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Divided by Race

Book examines the impact of a new biological concept of race

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July 28, 2011 | by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called BiDil as a therapy for heart failure specifically for African-American patients, claiming in a press release that this was a step toward personalized medicine.

In “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century” (The New Press, 2011), Dorothy Roberts, the Kirkland & Ellis Professor at Northwestern University School of Law, points to the marketing of the drug as an egregious example of recent scientific efforts to resuscitate race as a biological category rather than a political grouping.

“The FDA lent credence to the idea that race is a biological category written in our genes, though there was no evidence in the clinical trial that BiDil worked differently in people with different genotypes or that it worked differently in African-Americans than it worked in people of other races,” Roberts said. 

The book focuses on ways in which some scientists and biotech companies are trying to provide an updated version of race as a biological classification by using cutting-edge genomic science and technology, including gene clustering studies, biomedical research on the genetic causes of health disparities, race-specific medicine and ancestry testing.

In centuries past, scientists created typologies dividing the human species into biological races, but more than a decade ago, the Human Genome Project proved that human beings are not naturally divided by race.

In her new book, Roberts examines the contemporary consequences of a new racial science that claims there are racial differences at the molecular level at a time when race appears less significant in a supposedly “post-racial” society, bringing science, law, commerce and race ideologies under one canopy.

“What I want most is for readers to understand that race is an invented political system  -- not a natural biological division,” said Roberts, who also is a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. “Instead of searching for racial differences in our genes, we should affirm our common humanity. It is critical that we end the unjust social divisions that separate us.”

When BiDil was developed, the drug was not targeted at any one race, but it was billed as a race-specific drug to help the inventor get an extension of his patent, Roberts said.

Regardless of the motivation for developing race-specific technologies, Roberts said their underlying biological definition fuels inequalities based on race.

“It allows people to be apathetic and even comfortable about racial inequality without assuming any responsibility at all for racism in our society,” she said. “It supports the notion that differences in welfare, health, education and other aspects of social status stem from natural differences rather than systemic inequality.”

Roberts emphasized that today the financial incentive to maintain a belief in race as a biological distinction is strong. “Gene-based products can be developed and marketed according to race if people believe that race is biological,” Roberts said.

Roberts sees this book as a continuation of her previous research on race in America.

“Beginning with my book ‘Killing the Black Body’ (Pantheon, 1997), I’ve looked at how inequality fundamentally and profoundly shapes the way in which ethical principles are applied to medical and health issues,” Roberts said. “I see this book as an extension of that research because the erroneous understanding of race as a biological grouping instead of a political one profoundly affects race relations and race policy generally.”