In a series of Ask Me Anything sessions related to the subject matter of the Race Manners advice column, I’ve offered quick answers to questions from dozens of Reddit users. Recently, I checked my inbox there and discovered more—a lot more. I’m guessing they’re the ones that people didn’t want to ask publicly, either because of concerns that they were dumb (some of them were; others, not at all) or that they’d come off as racist (good call, in some cases). I chose a few of them to respond to today:
Redditor: I was recently told in an online history of humankind that there is scientifically no such thing as race! When asked to provide a link to the definition of race, I didn’t have much luck. What are you thoughts on this idea?
How do you reconcile “there is no scientific basis for race” with statements like “African Americans are X percent more likely to get heart disease”?
Jenée Desmond-Harris: I probably mention something related to this topic in 75 percent of Race Manners columns, but I’m happy to keep doing it because I agree that it’s confusing.
I can say very definitively that race is an invented political system; it is not a natural biological condition of human beings. The human species is a single race. It is not biologically divided up into distinguishable races …
Race is a political grouping that uses various biological demarcations that help distinguish who belongs to one or another. But those—skin color, hair color, the shape of the nose or the lips—are only part of what we use to determine what race someone is.
We also historically have looked at their behavior, we’ve looked at who their friends are, where they live, to also help determine it. So there’s a grab bag of biological, physical, social and cultural clues that we use every day to decide who belongs in what race.
My understanding—and there’s more in this in Roberts’ book—is that any reported higher rates of illness don’t come from being African American. Rather, they come from other factors that happen to apply more frequently to (some, but not all) people who identify as African American (and a lot of other people, too). So it would make more sense to assess risk based on the factors that actually matter, instead of the racial groups claimed by the people who, because of social and cultural factors, may more often have them.
If a patient with Creole ancestry, or one white parent, or an immigrant from the Caribbean or Canada, did not choose to identify as African American, would it decrease his or her chance of getting heart disease? No. To me, this shows how little sense it makes to use something as slippery as race to predict health outcomes.