ASPE Webinar Review

The Social Construction of Race and its Impact on Medicine and Biomedical Research by John Chenault, PhD

By Dan Brown, Emory University

As mentioned in my recap of the opening plenary from the 2020 ASPE virtual conference, Dr. Chenault had to rush through the end of his plenary speech “Medicine and the Black Body,” and attendees were hungry for more, so as we’d hoped, he was invited to do a webinar. The webinar took place on Oct. 30, 2020, and the full webinar is available at the ASPE site. The discussion centered on three questions: What is race? What does medicine and biomedical research tell us about race? How useful are racial categories in biomedical research and practice?

In the first part, Dr. Chenault covered some of the ideas from his plenary from different angles. In the plenary, he focused on the ancestry laws established in antebellum America. In the webinar, he focuses on the “one drop rule,” and the absurdity of the notion of blood having any racial variation. He outlined numerous other scientific theories that shaped ideas about race, which all seem absurd today, yet their impact is still felt in the many ways society (and medicine) make racial distinctions derived from these theories.

For the second part, Dr. Chenault outlined various studies that illustrate how useless racial identification is in medicine and science; that biological differences exist at the individual level, not at the level of societal racial groupings. He illustrated through census findings over the years that many individuals changed their self-identified race over time, further illuminating the arbitrary nature of racial definitions. Yet, Dr. Chenault has found through his own research of reviewing PubMed articles, that the body of work dependent on study of racial differences has increased in the past few decades.

Finally, he introduced data on the health disparities by race, including disparities in COVID-19 outcomes, and all the different ways these disparities negatively impact society. The hope is that by combating the belief that there are medically meaningful racial differences, we can eliminate these health disparities.

ASPE members and non-members can see the full webinar (and previous ASPE webinars) here:

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