Applying Anthropology - Race Becomes Biology

Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied

Update 2017: See Dr. Dhruv Khullar’s article How Prejudice Can Harm Your Health for a great overview and update. Unfortunately the article discussed here on “How race becomes biology: Embodiment of social inequality” (Gravlee 2009) went unacknowledged, even though the findings are very similar. But thanks to Dr. Khullar for a quick response!

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.

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. For additional resources see Teaching Race Anthropologically. See also the 2013 edited volume Anthropology of Race: Genes, Biology, and Culture for some of the latest research, featuring an article by Gravlee.

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.

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

2017: See DeMoss, Lessye Joy. 2017. “Misconceptions about Health Disparities in the US.” Anthropology News website, April 19, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.407.
2013: Yes, let’s talk about race and IQ by sociologist Lisa Wade provides an update on many of these issues, with specific reference to Jason Richwine’s suggestion of an irremediable IQ gap. Wade’s discussion of cultural factors in IQ tests but reverberating through issues of social inequality closely parallels this outline.

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, 2013. “Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied.” Living Anthropologically website, Last updated 3 June 2017.

Post Comment 10 comments on “Race Becomes Biology, Inequality Embodied

  • Marquis on


    1. Jason Antrosio on

      Thank you, I hope so!

  • Marmalade on

    There is one extremely good example of how social influences and other environmental conditions become biologically real. That example is epigenetics.

    Consider that the black population in the US has continuously experienced racial biases in various forms for upwards of twenty generations. The probability of there being multiple epigenetic effects involved is highly probable, and it is presently unknown how many further generations these effects would continue even if all racism were to end at this very moment.

    On top of that, there are the other biological results. There are the immediate health effects, even excluding epigenetics.

    I was glad to see you mention lead toxicity. This is found in higher rates among blacks. Besides stunted brain development and lowered IQ, it is a known direct cause of aggressive behavior, impaired impulse control, and numerous physical health problems.

    The externalized costs of this lead toxicity is beyond measure. It’s not just lives destroyed but immense human potential that is wasted, potential that not only would have improved individual lives but would have improved families, communities, and all of society. Generations of such externalized costs accumulate and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I also suspect that, like so much else, lead toxicity would likely have epigenetic effects. We’d need to wait at least a few generations to know what is the real potential that is destroyed by way of such negative conditions. Until then, speculating on innate population differences is pure ignorance. More important than the genetics people have are how individual genes get expressed or not, depending on specific environmental conditions and the multigenerational carryover.

    All of these confounding factors become conflated with race. So, we obsess about race in order to avoid facing difficult problems of public health, education, poverty, inequality, etc. This article covers a lot of territory and still much gets left out, because reality is more complex than we presently understand. Most confounding factors are probably beyond our present knowledge.

    1. Jason Antrosio on

      Hi, thank you for a great comment which really adds a lot. I can only very much agree. I do hope that given human biological plasticity, the effects of toxic racism may be undone in fewer generations than you indicate, but that would take a concerted intervention in public health and education, which we don’t seem to be making strides toward.

      1. Marmalade on

        I’d like to think that it could be undone in fewer generations. Our knowledge, although still in its infancy, is expanding quickly. We might discover easy and inexpensive ways to reverse epigenetic effects for large populations.

        1. Jason Antrosio on

          Definitely a lot to understand here. I’ll note that just now over at the Mermaid’s Tale they seem to be launching a series on epigenetics. Very interesting!

      2. Marmalade on

        There is a note of optimism in my view. The amount of stunted human development and wasted human potential is immense. If we were to encourage, support, and promote development and potential instead, the transformation of society could be miraculous. We are confronting the possibility of generations and centuries of continuous massive improvements and progress of the likes never before seen in history. That is if we choose this path.

        1. Jason Antrosio on

          Thank you, that is a needed optimistic perspective!

  • Thejerk on

    Oh please, if you can say race is only a social construct, you can’t be taken seriously. Try to get out more.

    1. Jason Antrosio on

      Dude, “Thejerk” you are the one who needs to get out more. You have no idea what social scientists mean when they talk about social constructs. Seriously.

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