Monday, November 30, 2020

About the Government Categories of Race

I have liked David Bernstein's reasoning on a number of issues.  In this article at Reason, The Government Should Stop Mandating the Use of Race in Medical and Scientific Studies,  he describes some difficulties in using race as a legal category, and relatedly, as a medical and scientific category.

This is very unfortunate, because, in addition to other problems discussed below, the FDA and NIH mandated that the "race variable' be based on the arbitrary (but now standard in American life) racial and ethnic classifications established by the Office of Management and Budget in 1977 for civil rights enforcement purposes. At the time, the OMB warned that the "classifications should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature." This did not stop the FDA and NIH from institutionalizing them into medical and scientific research….(italics mine)

I would say that race is theoretically still a useful category medically because it does capture some genetic differences in a rough way, and is a counterforce to the preponderance of research being conducted on WEIRD individuals. However, this will wane with every passing year as DNA info, which is much more precise, will become more useful. Also, we are slowly mixing, as all peoples (even Neandertals and Denisovans!) do when in contact with each other.  The speed and extent of this is exaggerated in the popular imagination and even among researchers who should know better.  In a hundred years there will still be people broadly European even in America, the most mixed of countries. Until we have better tools, it is best not to throw away the ones we have. Bernstein disagrees.

Even if at one time race may have been useful as a crude proxy for genetic heterogeneity, as DNA testing has become more available and much less expensive, race is a poor substitute for looking at actual discernible genetic differences between people. "Pooling people in race silos," an editorial in Nature Biotechnology declared, "is akin to zoologists grouping raccoons, tigers, and okapis on the basis that they are all stripey."…
Well, yes and no. Some of our current categories are indeed ridiculous, lumping Indians in with Chinese, or Puerto Ricans in with Argentinians. There are Native tribes that last shared a common ancestor with other natives 15,000 years ago. Those are rather like grouping stripey animals.  Africans have enormous genetic diversity more than the rest of us put together in some ways, though they might look simply "black" to non-Africans. Medical categories purporting to include Africans as a whole will not result in good medicine.  African-Americans, however, are drawn largely from Sub-Saharan West Africa, and the diversity, though still considerable, is reduced, and they are quite different from populations outside of Africa. The different effects noted on the lab results you get from bloodwork are not made up out of nothing, they are the result of real researchers trying to get a handle on what medications tend to work better on blacks from Chicago or Chattanooga.  They will be obsolete, maybe even soon, but for the moment they are real. 

Bernstein, in The Modern American Law of Race, a related paper in progress that he links, is especially disapproving of "laws dictating ethnic and racial categories were designed primarily to assist African Americans overcome the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination" having that clear use expanded into a dozen vaguer meanings.One of my principles on legislation, or trying to fix many problems in general, is that you get about 90% of what you want at first pass, as you solution collects all the low-hanging fruit.  After that it becomes more difficult, and doubling and quadrupling down on government regulation does not necessarily get you very far after that. Remainders may need very different solutions. Those laws were designed to combat legal obstacles forty years ago and were applied to medical and scientific questions because we had nothing better.  Had they been continually updated for scientific reasons, they might be more useful now.  Might.  Theoretically.  But it didn't happen that way and now they should be dismantled, retaining only those bits that can still prove their medical usefulness.

Have I argued out of both sides of my mouth here?  Yes, a fair bit, if one wants to see it that way. The old legal categories are largely but not entirely useless for medical and scientific research now and should no longer be the default. 

There is an argument that all racial categories are entirely artificial, invented by Europeans in the 15th C or so to justify slavery and to "other" entire groups for their own reasons. We preserve those distinctions now because of the oppression those others experienced, until such time as that is no longer an issue. I haven't touched on it here.  Perhaps I should.  It has a bit that can be said in its favor, but mostly it's just er, silly.  It's common now, but comes up against numerous walls when one tries to apply it.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

I like the way you said that. Good on ya!