Racial Projects and the Wizardry of Oz
Tags: biology, health/medicine, inequality, knowledge, prejudice/discrimination, race/ethnicity, science/technology, social construction, theory, fallacy of reification, racial formation, racial project, scientific racism, slave hypothesis, 00 to 05 mins
Summary: When discussing racial inequality in my introductory sociology course I make it a point to cover Omi and Winant's notion of a racial formation as resulting from historically situated racial projects wherein "racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed" (p. 55-56). These projects take multiple forms but in at least one version, there is an attempt to collapse race—a socially constructed concept—into biology. Such projects are similar insofar as they suggest that the socially constructed distinctiveness between people of different racial categories roughly approximates a meaningful biological distinctiveness. Scientists have been centrally involved in this effort to "find" a biological basis for race. Thus in the middle of the 19th century Dr. Samuel Morton attempted to establish that on average cranial capacities of different races were measurably different. While the cranium is no longer scrutinized in this way, the search for a biological, and therefore "natural," basis for race continues. In 1988 Dr. Clarence Grim put forth what is now known as the "slave hypothesis," which is the idea that the enslaved people who survived the Middle Passage were more likely to be carriers of a gene that allowed them to retain salt. Grim argued that this ability to retain salt, while necessary for surviving the harsh conditions on slave ships, is now proving to be the leading cause for higher rates of hypertension among African Americans. This theory has been soundly refuted but apparently still remains in many hypertension textbooks, and in 2007, the medical celebrity, Dr. Oz, promoted the idea to an audience of about 8 million people on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The clip above is from January of this year and is yet another instance of him promoting the theory. Coupled with the recent introduction of BiDil as an FDA approved treatment of heart failure for African Americans, sociologists have taken note of this slipperiest of slides down the slope of "deploying racial categories as if they were immutable in nature and society" (see Troy Duster's article in Science). The clip offers an excellent opportunity for students to discuss the persistence of this racial project, the involvement of science in this project, and how these ideological articulations might serve to provide a justification for continued inequality.
Submitted By: Lester Andrist
3/20/2012 11:28:30 am
Excellent summary. This is an important topic that has great significance in the effort to educate individuals about essentialist and constructivist definitions of race. I believe Mr. Andrist chose an excellent contemporary example in Dr. Oz and his coverage of salt retention in A. Americans.
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