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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15.3 (2004) 38-65

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Decoding Race and Human Difference in a Genomic Age

The last years of the twentieth century witnessed a surge in claims about the biological meaninglessness of race. On February 20, 1995, the LA Times headlined "Scientists Say Race Has No Biological Basis" (Hotz A1). Two weeks later, the Boston Globe reported: "Don't Classify by Race, Urge Scientists" (Flint B1). In the years that directly followed, the American public would be regaled with continuing reports of science's demonstration that race had no biological meaning, culminating with the announcement of the completion of the first draft of the human genome sequence on June 26, 2000. On that day, Craig Venter, head of Celera Genomics' private sequencing effort, proclaimed that his company had sequenced "the genome of three females and two males who have identified themselves as Hispanic, Asian, Caucasian, or African-American" and found that "there's no way to tell one ethnicity from another" (Venter D8). Venter's claims buttressed those of Anthony Appiah, Henry Louis Gates, Barbara Fields, and other prominent critical race theorists who had for decades claimed that race had no biological basis; rather, they claimed, it was a social construct, or ideology (see Fields; Gates; and Gilroy). [End Page 38]

Given such a strong consensus that race is biologically meaningless, the change in headlines in the last few years has surprised many. Now, instead of the biological meaninglessness of race, headlines announce the many uses of genetic definitions of race, from locating disease genes to determining one's ancestry. "Race Is Seen as Real Guide to Track Roots of Disease" and "For Sale: A DNA Test to Measure Racial Mix" were two stories reported in the New York Times in July and October of 2002 (Wade, "Race" and "For Sale"). Instead of articles declaring the meaninglessness of race (see, for example, Cooper and Freeman;), reports and commentaries in scientific and public health journals now defend the use of race in biomedical research (see Risch et al. and Burchard). Indeed, the National Human Genome Research Institute recently launched a $100 million public-private effort to map human genetic variation that intends to sample racially coded groups: one African (Yoruban), two Asian (Han Chinese and Japanese), and one Caucasian (northern and western European).1 What, many ask, happened? Did scientists somehow regress into the dark shadows of racist ideologies? Have twenty-first-century technologies been coopted by nineteenth-century racist biology?

In this paper, I argue that, far from being a symptom of scientists falling prey to new ideological blinders, the present moment points to a fundamental weakness in the analytic frames that for decades have shaped how social scientists, historians, and scientists alike understand the role that scientific ideas and practices play in defining race. These frameworks draw upon Enlightenment conceptions of truth and ideology that presume that universal truths about nature can counter the blinding effects of dogmatic beliefs. Drawing upon these Enlightenment conceptions, prominent scholars of biological ideas about human differences have characterized "race" as an ideology that arose in the nineteenth century to defend the slave trade and met its demise in the twentieth century once the powerful new science of genetics revealed its fallacies (see Barkan; Stepan; and Stocking). Although such an account neatly supports the claims of post-World War II social scientists who argue that race is a social construct—and thus an object that should be studied by sociologists, not natural scientists—it fails to take into account what three decades of critical studies of science clearly reveal: science does not speak in any simple way for nature. Only with peril do we treat claims that purport to be scientific as either mere representations of nature or as truth in the Enlightenment sense. As I demonstrate below, to understand the recent shift in claims about the biological meaning of race requires that we treat [End Page 39] claims deemed scientific not as signs of nature, but as statements in the Foucaultian...