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Race is a notion more than a fact, but it's a notion that exerts a powerful cultural influence. This was the message delivered by five MIT professors in a panel session at Milton Academy on Feb. 3.
The private residential school invited MIT's Committee on Campus Race Relations to present "Race: Biology and Learned Experience," after an affiliate of the school saw a similar presentation at MIT in 2003. Both panels were organized by Lily Burns, who serves as staff associate on the committee.
"Race is a word. It's an idea. And it's a powerful idea. It makes many of us behave as if races exist," Professor of Anthropology Jean Jackson told the audience. "In anthropology we call it a social construct--something that was built, fabricated, constructed in a given society. But more often, people claim that race is biological."
"Here's the confusion: in fruit flies the genes determine eye color; in humans the genes determine eye color. In fruit flies the genes determine what and how they behave, so we assume--incorrectly--it must be genes that determine how humans behave," said Jonathan A. King, professor of biology.
"In many species, food choice is genetically determined. The young don't learn it from their mommies; it's hard-wired into them," King said. He then described how the English, Irish, French and Spanish had changed their eating habits within a year after the outbreak of mad cow disease. "I will tell you that there's no possibility that such rapid behavioral change could have been due to a change in the genes of the Brits or the French."
History professor Christopher Capozzola described legal confusion about race.
"Questions of race affected not only African-Americans but others as well, particularly those from Asia, who were excluded by law from American naturalization from 1790 to 1942. As courts confronted immigrants' claims of citizenship, they had to rely on their own understandings of race. But sometimes this proved of no use," he said.
"When courts had to decide if immigrants from India were white, they gave the following answers: In 1909, probably not; 1910, white; 1913, white again; 1917, not white; 1919, white; 1923, not white; 1928, still not white; 1939, definitely not white; 1942, absolutely, positively not white. So much for the immutability of racial categories," Capozzolla said.
"If you go to Africa, some of the people we call black would be called white," said Jackson. "In Colombia where I work in the northwest Amazon, there are 'blacks' in this little town who are called 'white,' because there the division is not black/white. It's Indian/white and everybody who is non-Indian is a white."
Ceasar McDowell, professor of urban studies and planning, warned of resisting the notion of "different."
Referring to students he taught at a Boston-area college, he said, "They had spent most of their lives saying, 'Hey, I'm American. I may be white, but it's not a cultural thing.' And so it became really hard for them to identify with people who kept framing their life experience in terms of culture. They'd say, 'Well look, if black people are having such a hard time, just forget about culture. We don't have a culture and we're doing just fine.'
"And this has become the dominant dialogue about race in this country--that we just need to forget about it. It doesn't really exist. It's an illusion. So you have this history of racial groups finding their voice in the public life by using collective action. You have white people resisting it and then, every now and then, people come to meetings like this and they talk about race and then we go back into our groups and do our thing."
History professor Jeffrey Ravel moderated the event, attended by more than 700 high school students, faculty and parents. Attendance was mandatory for the students, who had watched portions of the four-part PBS series "Race: The Power of Illusion" beforehand. Their teachers will devote class time to further discussion of the issues.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 11, 2004.