In October, California voters did something that will have long-term ramifications for their state. No, we're not talking about the election of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the rejection of Proposition 54, which would have voided requirements for government-affiliated programs to record the race of participants. Medical groups and physicians had claimed that the measure would have blocked doctors from tracking and treating diseases that afflict various racial groups differently. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. surgeon general, even described the vote as a "life-and-death decision" in a television ad.
The article by Michael J. Bamshad and Steve E. Olson in this month's issue ["Does Race Exist?"] calls into question Koop's dire assertion. Commonly used racial and ethnic categories (such as "African-American," "white" and "Hispanic") are often meaningless when it comes to determining a person's DNA makeup. Genetics can be used to sort most people roughly into categories according to the geographic region where they were born, but populations that are the result of recent migrations and that have had a great deal of intermixing--such as those in South India and the U.S.--cannot be neatly parsed. Self-described African-Americans, for example, can have anywhere between 20 and 100 percent genetic heritage from Africa, whereas 30 percent of Americans who consider themselves "white" have less than 90 percent European ancestry.
This article was originally published with the title Racing to Conclusions.