We Have This Word

colored boxes

Make sure you get in the right one

This week I was reading an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, which we inexplicably subscribe to at work. The editorial was discussing whether we’ve reached a point, using genetic engineering, that we can treat each person individually, because down on the cellular level, no two people are alike. The question raised by the article was how soon we can go to individualized medicine and stop using race as a clumsy substitute.

I don’t want to get into a lot of medical talk here, but there are some conditions that are more common in certain genetic groups (such as Tay-Sachs disease among European Jews or sickle cell anemia among blacks). Until now, doctors have used race as a potential marker for such diseases—and yet race doesn’t work very well. Most Jews, for instance, don’t have Tay-Sachs, and some other groups, like Cajuns in Louisiana, also get it. Most blacks don’t have sickle cell anemia.

Medically, “race” is a sloppy idea. Obviously human beings differ from one another in many ways, including skin color, body shape, facial features, and so on. Observing this fact, however, it does not necessarily follow that we would create a concept that humans exist in mutually exclusive groups, although unfortunately, human stupidity being what it is (vast and endless), we did invent the idea of “race”.

Not long ago I heard the poet Nikki Giovanni interviewed on the radio, and she said something that stuck with me: “Race was a bad idea.” She was referring to the fact that “race” as we use it in our society is a socially invented idea. Having a word for something, however, does not make it exist, unless you believe that hobbits and witches are real.

Consider what the notion of race means:

  • all human exist in “boxes”
  • every person can be placed neatly in one of the boxes
  • no one can change boxes

It does not take a lot of education or thought to see how foolishly wrong this is. The medical difficulty with race that the New England Journal of Medicine refers to is one bit of evidence for this. A historical bit of evidence contradicting the “boxes of race” is the fact that over time people have defined race in many ways, such as the time when they talked about the “Irish race” or the “Nordic race”.

In our personal experience, as well, we encounter evidence that the boxes simply don’t work. We meet people, or at least hear about them, who don’t seem to exactly belong in one of the current boxes. In addition, everyone knows that people of different “races” can have children together, which begins to make the boxes meaningless.

So does “race” exist? Biologically, no. We made this up. The idea is a social creation, and yet socially, does race exist? When people hate you for being born, and when you know you have a greater chance of being killed—including by the police—because of the color of your skin, by God yes, race exists.

Here in America, the idea of “race” is like poison air that we breathe just from being alive. No matter how hard you try, no matter how decent you are, this evil idea will affect you. The most noble people among us are still conscious of race, are affected by the stereotypes and the history that have soiled our country from the first day. And those are the good people.

Is there any hope for getting rid of this nasty concept, for a world in which children only learn the word “race” in school as a historical artifact? I don’t know. No time soon. But there is no excuse not to try, if you’re a decent person. As the New England Journal of Medicine said, we are not getting very far using “crude racial and ethnic . . . categories.”


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