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'First Order' Wisdom Meets 'Second Order' World
Once Declared Meaningless, Race Still Influences, Says Duster

By Rich McManus

If race lost its biological significance 6 years ago (when UNESCO issued a Statement on Race declaring that the concept has "no legitimate place in biological science") — at least among so-called "first order" society (the cognoscenti whose code languages are known chiefly within certain professions) — then someone better alert the rest of the world, which is comprised largely of "second-order" folks; those who aren't yet hip to first-order doings.

That's putting rather simply an argument that New York University sociologist Dr. Troy Duster warned was "complex, serious and contentious" in a talk given May 9 as part of the NIH Director's Wednesday Afternoon Lectures. Titled, "Buried Alive! The Concept of Race in Science," Duster's lecture cautioned that, although molecular biology and genomics inform us that race is trivial at the level of base-pairs of DNA, that same science is being used — almost diabolically — to recategorize people into identifiable groups, especially by forensic crime laboratories. Thus, while race has been officially pronounced dead, it is nonetheless sneaking back into the picture in ways that are perhaps culturally programmed, not necessarily scientific.

Dr. Troy Duster

Duster put the contradiction this way: If race is no longer relevant, why the spate of scientific papers linking certain characteristics of DNA to specific races? "You have science and race divorced on one hand, and the ethnic and racial implications of DNA gaining importance on the other, to the point that certain drugs are being targeted to specific DNAs," he said, citing the FDA's recent approval of NitroMed Inc.'s plan for a drug trial that will exclusively recruit blacks.

Duster invited the audience to share in his confusion over apparent contradictions. He observes that there is a "remarkable consensus developing across the political spectrum...all clamoring for an end to race as a concept." To those on the left, the race-is-dead argument reinforces that class, not race, is the core issue; to the right, it justifies attacks on affirmative action; and to the center, it reinforces the idealization of color blindness. But like some sort of resilient pathogen, race resists the grave; Duster says society tends to find "new proxies for race, or a way of putting old wine in new bottles."

Back when molecular biology was just developing as a field, there was an easily reached consensus on public health issues, particularly regarding infectious diseases, he said. Everyone agreed that smallpox, cholera, typhoid fever and the like needed to be eradicated. But the new science began undermining assumptions as gene disorders underlying some diseases became better understood. Suddenly, the question, "What is the general public interest?" — so easy to answer in the past — began to fracture the consensus. Duster used as an example comparatively recent work on genetic markers for cystic fibrosis. "Of some 230 markers for CF, which ones do we screen for?" he asked. "The markers aren't the same in different populations." His slide showed that one marker — delta F 508 — catches more than 90 percent of the cases in Caucasians and Jews, but is far less reliable in Hispanics, blacks, Asians and Zuni Indians. He also conceded that CF is comparatively rarer in those populations, as well. But he was analyzing trends and tendencies, not pointing fingers.

It is troubling to Duster that SNPs — single nucleotide polymorphisms — are gaining use on chip technology as a way of ascertaining racial or ethnic membership. He hinted that just as a one-letter change can be life-altering in the case of some illnesses, so too can such apparent triviality alter the way humans deal with one another. It is ominous to Duster that in the United Kingdom, law enforcement authorities boast that a check of only 7 or 8 genetic loci can predict with 85 percent accuracy whether a suspect is from Caucasian or Caribbean ancestry. He is troubled that in Louisiana, where only sex offenders were subject to DNA recordkeeping 15 years ago, DNA samples are now routinely collected from all arrestees.

"SNP profiling of all sex offenders is coming," he predicted. "Already, 29 states require tissue samples be retained from convicted felons. The significance of this is as follows: Most law enforcement people provide the rationale for collecting DNA samples as being only for identification. So, all they need are the non-coding regions of the DNA. But tissue samples contain coding regions, and so have information about possible gene disorders or susceptibility, and a whole host of other factors/uses that go far beyond simple identification."

Duster thinks DNA profiling "will eventually extend to rapists, then murderers. Patterns will emerge with a spurious link to race...This is the moral equivalent of phrenology for the 21st century."

He cautioned, "I'm not trying to rescue an old concept called race; I'm just warning about proxies that stand in for race...There are serious matters of social stratification that are simply not on scientists' radar. And I don't have any final answers."

Even NIH's effort to probe health disparities in different populations can be a dangerous undertaking, he warned; an effort will be made, under the guise of good intentions, to create SNP profiles of black males eventually, he forecast.

"We can't just say no to race because it reemerges in subtle ways," Duster said. "I'm arguing for a tightrope walk, a balancing act. Race is there — often buried — but I assure you it's alive."

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