Category Archives: science

White People Swim, and Black People Run? Race, Science, and Athletics

by Latoya Peterson

phelps swimSo I am up at five, again, but this time for a good cause. The Takeaway (NYC) is hosting a show on a new study that is causing tongues to wag:

Biomechanical researchers analysed 100 years of athletes’ heights, weights and running and swimming records, and demonstrated how the placement of one’s center of gravity affects one’s athletic performance. No big deal, right? People got jumpy, however, when the International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics published the paper: “The Evolution of Speed in Athletics: Why the Fastest Runners are Black and Swimmers are White.”

We talk with two of the scientists behind the study: Dr. Adrian Bejan of Duke University and Edward Jones, of Howard University, about why their team embarked on this project, the science enlisted in their research, and the specifics of the study’s outcomes.

We also talk with Latoya Peterson of Racialicious.com about why these sorts of studies make so many people squeamish, and whether, in a post-racial society, it makes sense to conduct studies on groups of people based on shared physical characteristics. What’s your take? Are race-based studies inherently racist?

The show is live at 6 AM ET – or, you can listen to the podcast and comment here a bit later in the day.

Update:

Just finished the show, and, as usual, the supertight constraints of radio mean a lot was left unsaid. Continue reading

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

A post at the Pursuit of Harpyness alerted us to a new book on race and bioethics: Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  The following is from Skloot’s website:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge—became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons—as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the effects of the atom bomb; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.

Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave…

Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a multimillion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family—past and present—is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.

Continue reading

Did Darwin Have a Different Motivation For Creating the Theory of Evolution?

by Latoya Peterson

Reader Elton sent in an intriguing article from The UK’s Telegraph. The headline says it all:

    Charles Darwin’s research to prove evolution was motivated by his desire to end slavery.

The piece explains:

Science historians Adrian Desmond and James Moore have compiled compelling new evidence which reveals Darwin was passionately opposed to slavery and this was the moral impetus behind his work.

Private notes and letters uncovered by the pair reveal that Darwin’s opinions on slavery were far stronger than had previously been believed.

Notebooks from his five year voyage on HMS Beagle, during which Darwin first began to form his famous theories on natural selection, detail his revulsion at the slavery he witnessed in South America.

The historians have also discovered letters written by Darwin’s sisters, cousins and aunts that reveal the family as highly active abolitionists. Darwin’s grandfather and uncles were also key members of the anti-slavery movement.

The pair claim in a new book that Darwin partly chose to highlight the common descent of man from apes to show that all races were equal, as a rebuttal to those who insisted black people were a different, and inferior, species from those with white skin.

When Elton sent in the link, he noted:

    A big theory of mine is that the whole “intelligent design”/natural selection debate is deeply rooted in the struggle between those who would seek to extend the white Christian hegemony and those who would seek to dismantle it through science. Unfortunately, the media always portrays it as some dense philosophical debate, without any implications for social power structures.

Thoughts?

The elephant in the living room

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

In its current issue, Greater Good magazine ponders “Are we born racist?” and in the article “Look Twice,” Susan T. Fiske, Ph.D., Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, offers some bad news and good news:

Most people think they’re less biased than average. But just as we can’t all be better than average, we can’t all be less prejudiced than average. Although the message—and the success so far—of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign suggests an America that is moving past traditional racial divisions and prejudices, it’s probably safe to assume that all of us harbor more biases than we think.

Science suggests that most of us don’t even know the half of it. A 20-year eruption of research from the field of “social neuroscience” reveals exactly how automatically and unconsciously prejudice operates. As members of a society with egalitarian ideals, most Americans have good intentions. But new research suggests our brains and our impulses all too often betray us. That’s the bad news.

But here’s the good news: More recent research shows that our prejudices are not inevitable; they are actually quite malleable, shaped by an ever-changing mix of cultural beliefs and social circumstances. While we may be hardwired to harbor prejudices against those who seem different or unfamiliar to us, it’s possible to override our worst impulses and reduce these prejudices. Doing so requires more than just good intentions; it requires broad social efforts to challenge stereotypes and get people to work together across group lines. But a vital first step is learning about the biological and psychological roots of prejudice.

Modern prejudice

Here’s the first thing to understand: Modern prejudice is not your grandparents’ prejudice.

Old-fashioned racism and sexism were known quantities because people would mostly say what they thought. Blacks were lazy; Jews were sly; women were either dumb or bitchy. Modern equivalents continue, of course—look at current portrayals of Mexican immigrants as criminals (when, in fact, crime rates in Latino neighborhoods are lower than those of other ethnic groups at comparable socioeconomic levels). Most estimates suggest such blatant and wrongheaded bigotry persists among only 10 percent of citizens in modern democracies. Blatant bias does spawn hate crimes, but these are fortunately rare (though not rare enough). At the very least, we can identify the barefaced bigots.

Our own prejudice—and our children’s and grandchildren’s prejudice, if we don’t address it—takes a more subtle, unexamined form. Neuroscience has shown that people can identify another person’s apparent race, gender, and age in a matter of milliseconds. In this blink of an eye, a complex network of stereotypes, emotional prejudices, and behavioral impulses activates. These knee-jerk reactions do not require conscious bigotry, though they are worsened by it.

Continue reading

New study: biracial asian-americans are more likely to be sad

by Special Correspondent Thea Lim

biracial star trek 1

Do you remember last last week’s Freakonomics study that claimed biracial black/white kids were liable to be twice as messed up as kids who were monoracially black or white?Apart from the racist generalisations of that study, some of our readers (including myself) were peeved at the insinuation that the only kind of biraciality that exists is the black/white kind. But good news everybody: there’s now a study for Asian/white biracials too!

Biracial Asian-Americans are twice as likely as monoracial Asian-Americans to be diagnosed with a psychological disorder, U.S. researchers said.

At first glance, this study seems to be treading the same problematic lines as the Freakonomics study. Like, call us crazy (haha!), but us biracial Asian Americans don’t like being told by a researchers that we’re twice as likely to be bananas as our monoracial Asian friends and relatives.

But take a closer look:

Among the biracial individuals in their national survey the researchers found 34 percent had been diagnosed with a psychological disorder — such as anxiety, depression or substance abuse — compared to 17 percent of monoracial individuals.

Considering that many biracial folk from a wee age have to put up with a lot of nonsense from families, both communities of colour AND white folk, and just society in general, it doesn’t surprise me if researchers find we experience higher levels of unhappiness.

If you ask me, there are two problems with the way this study has been described. One has to do with the way we talk about mental health, and the other has to do with confusing nature with nurture.

Continue reading

White Men Can’t Jump, or Run, Some Say

by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem

Dancing. Singing. Running.

These are just a few of the areas in which blacks are supposed to excel. With the Olympics in session, interest in blacks’ so-called prowess in the last of the trio above has been renewed.

Slate.com is a case in point. In the site’s “Explainer” section, the following question was posed: Why are Jamaicans So Good at Sprinting?

Slate answered the question by citing studies that found that West Africans tend to have higher numbers of muscle fibers responsible for “short, explosive bursts of action” than whites do—an advantage in running competitions. It also included this nugget of information:

“So far, there is no evidence that even extensive training can turn slow-twitch muscles into fast-twitch ones, though moving in the other direction is possible.”

In short, white folks don’t stand a chance against those of West African descent in track and field events. Even if they work hard, they can’t develop the innate skills that blacks have in the sport. Continue reading