Twenty years ago it appeared that mainstream science finally was abandoning the concept of biological human races. From 18th century typologists to 20th century eugenicists, scientists have always been instrumental in justifying the myth that the human species is naturally divided by race. But the rejection of eugenics after World War II and discoveries by human evolutionary biologists in subsequent decades brought hope that a new science of human genetic diversity would replace the old racial science. In 2000, the Human Genome Project, which mapped the entire human genetic code, confirmed the genetic unity of the human species and the futility of identifying discrete racial groups in the remaining genetic difference. Biologically, there is only one human race. Race applied to human beings is a social grouping; it is a system originally devised in the 1700s to support slavery and colonialism that classifies people into a social hierarchy based on invented biological, cultural, and legal demarcations.
But instead of hammering the last nail in the coffin of an obsolete system, the science that emerged from sequencing the human genome has been shaped by a resurgence of interest in race-based genetic variation. Some scientists claim that clusters of genetic similarity detected with novel genomic theories and computer technologies correspond to antiquated racial classifications and prove that human racial differences are real and significant. Others are searching for genetic differences between races that could explain staggering inequalities in health and disease as well as variations in drug response, with the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries poised to convert the new racial science into race-specific products. As we wait for the promise of gene-tailored medicine to materialize, race has become an avenue for turning the vision of tomorrow's personalized medicines into today's profit making commodities. While uncritically importing antiquated racial categories into research, the emerging racial science has a new twist-it claims to measure biological distinctions across races and "admixed" populations with more accurate precision, and without social bias.
At the same time, many Americans believe that the election of Barack Obama as president ushered in a new "post racial" society of equality, harmony, and opportunity. Genomic science is reinforcing the belief in intrinsic racial difference even as most Americans ignore the devastating effects of racism on our society and the seemingly colorblind regime of unequal wealth, health, education, and imprisonment. Race does have medical significance-because social inequality affects people's health, not because race is hardwired in our genes.
Will genomics still be tethered to race twenty years from now? Despite the disturbing revival of biological concepts of race, there is also renewed hope that this is a last gasp of racial thinking in science. Many evolutionary biologists, genomic scientists, anthropologists and sociologists, historians of science, and legal scholars are pointing out the errors and biases in recent claims of race-based genetic difference. A competing field of health research is revealing compelling evidence of the biological pathways through which racial inequality gets "embodied," including the unhealthy effects of everyday racial discrimination. But it will take a political movement to undo the centuries-old myth of biological races. Antiracist, disability, economic, gender, reproductive, and environmental justice groups are realizing that they all have a stake in contesting the emerging racial science based in genetics. This social movement rejects the view that human beings are naturally divided into races at the molecular level and refuses to look to genomic science and technology to bridge the enduring chasm between racial groups. Rather, we should affirm our shared humanity by working to end the social inequities preserved by the political system of race. Instead of hamstringing scientists, discarding the folklore of biological races would liberate them to focus on more fruitful lines of research-to study how genes function in human beings and to locate, understand, and eliminate the effects of racism on health.
Dorothy E. Roberts, JD, is Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law at Northwestern University School of Law.