Column 3 min read

Genome Culture: The New Race Riot

Some scientists may argue that race is a proxy for genetics, but it’s not a good one.

By Laura Hercher featured image Illustrations by Script & Seal

A highbrow version of a race riot has broken out on the mean streets of The New York Times, Vox, Buzzfeed, and New York magazine. It began with the publication of an op-ed by Harvard geneticist David Reich. In the op-ed, Reich’s first paragraph summarizes the argument that race is a purely social construct, a position he describes as modern orthodoxy. The rest of the piece reads like an extended “however”: However, genetic differences between population subgroups are real, and some of those genetic legacies account for measurable differences between the races.

Reich’s tone is calm and measured, but the editorial never recovers from the subtly incendiary opening gambit. Reich claims that those who don’t agree with him think race has no biological basis. But nobody credible believes this. The deliberately simplistic framing tries to stake a claim to all the high ground of rational discourse. It allows Reich to prove his point simply by asserting that genetics plays any part in racial differences — a position that is beyond dispute. Andrew Sullivan, writing in support of Reich in New York magazine, uses the same rhetorical device: “My own brilliant conclusion: group differences in IQ are indeed explicable through both environmental and genetic factors and we don’t yet know quite what the balance is.”

Disagree with that, I dare you.

Undeniably, three centuries of American history, not to mention the toxic inequities of the American present, all confound our efforts to separate race and genetics. And yet of course, genetics are not absent from the equation. Take a recent example: in a study released February in JAMA Cardiology, minorities with a family history of cardiomyopathy were less likely than white Americans to find the genetic variant responsible for their disease through genetic testing. Because they are less likely to participate in research and have less access to medical care (including testing), genetic variants from these populations are underrepresented in the databanks we use as references to interpret genetic testing.

Race is a proxy for genetics, but not a good one. In reality there are two different things called race: one based on culture and history, and the other based on a higher-than-average chance of sharing gene variants from common ancestors. Though they overlap, they are not the same. It would be helpful if we didn’t use the same word to describe both of them. Given that this is an area where it is important to be precise, the imprecision baked into our language is frustrating. Rhetorical devices used to score points by reducing complex arguments to simple cartoons are equally unhelpful.

“We don’t yet know quite what the balance is” is not a conclusion, it’s the entire question. It may be an argument for more research, but it is not an argument for writing editorials. If it is literally all you have to say, perhaps you should shut up.

David Reich’s point is that geneticists should be allowed to study and talk about race and of course, he is right. They absolutely should talk about race, but given the history and the stakes, they should do it carefully. They need to take responsibility for the content and the implications of what they say, for their words, and how they will be interpreted.