DR: The HIV medication Abacavir can cause a fatal reaction that is thought to differ by race [with higher rates of reactions shown among people who identify as black Americans]. Aid agencies have taken this into account in deciding whether to provide this treatment to Africans.
But one study found, for example, that among the Masai in Kenya, the form of the gene that predicts a severe reaction is 13 percent; it’s only 3.3 percent among another tribe in Kenya; and it’s virtually nonexistent among the Yoruba in Nigeria. So if you were to make a claim that you could determine whether someone had this [gene form that determines whether a reaction to the drug will occur] based on their race, you would make a mistake in many cases.
TR: How do we talk about the very real issues surrounding race today without perpetuating harmful misunderstandings about what race is?
DR: I don’t think it’s that confusing. Some people think there’s a contradiction in saying that race is not a biological category but we have to pay attention to race. But race as a political system. We can make a clear distinction between accepting a false view of race as an inherent biological category written in our genes and race as a political system of governance that was invented to perpetuate racism.
TR: So the fact that race was invented and has been perpetuated for reasons that we don’t like doesn’t mean we want to get rid of it or not talk about it anymore?
DR: Yes, not talking about it doesn’t do anything to eradicate it. We know now that intending to be color-blind only leaves in place and allows to expand the institutional inequities that are based on race and continue to affect every aspect of people’s lives in this country. Yes, even their health — but it’s affected by race because the political division of race affects institutions that treat people unequally, not because there is some natural genetic division among us.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor at The Root.