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Is 'Race Science' Making A Comeback?

Angela Saini, author of <em>Superior: The Return of Race Science.</em>
Henrietta Garden
Angela Saini, author of Superior: The Return of Race Science.

When Angela Saini was 10 years old, her family moved from what she called "a very multicultural area" in East London to the almost exclusively white Southeast London. Suddenly her brown skin stood out, making her a target. She couldn't avoid the harassment coming from two boys who lived around the corner. One day, they pelted her and her sister with rocks. She remembers one hit her on the head. She remembers bleeding.

There had been racist comments before that, she says, "but that was the first time that someone around my own age had decided to physically hurt me. And it was tough."

It was also one of the first stories she reported, writing about the incident and reading it out for class. She says that's what made her a journalist.

Saini is now an award-winning science journalist, often reporting on the intersection of science, race and gender. Her latest book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, tracks the history and ideology of race science up to its current resurgence.

We talked to her about how race isn't real (but you know ... still is), why DNA tests are misleading and how race science crept its way into the 21st century. It's a lot to get your head around.

This is an excerpt from our interview with her. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Code Switch: I guess we should start with the obvious question. What is race science?

Once upon a time, in the 19th and early 20th century, race science was just science. It was very widely accepted that races exist biologically, that possibly we are different species or different breeds as human beings and that there might be a racial hierarchy between us.

After the Second World War, when we saw eugenics play out — saw the consequences of Nazi racial hygiene in the Holocaust — the world kind of took a collective intake of breath and tried to put its house in order. So scientists, policymakers, the United Nations all came together and decided race has no place in biology anymore. It's not scientifically accurate. Race is not how difference plays out in the real world.

But there were two problems with this. Number one was the hardcore scientific racists. This includes Nazi race scientists. So the ones who believed that whites were superior, that slavery was justified, that segregation was justified. They kept scientific racism alive within a small, but very active, global network.

The other aspect is mainstream science. Did everyday scientists really abandon these ideas completely? My argument is no. They clung on to them partly because, of course, racism was still there in society. We still had racism all around the world, discrimination embedded in the structures of institutions. And that means even to this day, there are still scientists who, despite knowing better and despite being mainstream, good-hearted, well-intentioned scientists, still sometimes invoke race in scientific research, particularly medical research, when it's inappropriate.

Should we even be talking about race anymore?

I've read genetics textbooks on race that say race is all silly — we should all let it go and live in this kind of colorblind world. Well, no, because that's not the world that we live in. These things matter, because that boy when I was 10 years old did not throw rocks at me because of genetics. He threw rocks at me because I looked brown and that he took exception to that. And that's not going to stop.


The thing is, race is real in society. It's real in politics. It's real in the ways that we treat each other. It's visceral because we have made it visceral in our everyday lives, and it has a biological impact because of that. Racism impacts people's bodies. It impacts people's minds. It affects how they live and how they grow.

So I think all researchers, if they're going to invoke race, have to be really knowledgeable about where these ideas come from and how they are using race. Are they using it because they're studying the effects of racism and discrimination, or are they using it as a biological entity in itself? And if they're using it as a biological entity in itself, then they had better be sure exactly how they define it.

In the U.S., race is defined differently from South Africa, Australia, the U.K., India. We can't biologize blanket ideas about who people are, because these are socially constructed ideas. I think it's deeply dangerous, because it falls into the same trap that the people who invented race in the first place wanted us to fall into. The people who hardened these categories wanted us to believe that we are fundamentally different. We are not fundamentally different.

We did an episode not so long ago about how people from certain populations in North and West Africa were more likely to have a trait that makes them predisposed to sickle cell anemia. Is it possible that we risk missing out on important scientific realities if we are skittish about getting into genetics and race?

I think we need to be careful about what we mean when we say race. We know that the sickle cell trait exists in those regions of the world where cases of malaria are high, and that is because, as devastating as it is to have sickle cell anemia, having the trait provides some resistance to malaria. So in the regions where it exists, it is beneficial to the people who have it, because one risk outweighs the other. And this means it's geographical — it's not racial. It exists in certain parts of Africa and not all, and it exists in other parts of the world outside Africa, where people don't have black skin.

The reason it looks racialized in the U.S. is because in the U.S., many white people are of European ancestry, and many black people, because of the history of slavery, are of West African ancestry. That means that in the U.S., you see far higher rates of sickle cell in the black population than the white population.

But globally, it doesn't look racialized. Globally, it looks as though people in certain regions of the world have it. So in the U.S., when people talk about sickle cell being a black disease or a black illness, they're really using race as a proxy for geography.

And that goes for many illnesses or diseases that we think about as being racialized. Black Americans are more likely to die of almost everything than white Americans. The life expectancy of a black American is lower than a white American. It is perverse to assume that this must be genetic. Are black Americans so genetically disadvantaged that even infant mortality would be higher in black Americans? It just doesn't make any sense. In the U.K., where I live, we see this life expectancy gap between the rich and the poor. It is exactly the same in America, but in America, it is treated as racial because socioeconomic circumstances run along racial lines.

The inscription in your book reads, "For my parents, the only ancestors I need to know." What does that mean?

Well, that kind of is a joke at ancestry-testing companies — when they tell us that you can find out who you are descended from, thousands of generations back, to your "actual ancestors." One, you can't tell me who my actual ancestors are, because DNA testing cannot tell you that.

But secondly, why does it matter? Why is it so important to us to know who our distant ancestors were when we have people alive with us right now who can give us our culture, who give us our frameworks, who give us our sense of who we are, our sense of right and wrong, our place in the world?


[Race scientists] play on your sense of ethnicity or sense of origin story. They build up this image of you as being a biologically essential person, and that this ties you to this identity, and it becomes embedded in who you are.

And this is what ethnic nationalists do. They play on these assumptions and stereotypes and the lack of education that we have around these issues, and they make us believe that identity is biological, when identity is cultural.

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Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
Jess Kung
Jess Kung (they/them) is a production assistant on Code Switch. Previously, they interned with Code Switch and the podcast The Document from KCRW in Santa Monica. They are a graduate of Long Beach State University.
Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.