The Politics of Biology and Race in the Twenty-First Century


In 2000, Craig Ventner, Head of Celera Genomics and a lead scientist in the Human Genome Project, declared that "race is a social concept, not a scientific one," based on an analysis of the genomes of five people.

Of course, his proclamation did little to remove perceptions of racial difference from society, and in fact, some argue, the genetic analysis of race has sparked a new form of racial politics in America.

“The Politics of Biology and Race in the 21st Century,” a Matrix-funded seminar, is examining the question of whether biotechnologies have not overcome, but rather have reinforced the concept of race as a biological category. The seminar is drawing upon theories and methods from both ethnic studies and public health, two traditionally disconnected fields of study in which race and racism are frequently discussed.

“Contrary to popular belief, race has become the center of political inquiry, albeit genetically,” explained Tala Khanmalek, a Ph.D. candidate in the Ethnic Studies Department, in her proposal for the seminar. “The hope is that this collaboration will lead to a critical intervention in biopolitics, both theoretically and practically…. Ethnic Studies offers qualitative theories of race and racism as a social formation that intersects with other axes of difference such as gender and sexuality. Public Health offers quantitative methods of measuring determinants of health and analyzing data.”

Beyond genomics, the seminar may also explore questions related to social inequalities, state intervention, criminalization, and surveillance. Among the questions to be raised:

  • How can race-based genetic variation continue to determine race as a scientific truth, without the stigma of racism?
  • How does the renewed relationship between race and biology provide a modern mechanism for maintaining the “racial order”?
  • How does the new racial politics neutralize science and elide the material impacts of racism in society?
  • How can we advance an anti-racist method of study in Public Health that relates racial disparities to social inequalities, rather than biological difference?

The seminar is bringing together graduate students and faculty from the UC Berkeley Department of Ethnic Studies and the School of Public Health. Among the other researchers expected to participate are Keith Feldman, Professor, Department of Ethnic Studies; Mahasin Mujahid, Professor, Department of Epidemiology; Irene Headen, Graduate Student, Department of Epidemiology; and Emon Elboudwarej, a Graduate Student from the Department of Epidemiology.