative justice and civil rights advocacy, supporting community resilience and healing, and a perpetual student of arts and culture.