Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fairness vs Injustice

Issues of race, gender, and ethnicity have been a hot issue in recent weeks. Many in the media are writing about whether the election of Barack Obama represents the beginning of a "post-racial" America. This notion, that race no longer defines a person's status and trajectory, is in theory interesting but in reality serves only to further marginalize those who suffer under the yoke of injustice. The very fact that it is such a big deal to elect an African American president speaks to the fact that we have not come as far as many seem to hope. 

Race and ethnicity have always been tricky and taboo subjects not only in the U.S. but around the world. Most people take race as a given category that people fit into, largely ignorant of the fact that races and ethnicities are socially constructed. By socially constructed I am referring to their origin in the historical context in which the categories are created and then changed over time. For example, in many countries in Latin America, race is viewed extremely differently. In some countries there are fifty or more gradations of perceived ethnicity on a spectrum of white, black, and indigenous. In many of these countries, while skin color is taken into account, other factors like wealth, dress, and social status serve to determine a person's "true" ethnicity.

We often lose sight that when we talk about someone being African-American or White, that these categories lack real meaning and are just the most current incarnation of labels. To try to homogenize such diverse groups of peoples into simple categories often leads to spurious assumptions. For example, the issue of hypertension in African Americans is often tied to a variety of things, from genetics to adaptive selection during slavery. However, these simple notions break apart when we understand that genetic differences between any two given African Americans are larger than between any given African American and a person of any other race. We know definitively that the genes that affect skin color have nothing to do with hypertension, particularly on the large scale that is proposed. However, social forces have been found to be the most likely candidate for being the reason for higher rates of hypertension. Feelings of stress/anxiety and perceptions of discrimination have been found to play a major role in creating higher rates of hypertension among almost all populations. This has been found to be particularly true among African Americans. I don't for a moment want to imply that just because these categories are socially created that they do not have power. They have real power in how people are treated, how they are perceived, and even how they perceive themselves. However, their overwhelming power does not mean that knowing they are socially constructed is fruitless. It allows for a better understanding of what can and must be done to bring about a more just and equitable system.  

I don't want any of the above to take away from the overwhelming happiness I feel about Barack Obama being elected President, but we have to keep in mind the vast inequities suffered by African Americans and other marginalized populations. There is much work to be done, and understanding where we stand is a good place to start.

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