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DNA and the Politics of Health Care - differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15:3 differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15.3 (2004) 1-37

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Refashioning Race: DNA and the Politics of Health Care

"For Sale: A DNA Test to Measure Racial Mix"
—Wade F4
"Shouldn't a Pill be Colorblind?"
—Stolberg 1
"I Am a Racially Profiling Doctor"
—Satel 56
"Does Race Exist?"
—Bamshad and Olson 78

Something is happening to race. Historically, in discussions of race and science, science has either been on the side of the devil or of God.1 But science is a socially contingent knowledge-seeking activity. It can serve the interests of the State, for better or for worse; more commonly, it serves several social masters and produces mixed messages. After World War II, liberal ideologists, primarily through the UNESCO statement on race, rejected the typology of fixed racial categories in favor of the abstraction "universal man." Donna Haraway documents this brilliantly in a number of works. To back up the new ideology, liberals called on the social sciences and especially the biological sciences for documentation. As Haraway puts it, for phylogenies and types, new accounts of race substituted "gene flow, migration, isolation, mutation, and selection [as] the privileged scientific objects of knowledge" (Primate 202).

By making modern biology the mainstay of this new narrative of universal man, liberal policy makers hoped to banish racism and racial categories from our social systems. But this modernist moment, despite a flurry of efforts to beef it up in the 1990s, is in big trouble. As they focused on the institutional constructs of race, scholars emphasized that race is [End Page 1] not a natural category (see Graves and Vigilant); rather, it is forged from the discourses of politics, the law and history (see Greenberg; Jacobson; Nobles; and Omi and Winant). Despite public declarations of the end of biological race, however, the concept refuses to die. Biologists continue to argue over the evolutionary and genetic meanings of the category (see Couzin; Edwards; Proctor; Reardon; and Rosenberg et al.), while medical researchers persist under their own steam and by government mandate in using racial categories to evaluate the health and medical well-being of U.S. populations (see Bamshad et al.; Braun; Cooper and Freeman; Goodman; Gura; Hardy; Singleton, and Gwinn-Hardy; Holden; Lewis; Schwartz; and Stolberg).

In this article I explore two major themes. First, as I explicate contemporary scientific discussions of genes, medicine, and race I show how social, political, and scientific institutions and interests become mutually constitutive of twenty-first-century views on race. Second, as I have begun to do in other venues, writing specifically about gender (see "Bare Bones," Sexing, "The Problem"), I here explore how the idea of a "gene-environment system" applies to the production of racialized bodies. Understanding such systems can clarify our analyses of the uses and abuses of genetic research applied to the study of race and disease. To accomplish these tasks I begin with a brief history of biological ideas of race; I then turn to the efforts of biologists to modernize biological categories of race and the entangling of that project with efforts to explain and address health disparities between various racially and ethnically separated communities. I argue, in the end, that the scientific projects of geneticists aimed at understanding aspects of human history ought to be disentangled from current public health questions. These latter problems can often be addressed immediately and effectively using means already at hand.

Revisiting Race

During the past several years, a set of contradictions, animated, on the one hand, by well-intentioned liberal politics and, on the other, by technological advances in our ability to sequence and analyze DNA in combination with our intellectual devotion to the gene as an explanatory precept, has produced a fierce debate about both the scientific accuracy and the social utility of the race concept in medical research (see Aldhous; Risch et al.; Satel; Schwartz; Wade, "Race"; Wilson et al.; and Wood). [End Page 2] "It is no accident," writes historian Nancy Stepan, "that 'race' and...


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pp. 1-37
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Archived 2004
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