Preface: I am taking a class in Race and Racism this semester with Sally Haslanger at MIT, fulfilling my deepest desires of having classes in philosophy count towards my degree. I figured I would cross-post my weekly responses and thoughts here, so that you may read them and form a few thoughts of your own.

As we continue our discussion of race and its existence, I’m beginning to wonder if the question is of race itself at all but rather ethnicity, which seems to be far less of a hot topic in the national conversation.

If the past few weeks have been any indicator, there are literally centuries of philosophical, social, biological, and anthropological thought dedicated to the existence of race itself. All of it goes to show that the concept of race is one thing for certain– unclear and likely socially constructed if it exists at all, or some tricky combination of social and biological, as Philip Kitcher argues in “Race, Ethnicity, Biology, Culture”.

The concept of race in America is billed, literally and figuratively, as black-and-white, yet many of the problems of prejudice that make us uncomfortable refer to issues in shades of gray. Blanketing the discussion in a term which might not be defined in the first place obscures the conversations about what exactly it is that causes us unrest, and also leads to oversimplification, causing more harm than good.

Take for example the complex bio-ethical issue of racial profiling and racial categorization for the sake of medicine. Now, there are two strains of racial thinking to take into consideration: one is the examination of race and health for the sake of research, and the other, more immediate use for racial categorization is in individual patient treatment. If a patient engages with a health-care provider and self-provides racial information, is it appropriate to take that into consideration? Now, what if the patient does not explicitly denote his or her race? And what if a patient is found unconscious and unresponsive? In which (if any) of these cases is racial information relevant ?

Burchard (“The importance of Race and Ethnic Background in Biomedical Research and Clinical Practice”) argues that because genetic clustering corresponds roughly to the five major racial groups, and genetic variation accounts for medically significant differences in disease outcome, by transitive property it is important to consider race as a factor in treatment and research.

Root (“The Use of Race in Medicine as a Proxy for Genetic Differences”), in response, would classify the above as an example of mistakenly using race as a proxy for other, more accurate genetic factors. Such habits are dangerous at the individual level, leading to statistical discrimination. Furthermore, racial data should not be considered even at the research level, because this reinforces racial groupings that are detrimental and politically harmful. Racial profiling is unacceptable in medicine because it is often a bad indicator of ancestry or other more import factors, such as environment.

But what if race was taken out of the arguments entirely, and substituted with ethnicity? By the logic above, it seems that at least part of Roots argument for the immorality of race considerations disperses for ethnic categorization is far more associated with hereditary factors and cultural practices, and thus a better indicator of health. Burchard’s argument in favor of racial information due to the correlation of socioeconomic factors still holds if we were instead to consider ethnicity in lieu of race. Would we still feel moral discomfort towards the blatant use of ethnicity as a factor in healthcare?

My instinct tells me yes; profiling is still discriminatory under any name. It seems already that Burchard’s examples point to ethnic groups rather than racial groups; “Ashkenazi Jews, French Canadians, the Amish, or European gypsies” are not a race and neither are Japanese people. But would a patient willingly be labeled as a “Jew” or a “Mexican”, and “American” or a “French Canadian”, even if that label provides more accurate insight into his or her health than a broader category? Such a practice would appear to dig up a whole slew of political and social issues; possibly concerns of anti-Semitism and nationalist interests.

Too often, it seems that the topic of race serves as a proxy for the real issues that we fear to discuss– issues of xenophobia, class, and social categorization, none of which are black and white, and exist whether or not race does.


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