Embodied Inequality

Race Becomes Biology

Using traditional notions of race to understand human variation is not accurate or productive. The findings of Race Reconciled enable anthropology to reiterate how Race is a Social Construction. It is a human idea about biology that does not correspond very well to the biology. But anthropology also demonstrates how race becomes biology, or the embodiment of racist inequalities.

Even as anthropology reiterates how race is a social construction, three things need emphasis. First, as discussed in the previous section Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race, this does not mean there is no such thing as human biological variation or this variation is unimportant.

Yes, 'race is a social construction.' And, yes, racism & inequality become biologically embodied. Racism makes race real.Click To Tweet
Second, to say race is a social construction does not mean it is not real. Ideas can be very real. Money is a social construction. Money is just scraps of paper or electronic digits. But we agree that those scraps have value, that they can be exchanged and have effects in the world. (For more, see the post on Gender is a Social Construction.)

Finally, we need to do more to close the loop, revealing how the power of race as a social reality has economic and political implications and

the social organization of race becomes biology.

This is the point of a fantastic article by Clarence Gravlee in the “Race Reconciled” volume. Gravlee’s article, “How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality,” won the 2010 Rudolf Virchow Award as a best article in Medical Anthropology, and was the most downloaded article for the year in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. Since 2012, it appears in the four field Applying Anthropology: An Introductory Reader.

Gravlee begins by identifying the problem of race revival. He explicitly identifies the 2005 Armand Marie Leroi Op-Ed, A Family Tree in Every Gene, as a key element of this revival. He also understands the need to go beyond the classroom and beyond anthropology. “If anthropologists want to reconcile race for anyone other than ourselves, we have to engage the debate over racial inequalities in health” (2009:47).

Gravlee makes his points clearly, spelling out his headlines with the does-not-equal sign. The section “Race ≠ Human genetic variation” (2009:50) makes similar points to the articles discussed in Race Reconciled, showing how genetic clustering does not confirm traditional race ideas. The section “Biology ≠ Genetics” (2009:51) takes back the turf of reducing biology to genes. Biology is about organisms and environments, always about specific creatures in specific places, and not simply looking for a mythical code of life. [See note 1]

Gravlee then discusses how “Race ≠ Myth” (2009:53). Social ideas of race are very real, and have political, economic, and health consequences in the present. Health consequences are biological. Black Americans have higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancy, and the relative gap between white and black Americans–just like the wealth gap discussed in the section Racism and Biological Anthropology–has not significantly improved since the 1950s (2009:48). Race becomes biology.

These health inequalities, in tandem with economic inequalities, influence the life course and chances of the next generation:

The toxic effects of exposure to racism in one’s own lifetime include a higher risk of hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and other conditions. These conditions, in turn, affect the health of the next generation, because they alter the quality of the fetal and early postnatal environment. The immediate consequence of this intergenerational effect is a higher risk of adverse birth outcomes, but there is also a lingering effect into adulthood, as adult chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes can be traced in part to prenatal and early life conditions. Thus, the cycle begins again. (2009:52)

Race and racism, as social inequality, become biology.

Gravlee’s article is fantastic–he writes well and sets an agenda for anthropological research, teaching, and public intervention. “The specific challenge is to explain how race becomes biology. Our response to this challenge must deal with two senses in which race becomes biology: Systemic racism becomes embodied in the biology of racialized groups and individuals, and embodied inequalities reinforce a racialized understanding of human biology” (Gravlee 2009:54).

One incredible example Gravlee uses is of Arab American birth weights before and after the September 11, 2001 attacks:

There is also evidence that structures and events at even higher levels of analysis reverberate to the individual level. A recent study of birth outcomes before and after September 11, 2001, provides a dramatic example. Lauderdale (2006) examined birth certificate data for all California births during the 6 months after September 2001, compared to the same period 1 year earlier. They found that women with Arabic names–and only women with Arabic names–experienced a 34% increase in the likelihood of having a low birth weight infant after 9/11. Moreover, the effect appeared to be moderated by parents’ strength of ethnic identification: Infants who were given ethnically distinctive Arabic names had twice the risk of low birth weight after the attacks of September 2001, compared to 1 year earlier. This finding hints at how events structured by global political-economic forces may have embodied consequences that are often hidden from view. (2009:52)

Remembering that low birth weight infants can have lifelong health implications makes it clear how social categories and even apparently distant events become biologically important.

A February 2018 article Area racism and birth outcomes among Blacks in the United States provides important verification:

After adjustment for maternal age, Census region, and county-level measures of urbanicity, percent of the Black population, education, and poverty, we found that each standard deviation increase in area racism was associated with relative increases of 5% in the prevalence of preterm birth and 5% in the prevalence of low birthweight among Blacks. (Chae et al.)

And see Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis by Linda Villarosa in The New York Times (April 2018).

Race becomes biology–Dynamically

However, a possible counterattack might be: Does this mean race is biologically real since people have made it so? Gravlee anticipates this issue:

Some observers may be uneasy with talk of biological differences among racially defined groups. They may worry–with good cause–that such talk reinforces the perception of intrinsic, genetic differences between alleged races. This well-founded concern is important, because it reveals how deeply entrenched the twin assumptions of reductionism and genetic determinism are in our understanding of race. (2009:51)

The belief that race is now real, in the sense of an inherited determinism, because the biocultural approach demonstrates the intertwining of culture and biology, is a potential problem. The answer needs to be very clear:

No. Race becomes biology, but is not immutable.

Social categories like race can become biology because of biological plasticity and constant interaction with a specific environment. The biological plasticity remains, even after the toxic effects of racism. There are intergenerational effects, but these can change quite rapidly under different conditions. The intergenerational component of health effects from racism can actually be an opportunity to improve care and outcomes (see Braveman and Barclay 2009).

The other possible counterattack is that this biocultural combination has resulted in a profound and intractable group difference, and that this group difference, seen as ability by IQ scores, is so intractable that it is a waste of money and effort to strive for equality. This goes back to the section on Anthropology and Human Nature, as some people trumpet profound human group difference, without caring much if this is a natural or social phenomenon. Those who are bent on establishing a correlation between IQ and skull size can have it either way. If people say skull size is genetic and ancestral, they will say, a-ha, this proves that different ancestral groups have different natural IQ. Or, if people say skull size exhibits environmental plasticity, they will say, a-ha, this proves that different environments lead to different natural IQ (no surprise here, always cold-climate Europe, with some now allowing Asians into the mix). Or, if people say social practices become biology, they will say, a-ha, this proves that such-and-such ethnic groups have such deeply embedded problems, leading to different natural IQ.

Charles Murray, famed co-author of The Bell Curve, proves how adaptable this race-based reasoning can be:

Some group differences are intractable. I shift from “innate” to “intractable” to acknowledge how complex is the interaction of genes, their expression in behavior, and the environment. “Intractable” means that, whatever the precise partitioning of causation may be (we seldom know), policy interventions can only tweak the difference at the margins. (The Inequality Taboo 2005:14 and see note 2)

There it is–Murray hardly cares about complexity as long as he gets his “intractable” group difference. Murray’s essay, of course, goes on to talk about group differences between blacks and whites, and between men and women. And, of course, Murray will eventually start discussing IQ and the difference between black and white scores on “digits-backward” versus “digits-forward” to say that there are fundamental genetically-rooted IQ differences.

In his discussion of digits-backward, Murray is trying to get around the enormous literature on the social and cultural content of test-taking, test design, educational attainment, and socio-economic status. One incredibly interesting result that has emerged is that when people are told a test is to measure something–and they know that there are stereotypes about that something–they will do worse on the test than if they are not told. When elderly test-takers are told a test is to “measure memory,” they will do worse on the test than if they are not told, even if there is no explicit statement that the test is to “measure memory loss among the elderly” (see Levy 2009 on Stereotype Embodiment; for a critique of the IQ peddlers, although it is becoming dated, see the 2002 Race in Mind: Race, IQ, and Other Racisms by Alexander Alland, Jr.).

So too with IQ tests–given the long history of stereotypes about race and IQ in the U.S., just saying “this is an IQ test” sets the stage for stereotype embodiment. Or, “simply reminding blacks of their race before they take an exam leads them to perform worse” (Nisbett 2009).

Murray makes a lot of noise about the discovery of differences in digits-backward versus digits-forward, since this is simply the more challenging sub-section of the test, which according to Murray could not have a cultural component. Murray is actually wrong on this point, as studies are beginning to explore the social and cultural components of numeracy. Moreover, the overall statement-effect of “this is an IQ test” could be revealed differentially. Stereotype embodiment may emerge most clearly in the more challenging sections of the test, which become more discouraging in the context of references to IQ stereotypes. Moreover–and this is something that seems to hardly be shaking the diehard IQ enthusiasts–studies in 2013 indicate how Scientists Debunk the IQ Myth: Notion of Measuring One’s Intelligence Quotient by Singular, Standardized Test Is Highly Misleading: “The results showed that when a wide range of cognitive abilities are explored, the observed variations in performance can only be explained with at least three distinct components: short-term memory, reasoning and a verbal component.”

With Gravlee’s analysis of how race becomes biology, it also seems the earlier literature on IQ test issues, mostly making connections to what was called culture and then decrying cultural bias in testing, needs some serious updating. One approach is a more fine-grained analysis, focusing on subtle expectations and how these play out not just at the testing level but also at the sub-test level.

There is certainly cause for looking into more aspects of how race becomes biology, even in test taking. Intriguing studies include:

a) Birth weight and intergenerational health effects. As Gravlee reports, hypertension, diabetes, and strokes play out over a lifetime and influence prenatal health. IQ scores may also be influenced by birth weight differentials. This would follow up on economists studying data on Norwegian twins, From the cradle to the labor market finding a long-term correlation between birth-weight differentials and things like earnings and IQ (Black et al. 2007).

b) Lead levels. We now understand even low levels of lead-contamination can lead to cognitive modification. Black and low-income families are more likely to be exposed to these kinds of environmental hazards. IQ scores are influenced by lead levels and other environmental hazards. Lawrence Schell and Melinda Denham document lead and lower IQ scores in Environmental Pollution in Urban Environments and Human Biology(2003:119).

c) Vitamin D. We are beginning to understand the importance of Vitamin D and the adverse effects from Vitamin D deficiency. People with darker skin phenotypes tend to have more difficulties absorbing Vitamin D. To what extent does Vitamin D deficiency play out in measures like IQ scores?

Interestingly, with realignments in some of the race and social class issues, even the usual racialist position on IQ is showing signs of fracture. For example, Ron Unz, well-known for supporting conservative and racialist approaches, in 2012 moved toward “publicly endorsing the conclusion that ethnic/racial IQ differences are probably not nearly as wide or intractable as is generally believed in certain quarters” (Unz on Race/IQ). Or, as Unz writes in a follow-up, “essentially, I am proposing that the enormously large differences in population IQ . . . are primarily due to factors of social environment–poverty, education, rural deprivation” (Unz on Race/IQ: Response to Lynn and Nyborg; see also my assessment, Race IQ – Game Over).

Ultimately the issues Gravlee raises in “How Race Becomes Biology” go beyond these kinds of studies and the messages delivered in the classroom and to the public. These issues are about having the political will to develop effective intervention so race does not become biology in such pernicious ways. But this is a difficult task at a time when positing that race is a social construction benefits the conservative position.

Updates on How Race Becomes Biology

Next: 1.8 – So Many Primates for Primatology.

Previous: 1.6 – Race Reconciled Re-Debunks Race

1. For more on genetics, see the section on Human Nature and Anthropology and also Lily Kay, Who Wrote the Book of Life? One curious note about Gravlee’s article is there is almost no reference to other anthropologists who had already been fighting against reducing biology to genetics. Much of Tim Ingold’s work since the late 1990s has been warning anthropologists about this issue. Ingold’s essay ’People Like Us’: The Concept of the Anatomically Modern Human is a particularly trenchant example:

It is the cellular machinery that “reads” the DNA, and that reading is part and parcel of the very development of the organism in its environment. Hence there is no “decoding” of the genome that is not itself a process of development (Ingold 2000:382).

Gravlee also misses others who talk about how race becomes biology, such as Peter Wade’s Human Nature and Race (2004).

2. It is very bothersome that Charles Murray continues to appear as a purveyor of social policy advice. Murray argued class structure was directly related to intelligence and so there is little that social policy can do to remedy inequality. “The real and consistent message of The Bell Curve is that the rich and powerful in American society have risen to the top on the basis of merit, and that merit itself can be measured in points of IQ” (Alland 2002:156). The Bell Curve was part of the Race Revival, Attacking Anthropology, and is such an abject denial of the obvious social engineering that went into creating social inequality, that it is amazing Murray carries any weight in social policy discussions. For example, in the article Plan B: Skip College Murray is one of the “small but influential group of economists and educators” who would steer some students into other programs (Steinberg 2010). The fact that Murray–who is always arguing inequality cannot be addressed through social programs, always chiming in to tell us how many people are just not cut out for college–is one of those influential people certainly should give us pause. Every time Murray writes an article, post a disclaimer: “Charles Murray wrote The Bell Curve and continues to insist IQ determines social outcome.”
Note: I first wrote this in 2011 before Charles Murray published his latest–and hopefully last–book concerning social policy.

To cite: Antrosio, Jason, 2011. “Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/biological-anthropology/how-race-becomes-biology/. First posted 5 June 2011. Last updated 18 June 2020.