Saturday, September 19, 2020

Black History Month Series: Science

By Angela Carroll

This is the second in a series of submissions for February’s Black History Month concerning the issues of race here and beyond.

In conversations and education around race, it is important to have an understanding of terminology and a strong foundation of what is factual. Many people continue to erroneously believe that there is a biological or genetic distinction between “races.” The concept of race is a social construct and political tool created to classify humans on distinct physical characteristics like skin color, eye shape and hair texture.

In the past, pseudoscientific arguments about biological differences were used to define race classification, including linking intelligence and aptitude with physical characteristics. These arguments, devoid of scientific evidence, were then used to justify historic events like the slave trade, the eugenics movement and the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews. In the history of our nation, race was a tool used to justify the theft of land, the expansion of power and the oppression of indigenous and African peoples—essentially people with brown or black skin. It was taught under the guise of science that Anglo peoples were genetically superior to other humans and therefore had the means to justify their end. The scientifically unfounded construct of race was an abomination of humanity and led to a tragic and bloody history with the desecration of people of color.

Genetically speaking, populations of the human species are remarkably similar to one another, sharing an estimated 99.9 percent of DNA. The greatest genetic differences are found between individuals within a population as opposed to individuals within different populations. For example, two people of European descent may be more genetically similar to an Asian person than they are to each other. The observable physical traits of an individual are called a phenotype. These physical traits are influenced by the set of genes (the genotype) passed down from parents as well as the environment.

In the eighth edition of Anatomy and Physiology by Kenneth Saladin, it is stated that “Environmental UV levels account for up to 77 percent of the variation in human skin color.” All humans have around the same number of melanocytes, which are the specialized cells that produce the two types of the pigment melanin, either darkish brown or reddish. There are other pigments that play roles in our physiology, but melanin is mainly responsible for giving humans variations in skin, eye and hair color. Melanin production in skin cells is triggered by UV rays in sunlight.

Human variations do have a connection to the geographical origins of an individual’s ancestors. Populations native to the tropics and their decedents have well-melanized skin, an adaptation to protect skin from excessive UV radiation. Populations at far northern and southern latitudes, where sunlight is weak, tend to have light skin, with less melanin production, to allow for adequate UV penetration.

This amazing little pigment sits on the top of the cell, effectively acting as an umbrella to the nucleus, helping to protect one’s DNA. This same pigment provides the variations of skin, fur, feather and eye color throughout the animal kingdom. Understanding that shared pigments in various color hues and quantities are the reason for our physical differences, is the kind of knowledge that can counter racial indoctrination.

The concepts of race and ethnicity have highly impacted human experience and history. These constructs promote racism, where someone is judged by physical, ethnic or social characteristics. Racial and ethnic prejudices have, historically and currently, affected the distribution of wealth, power and opportunity. It is most often people of color who are the marginalized groups and experience discrimination, social exclusion, violence and persecution. I use the term “people of color” not in reference to any real biological or scientific distinction between people, but to identify the group of people with the shared common experience of being targeted and oppressed by racism.

Although slavery has been abolished in this nation for 155 years, it has been only 56 years since the Civil Rights Act superseded all state and local segregation laws. There are deep divides in our institutional and societal systems that still remain and leave disparities in the equity for all people. A multitude of our nation’s current events in the last few years highlight these deep divides. Racism continues to negatively impact lives throughout America and the world.

Even now when it is commonly taught and believed that physical differences are to be accepted, there remains the underlying theme that white is “normal” and “right” and everything else is different but that is okay. There is no “right” way to be human. Physical characteristics are dictated by DNA and influenced by the environment. Human DNA has no variable indication of race or ethnicity. We have different physical traits by chance, ancestry and adaptation. We are different because the way our bodies were made to work is astounding.

Physical traits should not lead to disparities or advantageous opportunities. If race is not a factor that has affected your life, then you most likely have the privilege of being white. It is important to know and recognize our history. It is essential to understand how and why our bodies work. It is imperative to see that judgment of an individual by skin color is the same as judging by eye color. It is necessary to use knowledge and privilege as a catalyst for change. I hope 2020 brings vision that is not colorblind but full of clarity.

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