Bioethics Blogs

Racial Health Disparities: It

Heart disease is the single biggest contributor to the racial mortality gap in the US, which, in case you didn’t know, is still really bad. Many hoped that advances in genetics would help explain and ultimately close that gap.

So Jay Kaufman, Professor in Epidemiology & Biostatistics at McGill, recently led a study to systematically review six years’ worth of genomic research to see if there is any evidence that genetic differences explain this major racial-health disparity.

What he found is incredibly important. He found, effectively, nothing.

A wonderful article in The Atlantic by Jason Silverstein gets right to the heart of it with its title: “Genes Don’t Cause Racial-Health Disparities, Society Does.”

Silverstein reminds us that an explicit goal of the Human Genome Project was to close health disparities, and that we’ve invested more than $1 billion in the field every year since. But given the results of efforts to understand racial health disparities by looking at our DNA, it might be argued that pretty much anything else would have done better.

You’d think that educated people knew this, right? That race is a social construct with the same scientific legitimacy as “grouping raccoons, tigers, and okapis on the basis that they are all stripey?” Some researchers seem to acknowledge this, and recommend studying “ancestry” rather than “race.”

But Silverstein points out that “ancestry” tends to be merely a proxy for race, masquerading with “a phony moustache and glasses.” Moreover, the lack of precision in the use and definition of “ancestry” has rendered it nearly meaningless scientifically.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.