The Meanings of 'Race' in the New Genomics: Implications for Health Disparities Research
Posted: 3 Sep 2001
Despite its lack of biological validity, the category of "race," and assumptions of racial difference, continue to influence medical research and practice in the United States. The Human Genome Project has intensified the search for correlations between genetic variation and disease. Eliminating well-documented health disparities among "racialized" populations has become a key public policy goal. This article provides a strong critique of the use of race as a scientific variable. Offering a historical analysis of race as a social construct, we describe the reification of race in health research. We discuss how genetic technology has been deployed to "prove" racial identity, and highlight the moral consequences of locating identity in the genes. We warn about targeted genetic screening for racially identified "at-risk" groups, including the potential for stigmatization and discrimination, and the inadvertent creation of newly racialized diseases. A naive genetic determinism will not only reinforce the dangerous idea that discrete human races exist, but will divert attention from the complex environmental, political, and social factors contributing to the unfair distribution of illness. The intersection of the genomics revolution with the health disparities initiative should serve as a catalyst to a long overdue public policy debate about the appropriate use of "race" in biomedicine.
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