Race, journalism and the blogosphere: Part 1 in a series

BlogHer Original Post

Earlier this month, Laina wrote about the sometimes acrimonious conversations about race in the blogosphere. As a student of the way race is reported in journalism, I submit that one of the reasons it's so hard to have informed and civil discussions about this issue on blogs is that even well-intentioned journalists report on racial issues in a way that sheds more heat than light. Over the last few weeks, I've been looking to social science research, news reports and bloggers who help clear away the fog.

The sociologist Andrew Hacker once said that every American can write a book about race, and I have no doubt that's true. Arguably, the story of race in the Western Hemisphere, and in the US particularly, is the wedge between who we are and who we say we want to be. Civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King were very shrewd about highlighting that gap in his speeches and marches, and the press depictions of that Movement pricked the American conscience so deeply that a change in laws, at least, became inevitable. Since then, though, the press' picture of racial issues has become increasingly fragmented, muddled, and social scientists say, distorted in dangerous ways.

Start with the fact that we still don’t have clear definitions of what it means to be a member of a race. The American Association of Anthropologists declared in 1998 that the belief that there were biologically and culturally distinct “races� is an artifact of the rise of the ideology of white supremacy over the last several centuries in support of slavery, colonialism, and ultimately, Nazism.

Yet, race continues to be a powerful way of defining ourselves and others, and some scientists still argue for its use in medicine and public policy. In March, 2005, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by biologist Armand Marie Leroi contending that, “looked at the right way, genetic data show that races clearly do exist.� According to Leroi, improved medical care might be one of the benefits of looking at race the right way. For example, he says,

The risk that an African-American man will be afflicted with hypertensive heart disease or prostate cancer is nearly three times greater than that for a European-American man. On the other hand, the former's risk of multiple sclerosis is only half as great. Such differences could be due to socioeconomic factors. Even so, geneticists have started searching for racial differences in the frequencies of genetic variants that cause diseases. They seem to be finding them.

Leroi also lauded the development of medications targeted to specific ethnic groups, such as Bildil. But Dr. Roy M. Poser, of the blog Health Care Renewal, offers evidence that BilDil is not a medical breakthrough, gained approval after clinical trials that were badly designed, and has dangerous side effects that aren’t being explained to patients.

And sociologist Troy Duster, one of several scholars to respond to Leroi in an online forum organized by the Social Science Research Council, warned that Leroi’s argument was based on incomplete data and flawed reasoning: For example, while there are differences in the incidence and treatment outcomes for heart disease between people who identify racially as white or African Americans, no one knows what the differences really mean:

In presenting their justification for FDA approval of an ethnic/race-specific drug, the company (NitroMed) [HN4] announced, "The African American community is affected at a greater rate by heart failure than that of the corresponding Caucasian population. African Americans between the ages of 45 and 64 are 2.5 times more likely to die from heart failure than Caucasians in the same age range" (6).

However, both age and survey population complicate this picture. The age group 45 to 64 only accounts for about 6% of heart failure mortality, and for those over 65, the statistical differences between "African Americans and Caucasians" nearly completely disappear (7). Researchers recently published a study that was explicitly designed to compare racial differences, by sampling whites from eight surveys completed in Europe, the United States, and Canada and contrasting these results with those of a sample of three surveys among blacks from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States (8). Hypertension rates were measured in 85,000 subjects. The data from Brazil, Trinidad, and Cuba show a significantly smaller racial disparity in blood pressure than is found in North America (8).[HN5]

Even within the category African American, the highly variable phenotype of skin color complicates the hypertension and race thesis. A classic epidemiological study on the topic also found differences within the African American population--with darker-skinned blacks generally having higher mean blood pressure than lighter-skinned blacks. The authors concluded that it was not the color of the skin that produced a direct causal outcome in hypertension, but that darker skin color in the United States is associated with less access to scarce and valued resources of the society. There is a complex feedback loop and interaction effect between phenotype and social practices related to that phenotype (4, 9).

The discovery of “racial� disparities in medicine, Duster concludes, should prompt a search for the more precise information about the biological and social factors that are really at work. So when journalists report on something such as the BilDil story, it’s important to clarify that there are very real questions about the scientific rationale for the use of such medications.

At the same time, it makes sense for journalists and health educators to use commonly-understood racial categories in stories about what people who see themselves as members of particular racial groups can do about their health care. In other words, if I identify myself as black, I should necessarily be asking for Bildil, but I should be aware of the importance of being my own health care advocate, since studies show that physicians are less likely to recommend aggressive diagnosis and treatment for people who look like me. That’s part of the reason why the health education and advocacy work of groups such as the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health is so important.

All of this points to a larger set of issues with regard to the role that the media can play in advancing or retarding the quest for racial equality. For insight into those issues, it’s time to turn to the work of Oscar Gandy, who recently retired from the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications. Gandy, a noted scholar on race and media, contends that it is through the media system – in which he includes journalism, advertising, the entertainment industry and yes, even us those of us who work in "new media" – "that the structural influence of racism is maintained."

I’ll try to explain why he says that, and what it means for us, in my next post.

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