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Race Race (Shea Walsh)

This hour of Radiolab, a look at race. 

When the human genome was first fully mapped in 2000, Bill Clinton, Craig Venter, and Francis Collins took the stage and pronounced that "The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis." Great words spoken with great intentions. But what do they really mean, and where do they leave us? Our genes are nearly all the same, but that hasn't made race meaningless, or wiped out our evolving conversation about it.


Ali Abbas, Dr. Jay Cohn, Richard Cooper, Troy Duster, Tony Frudakis, Malcolm Gladwell, Nell Greenfieldboyce, Wayne Joseph and David Sherrin

Race Doesn't Exist. Or Does It?

Tony Frudakis and his company DNA Print Genomics believe they can identify hair, eye, and skin color and point to the genetic ancestry of test subjects by scanning their DNA. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce goes to investigate, using a sample of Jad's DNA to find out what they could discover. ...

Comments [50]

Race and Medicine

BiDil was the first drug approved by the FDA for a specific racial group. We want to know what the ramifications are for using skin color as a diagnostic tool for diseases and disorders that can't be seen. Producer Soren Wheeler talks to Dr. Jay Cohn, developer of BiDil ...

Comments [15]

Can You See Race?

Teacher David Sherrin presents an exercise called "Sorting People" to his 9th graders at the Facing History School. The outcome? Well, have a listen. How accurately can you guess a person's background from their appearance? Reporter Ali Abbas takes us to Baghdad, where that question has become an issue ...

Comments [18]

Comments [83]



Aug. 28 2017 09:42 AM
Austin from Washington, DC

I was a bit disappointed with this episode. Some topics were great. I appreciated the discussion of the historical waves of races entering the US and the optimistic view. However, black people were here at the founding of this nation, and still we don't see past skin color. I believe that many of the waves dealt in differing degrees of "whiteness". It is far easier to see someone as the "other" when there is a marked difference in appearance and a lack of our ability to fold the "other" into our society is, and has been, a problem. As time marches on, we have actually seen re-segregation of certain populations from one another.

Dec. 19 2016 12:08 PM
Claire Richard from Wolfeboro NH

I was very interested in the fact that your genes can alter so much and even the fact that there is a 'race gene' is very eye opening. I would be interested in finding out my own true racial back ground of my family. This made me wonder many things about my own family ancestry

Oct. 26 2016 10:34 PM

I was so disappointed by this podcast and felt very unsettled when it ended.

Aug. 22 2016 03:40 PM

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around how race is defined for some time right now. My original understanding of race, was that it’s more of a social and political construct, wherein one person can choose to self identify as a particular race (given that they carry the cultural background for it). Yet, I keep seeing inconsistencies in this idea, because in the real world many are using blood as a weight for race. For example, in this episode, a man struggles with his identity as a black man because an ancestry test tells him that he has very little African blood. I don’t see how his cultural heritage should be called into question, simply because of the contents of his blood.
Similarly, in the “Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl” episode of More than Perfect, a man who is legally a part of a Cherokee tribe is downplayed by Jad, simply because his blood is only 2% Cherokee. I recall him saying, “Somehow that changes things”. Why is it that blood matters so much? My whole education has taught me that race is a social construct, yet, it seems that even the most liberal among us take the makeup of one’s blood into account. I don’t mean to single out Jad here, because I’ve seen similar gaffes from dozens of other equally bright individuals. The inconsistency in our definition for race ensures that this kind of thing will happen.
These inconsistencies worry me, because it seems that rather than moving away from a society where we perceive race as baggage that is thrown upon us by society, we’re beginning to look at it as something fully out of our control; determined by our DNA. This is reflected in stories such as that of Rachel Dolezal, who has been criticized by many for lying about her race in her time working for the NAACP. If one devotes their life and soul to the propagation of a culture with limited political power, why does it matter that they were born in a culture with more political power? Furthermore, Why does “purity” of race matter so much if we’re trying to move away from ideas as dangerous as Eugenics?

Jul. 15 2016 11:31 AM
PauL H from Paso Robles, CA

Not my favorite Radiolab podcast. A little sloppy: a topic that needed, but didn't get, careful terminology to avoid confusion and a topic that needed balance of viewpoints. Plus, it didn't seem to serve any useful purpose. But I won't throw the baby out with the bathwater, so hopefully the next Radiolab episode will be interesting and beneficial.

Also, It seems like I've heard parts of this before. Was this a repeat episode or a TAL adaptation?

Jul. 11 2016 09:20 PM

I am disgusted at the denial of Bidil to african americans with CHF based on the refusal to admit the racial differences in response to medication. This approach is already being made when it is reported that some ARB/ACE inhibitor, anti-hypertension medications, do not work as well on Black people as they do on caucasians. The bias and blatant racism is unbelievably appalling.

Jul. 11 2016 02:12 PM
Hope Ferguson from Saratoga Springs

Wayne Joseph looks like an East Asian man. The south probably just lumped East Asians into the great mass of "colored people" because they clearly are not white either.

Jul. 11 2016 01:44 PM

Paul, know your history. The reason why many people in India have dark skin IS because way back when someone was from the African continent. And note that referencing Wikipedia isn't really a good idea especially with this discussion:)

Jul. 11 2016 01:38 AM
Damva from Los Angeles

Listening to the show today was very frustrating- so, I had to turn it off. I thought you were going somewhere when talking about the "white" serial killer the police was looking for in Lafayette, Louisiana who actually turned out to be black. I thought that conversation would lead to the mixed race people in Louisiana who are black but who often look white or are considered to be of some other race. I'm from Louisiana and I come from a long line of people who look either white, black or in/ between and we are known as Creoles The BLACK classification comes from of course the one drop rule (please google if you don't know). So you have a bunch of people in Louisiana who look white or of mixed race but have "black" on the birth certificate or "negro" depending on how old one is. The same people also have dark skinned people in the family who would readily be called black. We have the same bloodlines. So in a family with the same parents, there could easily be a "black" looking child and a "white" looking child. To us, it was/is normal. So, what is race? Are we really "black" in Louisiana? Flip through an old black college year book from Xavier University of Louisiana let's say from the 30s 40s or 50s and you will see that many don't necessarily look black. It amazes me how I've never really heard anyone discuss in the mainstream or maybe I just missed this discussion. Are people, the scientific community, etc. trying to deny this fact because the issue of who's considered black or white in the United States is rooted in slavery?

Also, in today's report it was mentioned that you cannot tell what country someone is from with a DNA test. Well there is a company that can tell what country one is from with DNA called The company's been around for a few years and apparently can tell you what country and the tribe you may be from in the continent of Africa.

Jul. 11 2016 01:12 AM
Paul Hoffman from Los Angeles

Not all "blacks" are of African ancestry; some people from Southern India are as dark skinned as anyone from Africa. The now infamous children's book "Little Black Sambo" (see is the story of a young boy from India whose skin color is black. I think Wayne Johnson indicated that is ancestry included ancestors from India as well as Native Americans, which can well explain his skin complexion.

Jul. 10 2016 07:55 PM

Jul. 10 2016 12:46 PM
C M from amherst, ma

I am a big fan of the show. You're not often tone deaf. However, the intro of this episode depressed me, Why a change in DNA in "Chinese" people a "mistake"? I don't know if this is scientific talk, but for general audience, this shows implicit racism. It was unpleasant for me to then hear tthis genetic "mistake" kept being handed down. I'm not Chinese, but I am Aisan. According to this statement. I am carring this evolutionary "mistake". I expect higher standard in choices of language from Radiolab.

Jul. 09 2016 12:42 PM
John from us

So why were Ali Abbas and his friend and brother allowed to leave? You just left the story hanging.

And Malcolm Gladwell...ugh. Stopping by, talking lots, saying next to nothing. Not unlike his books.

Jul. 08 2016 05:14 PM

"Scull shapes are the same" completely incorrect. White sculls and black sculls are different in shape.

Jul. 07 2016 05:39 AM

The comment about "white" people not getting sickle cell anemia isn't even true. Sickle cell anemia and related diseases is common throughout the world where malaria is or was prevalent, including southern Europe like Greece. And why only mention ethnoracial differences in diet when exposure to racism/discrimination is known as a *major* stressor that affects health?

Mar. 07 2016 09:13 PM
Carl Wehden from London

The only thing I got from this podcast was that DNA likely only plays a minor role in racial differences. Perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree and there is something else at play here that is yet to be discovered and researched.

Mar. 03 2016 01:59 PM
eli from FL

The audio editing ruins the information provided in this audio. Please present peoples words as they are in context this just gives me a blinding headache. What's worse is I want to listen to it, shame.

Jul. 24 2015 04:07 AM
Frank from New York

Hands down this is my favourite podcast of all time. I recommend it to all my friends and they love it! At the same time, it's almost hilarious how badly you over use the looping of audio and it is excruciatingly annoying to listen to. Please give it a break, and thank you so much for creating such a brilliant podcast.

Feb. 26 2015 11:29 AM

This podcast was very interesting to listen to. I think it is interesting that there might actually be something called a race gene. I did not know that race may have a genetic or scientific basis. I thought it was also interesting that a serial killer was caught from a race gene.

Apr. 25 2014 11:32 PM

I found this podcast very interesting. The use of examples like the catching of a serial killer made this race gene seem incredibly important. They edited the podcast well so it kept you hooked.

Apr. 23 2014 04:27 PM

This was a very disappointing broadcast. It was an example of how race affects even how we talk about race. Okay, interview Dr. Collins. But what about interviewing African-American geneticists like Dr. Georgia Dunstan who has done more field work in this area than Collins. There are many other geneticists of major rank who have a lot to say on this topic.
Second, the BiDil case was presented from a one-sided perspective. I did a case study on the failure of the drug and interviewed physicians, venture capitalists and scientists. Let's start with the fact that the formulation was a combination of 2 drugs, already on the market as generics, and go from there. It's a great example of how not to market a drug.

I expect better from Radiolab. This show makes me question other reports.

Apr. 22 2014 01:20 PM

I found the Jamaican part entertaining and relatable because I'm Jamaican and when I go to track meets, most of my friends running are Jamaicans, however I am not good at running at all, I actually hate track and field with a passion.

Apr. 21 2014 09:28 PM

I found it interesting that many different physical qualities can be found from a human's genes. The most interesting part of this podcast is when they discuss how different races were formed. I think that most people want to know their race or ancestry but our race doesn't dictate who we are.

Apr. 21 2014 09:04 PM

I wonder what Gladwell thinks of China WRT running - you have a billion people, in a country with a regimented athletic program that is notorious for grooming potential athletic talent. Why is it that a country with a billion people, with a well funded, regimented Olympics program, can only produce one track and field star?

Apr. 21 2014 12:13 AM

Interestingly, Malcolm Gladwell has a significant measure of Black heritage. But instead of being seduced by him, you should have done more homework. See below. Race and genetics plays a huge part in sprinting.

Apr. 20 2014 07:56 PM
David from Arlington, MA

I'm wondering why Gladwell's segment gets a critical pass. At best it seems to bypass the issue. I'm not sure how many people could make a "personal choice" to run a 9.8 hundred or even under an 11.0 flat. The reductive conclusion, offered without support, that the superior athletes simply want it more, seems off-base and contrary to the experience of anyone who has competed. More disturbing is the implied corollary, that such successful athletes have fewer interests (or a less than full life). Dilettante thinking perhaps, also possibly not worthy of the show.

Apr. 19 2014 04:07 PM
Betsy Robinson from New York

See this blog from a doctor about why black people have high blood pressure:

When a culture has to deal with stress, blood pressure rises, according to Pamela Wible, MD

Apr. 19 2014 12:38 PM
Dorothy from Manhattan

Re - "How would my life be different if I'd known..."
This is a recurring theme in the Penelope Lively books -- I'm newly addicted (Through an interview on Fresh Air) and have so far read only 2 of her 2 dozen or so novels and have started a third. She's also written about 3 dozen children's books and a few non-fiction.
I commend her to you. And, btw, love your very interesting program.

Apr. 19 2014 12:30 PM
Mohamed Danish from Bangalore

For some reason, my explanation(I'm not a biologist), logically is -- Like every creature on our planet, our skin color has evolved over time to help camouflage better, which is why, arabs, though in a hot land aren't dark by default, their skin color approximates to the color of sand.

its the basic need of every creature(be it hunter, ir hunted) to blend into its environment.

Tanning - may be a biproduct with the body realizing the benefit of melanin -- otherwise, technically its bad to be dark in hot places as darker shades retain more heat.

Jan. 12 2014 07:44 AM
Vanessa from UMBC

Okay, so this one was definitely a very interesting and heated discussion about race taken from every single perspective. I have always been interested in the different sociocultural and biological phenomenon associated with race, so I wanted to research it for myself.
If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole thing, than we’re focusing a lot on race and biology. Here, we deconstructed the biological evidence that is claimed to be uniquely evident for every single ethnicity. The difficulty ensues, however, when we ask the question of whether genetic markers denoting race can be isolated. In 2000, Dr. J. Craig. Venter announced that there is no one gene that is responsible for making your racial identity. He goes on to say we all have at least 1,020 genes in common before we ever start to see any differences. The discovery of this idea was ground breaking; everyone received this information with a sense of sheepishness for having ever been convinced that we are all so fundamentally different. This is not to say that race in terms of skin color and hair texture cannot be found in DNA; we are simply noting that race in terms of culture and religion is not genetically fundamental.
Although there are some traits that can be found quite regularly across the board, Jad and Robert were careful to mention that we should not overgeneralize the physical traits of ethnics groups as the Nazis did the same thing with measuring skulls and correlating sizes to countries.
I definitely liked how they tracked down the actual genetics and percentages behind identifying one from a particular geographical region. However, I got the sense from Jad and Robert that they were rather skeptical of such a process’ validity, especially for a man who has been raised as an African American and told that he is actually a Native American man with no African history.
I’m a little skeptical about this myself, and I want to spend a little more time studying genetics and learning what percent accuracy it carries. How do the physiological traits of a particular race trend over time? What makes us have those specific characteristics to begin with? Do genetics play a part in the way we understand one another’s language?

Sep. 07 2013 07:03 AM

I love listening to Radiolab, but this episode posed a lot of problems for me, the biggest problem being how the word "race" is used. Race and ethnicity are two very different things and have different meanings depending on the context in which these words are used. In biological anthropology, the term race refers to genetically homogenous populations within species; with this understanding, there are no true races in the human species.

Yet obviously race is still used more commonly referring to general physical characteristics in groups of people that can be socially advantageous or disadvantageous. In the US, skin color is often the sole factor used to define someone's race. Ethnicity is one's unique ancestral origin, but is NOT the same as race, which I believe this particular episode does not make clear.

An important thing to keep in mind when speaking about race is that the concept is socially constructed and almost exclusively influenced by past colonial circumstances, preferring whiteness to other racial categories.
Race in cultures other than the US, however, are unique to the surrounding circumstances. Sometimes skin color has very little to do with it; socioeconomic status can mean more to a person's identity than skin color, make them more "white."

The biological similarities and differences mentioned in this episode, I believe, have more to do with social circumstances, for example, hypertension and preterm birth in Black Americans can be attributed to lifelong exposure to racism rather than a genetic predisposition.

So my problems with this episode stem from the misuse (or rather, the incomplete explanation) of the terms "race" and "ethnicity." For as long as the scientific community views race as something intrinsically biological, institutional racism will persist as excusable.

Jan. 16 2013 03:26 PM

@ DHiddy
Richie Spice - Youths Dem Cold

Oct. 18 2012 12:45 PM

Who is that dub/reggae song by?

Aug. 16 2012 10:55 PM
Tracy from New York City

I have a conundrum that I'd like some help solving Jad and here goes: If everyone came from Africa and then as our DNA gets reproduced we start picking interesting little misnomers that turn into the addition to that; if all of our DNA can be read the same for about 17 minutes, why don't EVERYONE have African in their DNA? In other words; why isn't those standards 17mins worth of Genes be the African background that we all share? Please share your thoughts.


Aug. 16 2012 04:35 PM
Olle from Stockholm, Sweden

Reply to Jeff from Denver:

[Is it possible that an error occurred 30 generations ago from an "A" to a "C", then lets say 20 generations ago that "C" is then copied erroneously back to an "A" (or something else) would that somehow erase the history? As in we wouldn't know that it was ever a "C"?]

Yes, that happens, though rarely. It's called a back-mutation, and is normally factored into genetic calculations. As you say, if you just have the sequence in front of you it's impossible to distinguish a back-mutation from a lack of a mutation to begin with.

Aug. 16 2012 05:04 AM
Mike from PS NW

I picked this topic to listen to because the subject interests me and I have a personal interest in it, in my heritage.

I would describe the experience of listening comparable to reading a book while patting your head with the other hand or drawing a circle 8 in the air in the midst of Times Square at high noon (or rush hour) whichever is busier (or noisier).

It didn't, doesn't work for me.

I probably won't repeat the experience.

Aug. 15 2012 08:04 PM

All I can say is that they took on a huge topic that deserves more than a month of discussion and they did their best.

Aug. 14 2012 02:01 PM

I really want to like Radiolab, but it's so overproduced and tarted up with sound effects and quick editing that I simply cannot listen to it.

Aug. 13 2012 07:19 PM
Raquel from Austin, Tx

Before I lesson to this episode i heard the 'commercial' for it on NPR. Define race. I wanted to give it a shot. To me race in Humans is=
Physical characteristics that represent a persons family heritage.
As a first generation American of a Mexican and a Colombian couple this definition makes sense to me.

Aug. 13 2012 01:57 PM
RichStine from USA/ Pittsburgh, PA

The most important role of race, in the USA, in the entire world, and even the universe as we know it, is human.

The human race is inexplicably fearful and simultaneously curious of itself.

We fear and hate our differences, however big, small, real or imagined they may be.
We also tend to celebrate differences, and covet them...however big, small, real or imagined they may be.

I enjoyed listening to this while driving around dropping off resumes and praying for job interviews. That process...the quest for employment...permitted me to see, in action, the human race in all its glorious humor, disappointment and humility.

I wonder what my genetic code would have to say of it all.


Aug. 13 2012 12:17 PM
John from Bklyn

In the classroom segment: "big Filipina nose" ?! Did he actually say that?! What is that supposed to mean?!

Aug. 12 2012 04:50 PM
Lish from Pennsylvania

Listening to the devices used by the Sunni and Shia friends to get through Baghdad reminded me of going to college in Belfast in the late 60s early 70s. We went to a Catholic college, but would change our names as we crossed the peace line because Gaelic names would be used by Catholics and would be an immediate identifier. And, hard as it is to believe, I had friends who claimed they could tell the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant just by appearance. In the U.S. I see the same petty prejudices that can mushroom into hate crimes and civil wars and that I had hoped humanity would one day outgrow. Plus ca change . . .

Aug. 12 2012 02:05 PM
Xuela from New York, NY

Facing History HS is not a charter, it's a regular public school.

Aug. 11 2012 06:02 PM

I wish you had pulled together the story of the black man who realized he had no Sub-Saharan African DNA and the story of BiDil. It makes sense to me that people with certain DNA would respond to certain drugs differently than others, however the first story points out the limitation of using our visual perceptions to correctly identify genetic differences. If the drug really does work better for people with certain genetic markers that are most common among people with African ancestry, the real trick is correctly identifying who has that ancestry.

Jul. 06 2012 03:03 PM
Josev from Vancouver

Your sound effects are gratuitous and annoying. Stick to the story, lose the gimmicks.

Jun. 29 2012 04:57 PM
Jeff from Denver

I have a questions regarding the "letter errors"

Is it possible that an error occurred 30 generations ago from an "A" to a "C", then lets say 20 generations ago that "C" is then copied erroneously back to an "A" (or something else) would that somehow erase the history? As in we wouldn't know that it was ever a "C"?

May. 21 2012 11:39 AM
Kelly from Denmark

Thank you SO much for this podcast. I use it in my biology lessons every year.

Apr. 30 2012 07:59 AM
George from Somerville, Mass.

"The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis." Except, of course, when it comes to skin color (kind of surprised nobody mentioned that), and skin color is how most of us experience race. As the "black" man who learned through genetic testing that he has no African heritage, one's color is a life-long, unchanging reality that can both subject one to prejudice and form a basis for constructing identity.

Sep. 17 2011 06:29 PM
Paul from Brooklyn

“Radiolab” is a lab; how we interact with the information are the lab results. The show pools points of view, throws those points up in the air like confetti and connects the dots before broadcasting an investigative celebration (which is roughly how we get Rorschachs and sparkling wine). It's a radio gift, and it's also a radio lab experiment--for the information to work properly we need to entertain it, and for more than the few minutes it takes to see if we already agree or not.

Having listened to this episode again, and having read some of the comments here, it seems several critiques of Radiolab's presentation want to engage race in a certain (and conclusive) way. Radiolab presents many great facts, but very rarely are these meant to amount to a strict conclusion. If you are certain about what race means (or "is")--and how it is different from ancestral heritage and ethnicity--well, it is likely you haven't listened to this episode, or that you haven't listened to it without the distracting ringing of strongly-held preconceptions. The episode shows that race is not anything strictly definable despite being such a strong social and visceral experience, and also that these experiences have some roots in biology. This is not something to entirely agree with or disagree with in the conventional sense because it's not quite a conclusion, it's a description (and, as far as I can tell, an accurate one). It would make more sense to object to the dearth of diverse terminology (like "ethnicity") than to how "race" is represented at a given time in the episode. This is just one of the reasons why Radiolab doesn't talk down or up: we are tacitly asked to pick up where experts and geniuses leave off.

I guess it just seems beside the point to object to Radiolab's unclear and incomplete representation of race. Any clear presentation would be inaccurate. In short, Radiolab provides descriptions; it is up to all of us to be clearer about what race is.

Mar. 08 2011 03:10 AM
Paul from Brooklyn

Perhaps I am being simplistic, but couldn't we abandon race as a concept in favor of more precisely accurate words like ethnicity and ancestral heritage?

This episode shows that when we assess physical characteristics, they do not have a reliable bearing on ancestry--lineages are too diverse for us to come to scientific conclusions based on looks alone. The reverse process is far more useful: DNA analysis takes the lineage diversity into account and instead of coming to one conclusion based on looks (race), many predictions about physical characteristics can be drawn based on many assessments about ancestral heritage. The term "race" lacks the nuance (and accuracy) that makes such DNA analysis valid.

Unlike ancestral heritage, race is a distinct categorizing tool. The distinct part of race's definition derives from being unaware of diverse ancestral lineages when the word "race" was created. We could change race's definition so that the misleading implications of distinction are rectified, but as far as diagnosing people goes, it's really ancestral heritage that's useful, or local trends among a group of people (e.g. diet). What's being used as a diagnostic tool is actually not what we mean by race even though it may apply to a group of people who share common traits. The main difference is that thinking of the process in terms of race can eliminate people of the same ancestral heritage (although they may not look it) and can include people based on looks who may lack the diet that is the actual common denominator. Doctors are justified in taking ancestral heritage into consideration (if they actually know what it is), and they are justified in taking trends within a group into consideration, but neither of these considerations are clarified by calling them race. As a distinct and encompassing category, race's imprecise criteria is not what doctors are actually finding useful.

Finally, the last section of this episode primarily explored ethnicity. We are taught to conflate ethnicity with race because ethnicity does not seem substantial enough within itself. We are very concerned with having concrete, inherent identities and race is an appealing outlet for this. Ethnicity exposes the fact that people identify with certain groups without there having to be a scientific (or "real") explanation.

It seems ancestral heritage accounts for everything scientifically useful about race, and that ethnicity accounts for everything socially and geographically useful about race, and that, ultimately, race is an inadequate umbrella word that messily squeeze these precise categories into one. It seems so radical to phase out race, and yet I can't think of a reason not to.

What is useful about maintaining race as a category that is not already accounted for (and with more precision and accuracy) by the categories of ancestral heritage and ethnicity?

Jan. 25 2011 04:26 PM

"Had the producers done their research, they would not have started out with the sophomoric question of whether or not there is there a biological component to race."

Hmm. "Sophomoric." That word tells me a lot about the author. That said, Persimmon, you really need to step outside your comfort zone and understand that this episode has the potential to be accessible to a wider audience, not just upper middle class elites and/or academics. In my research area/home, the southern U.S., there are many people who are convinced of the so-called science behind the race concept. The message here is about the arbitrariness of "science," the randomness of genetics, and the inability to determine ancestry from phenotype.

It begins from the assumption of biological race in order to reach out to people who are convinced of the validity of biological race. As such, this podcast may spread understanding, ultimately allowing people to to differentiate between [genetics and ancestry and how it doesn't match up to phenotype (which is what this podcast is really about)] and [race (the social construct)].

I have tried to spread the word about this particular episode because I think it is an important teaching tool. As a teacher in a southern community, I can talk all day long about critical race theory but I am talking beyond those students I really need to reach (and may I be clear that this is not because the average person is below my intelligence, the blame is to be laid at the feet of academics who have written themselves beyond everyday relevance). Using hard science allows this podcast to convincingly speak to a wider audience. Accessibility is not a crime. Get over it.

Dec. 27 2010 12:33 AM
Persimmon from california

There are several problems with this show. Namely, it dealt with race rather than racism. This theoretical framework predictably yielded a discussion that was unsophisticated and a-historical. It's like we as Americans keep going in the same circles, over and over. The frame of the debate is what is holding us back.

Had the producers done their research, they would not have started out with the sophomoric question of whether or not there is there a biological component to race. Race is a social fact and a biological fiction. The distinction between fact and fiction is always messy. I would have liked to have listened to a discussion that included actual experts on race. The closest thing to experts they interviewed were middle school aged kids. Medical doctors are experts about medicine, not racism.

Dec. 26 2010 10:30 PM

I definitely have to agree with Xavier. Ryan's comment saying, "['Ethnic'] has other meanings, but it's a perfectly acceptable use to use it to mean someone who has an ethnicity from your point of view. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a natural human thing to see and acknowledge others as... other" makes me very upset because it seems that you, Ryan, are participating in the idea of normative whiteness that completely messed up this country.

We all get a picture in our heads when the word "ethnic" is used. I'm sure it isn't a white person, and that is why Jed said an "ethnic version of Tom Selleck"--who is a white guy. It's this collective understanding that we've been conditioned to know that "ethnic" is somehow non white. I feel that Ryan's comment is very much an example of this idea of normative whiteness: this idea that being white is somehow neutral, plain, culture-less and therefore non-ethnic. I don't even understand what it means to call someone ethnic when you feel that they have an ethnicity. Everyone has an ethnicity. Even if you are white, you can be Polish or Russian or German, whatever--you are not ever non-ethnic. And this idea that being white is somehow not ethnic is ridiculous to me.

That is why saying someone is ethnic is offensive and ignorant. When you say someone is "ethnic" you are implying something very specific, like Xavier said, and it does not make sense that only if you are non-white you are "ethnic." But, that is how we've come to know it in America and that is why Jed's comment makes sense to all of us. We all know what he means when he says, "an 'ethnic' version of Tom Selleck."

That's crazy to me.

But, also, in regards to Ryan's comment about how a doctor should test a black man for hypertension more than he would a white man because of the "statistics" doesn't really make sense to me after hearing the segment. What I got from it is that it depends on what statistics you are looking at: if you are looking at statistics from the US, then yeah, it is going to LOOK like more black mean suffer from high blood pressure.

But, Richard Cooper's research shows that nationally, hypertension is more common among German/Russian populations. Same goes for the BiDil study: it looked like it worked more on black people because they were the only ones being tested! Reminds me of a time when studies and data were shown to prove Africans were biologically inferior...if you are looking for a specific answer, you can bet your ass that you can twist and bend science in your favor. BiDil wasn't tested on non-blacks for a specific reason. Just like scientific data was twisted and exaggerated to prove crazy things about non whites. To me this shows that race and racial studies don't really have much place in medicine. Depending on what statistics you are looking at, where you live, and who is being tested, you will get very different results and answers.

Sorry this is so long =)

Nov. 07 2010 11:08 PM
Kyla from Maine

I found this episode interesting- I like thinking about the way genetics interact with other factors in our lives. I'd love to hear an episode dealing with epigenetics! I've been wrapping my mind around that subject lately, and the implications are startling, especially for people considering parenthood.

Sep. 29 2010 12:23 PM
anna Johnson

With the conclusions of the programme, why on earth are you still talking about "whites" and "blacks". It's nonsense.

Sep. 25 2010 06:17 PM
Spanglej from London UK

It sounds likes this programme was made for 12 year olds. Simplistic, dumbed down, aimed for kids with a 2 second attention span. It's a shame.

Sep. 25 2010 05:56 PM
Ryan Wiancko from BC, Canada


Robert: You could pass for a jew I think, even though you're Arab
Jad: Oh in New York? Ya, Forget it.

Haha, such a brilliant great quip, my tea came out my nose

Sep. 19 2010 04:52 AM
Admiral Elk

I was wondering what you guys thought of this...

Aug. 16 2010 06:11 PM

There is gene that determines skin color.

Why cops didn't look for it?

Mar. 31 2010 10:01 AM

Hispanic/Latina isn't a race. Hispanic is just a term for the collective population of spanish-speaking countries, regardless of race. Like the term "American" it doesn't denote any race.

Jan. 05 2009 06:25 AM
Matthew C. Scallon

The Sunni-Shiite conflict that Enrique saw as having no place does have a place because religion oftentimes plays a role in your sense of inclusion or exclusion and therefore can be just as strong a demarcation line as race.

As an Irish-American, my family talked of signs in the Northeast which read, "Dogs and Irish not allowed." These may be apocryphal tales, but no less than W.E.B. DuBois wrote that the racial barriers against the Irish were even higher than those set against himself.

And what distinguishing characteristic did the Irish have in comparison to the majority of society? Not skin color. Not eye color. Not hair color or texture. Not athletic ability. Not educational acumen. Nothing except one thing. They were Catholic. They baptized their babies at Catholic parishes. They set up nativities scenes at Christmastime. They paraded on March 17. In comparison to the Yankee Puritans who surrounded them, they must be a different "race."

So, yes, the sectarian aspect does matter. After all, the big difference between Serbs and Croats is that the former are nominally Eastern Orthodox and the latter is nominally Roman Catholic. Such is enough to discriminate their nationalities.

Dec. 31 2008 05:30 PM

I loved the majority of the segment.
However, during the last portion of the show I was amazed at the failure to distinguish race from nationality and race from religious affiliation.
At the primarily Hispanic school in NYC the students identified themselves as “Dominican, Columbian, Mexican, ect.” These are obviously national categories which realistically would be comprised of several racial or ethnic groups (Ex: a Caucasian or a Black person could be born and raised in Columbia). I was waiting for this very obvious difference to be noted… but it never happened. The failure to distinguish race from nationality further complicated the practical role race plays in society.
The whole section on Bagdad had no place in this discussion. The Sunni-Shiite conflict is theologically based not racial. These groups are religious categories and can also be comprised of different racial or ethnic groups (Ex: Both a Black Moroccan and a Arab Iraqi could be Shiite). Granted, membership into these religious groups is usually transmitted through familial relationship yet the conflict is not between races, but differing theological positions.
I am a first time listener to Radiolab and I will be listening again. The journalistic style and method of communication was beautiful. Nevertheless, the failure to make these very obvious distinctions makes me wonder if there is more attention being devoted to the presentation of information rather than the actual information that is being communicated. hmmmm

Dec. 30 2008 07:31 PM

While I haven’t finished the complete “race” episode, I feel compelled to start writing before I forget.

It terms of race as a “social concept” I completely agree. People love to slap labels on people, we are apparently a very systematic being, where categories guide us. But it is these very categories that are also a product of our own inner average of what we know.

If you were to put several people of all different shades and sizes in front of an audience and were to ask who is what- people would give you answers solely based on their own averaged assumptions: persons with dark skin are X’s, persons with light skin are Y’s. Which is a completely wrong way of providing a fact.

It is all an assumption and those assumptions are based on the average of past assumptions with a dollop of stereotyping.

The first analogy that comes to mind is an abstract/modern painting. At first glace the viewer could say “well that painting is blue” but upon scraping the layers off, to their surprise that blue is made up of green, yellow, pink, purple, red and orange.

So what you see is not what you get.

Oh, and I know this because I am a white, Jewish mother raising a biracial son, who has been labeled everything except what he actually is, a human being with many different parts.

Often I get asked that loaded question “where are you from or what is your make-up?” Apparently, my look falls into what some would call “exotic” “of unknown origin” and while I like that idea of being exotic, I really am not. I am “American.” However, this answer falls on deaf ears. People want Name, Rank and Serial number. They need to put you in context to them and theirs as if loading a GPS, so they can relate or not relate in some way. Again, “No, like where are you from?” Again, I state “here, America, a native New Yorker.” Still, I have to go further, in the end I usually surrender admitting that my grandparents and great grandparents on one side came from X and the other side are basically 3rd generation American.

It is the constant drilling by the media regarding “racial” issues that mold and make peoples beliefs.

This is a very complicated issue. Race, ethnicity, religion seem to form some kind of weird trinity, that complicate things even more.

Radio Lab keep up the good work- dialogues make the world go round!

Dec. 19 2008 12:22 PM

I'd like to second Ryan's comment on race and medicine...regardless of whether it's genetic or not, medicine practice in the US has largely been focused on common diseases experienced by white Americans which is frustrating for minorities. For example, for years I had been treated for mild anemia and then maybe 25 years later I finally found out I'm just a thalassemia carrier which is more common for communities from coastal areas.

And with testing, this happens for things other than race for cost savings reasons too. Like I'm told the HPV vaccine so far has only been tested for under 27 but later will likely be approved for all ages. I was told this was for cost-efficiency reasons when rolling out the drug.

Dec. 19 2008 09:46 AM

That thought occurred to me as well. However, wouldn't you consider it more of a socio-economic issue? That might make a great topic for a whole new show!

While the official, currently recorded, definition of "ethic" does in deed specifically refer to a specific ethnic association, not discluding whites, it also has a colloquial connotation, which has a succinct ability to convey some of the complexities in how we view our society.

The natural formation and evolution of colloquialisms are valid. Before you look down on people, become offended, and deem things as "DUMB," perhaps you should give any socio-linguist a call to discuss the matter.

Dec. 19 2008 06:32 AM

i absolutely love radio lab and frequently find my self nodding along with your segments. Though most of this piece is fantastic, one part surprised me. I think you missed an opportunity here to discuss how race affects people's health... as far as what causes high blood pressure in people of color in the US - how about their experiences of race associated with great anxiety which translates into physiological symptoms like high blood pressure? I'm surprised this wasn't addressed in the piece.

Otherwise, wonderful segment, like always :)

Dec. 18 2008 02:50 PM

Check out the web site and exhibit developed by the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota on Race -

Dec. 18 2008 01:18 PM

The usage of the word "ethnic" in this context is about the same as the usage of the word "accent." Everyone believes they have no accent, but that everyone else is speaking with a funny accent. The word for "people" in many languages is the same as the people-word for them (ie the Chinese word for people is, translated into English, "Chinese").

It's just how it's used. It has other meanings, but it's a perfectly acceptable use to use it to mean someone who has an ethnicity from your point of view. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's a natural human thing to see and acknowledge others as... other. It only becomes a problem when this effects your judgment and actions.

Dec. 18 2008 05:12 AM

First I want to say thank you to Ryan for taking the time to read my post and to comment. While I may not always agree, I am always interested in reading other's points of view.

But Ryan, your sympathy towards the incorrect usage of the term "ethnic" is exactly what I'm commenting on. Ethnic does not mean everyone non-white, but literally means being a member of a specified ethnic group . The thought that this very basic definition escapes people in common talk, baffles me. (and I'm sorry, but it makes me think less of them)

I am not trying to minimize this podcast into a discussion on logistics or "PC" values, but calling one "ethnic" makes absolutely no "logical" sense. (As I described before) While calling someone "ethnic" might make sense to the less informed/cultured in rural Kansas, it does not make sense in diverse cities such as in Austin, Los Angeles, and New York.

Would you or any "white" person consider themselves "Ethnic" here in Texas, where the major ethnicity is Hispanic? What about in my hometown of Laredo, which is over 95 percent Hispanic?

This was a great episode, commenting on the many quandaries associated with race, and I do not want to minimize that; but in such a highly esteemed and influential series that is RadioLab, I do feel that to prescribe a false or incorrect meaning to the term Ethnicity, is DUMB to say the least, especially in an episode about race.

Dec. 18 2008 01:46 AM

I was greatly offended by Xavier's comments above about being put off by Jad's using the term "slightly ethnic." THIS is the part of any race discussion that bothers me. Many people refuse to let you discuss it without jumping down your throat on tiny things. Linguistically, the word "ethnic" when describing someone's appearance has a very specific meaning. And we all understand that meaning. And it's a perfectly acceptable word to use. It's not offensive, it's not narrow-minded, it's not ignorant. It's a word that means a thing that we all understand, basically "somehow non-white." There's nothing offensive about saying it in a context where nothing offensive is said.

In regards to medicine, we don't care whether the higher prevalence of hypertension among African Americans is genetic or not, or that a drug works better because of genetics or not. The fact is, statistics will sometimes show it's true. It will be up to the individual doctor to decide whether the circumstances are right, and as scientists, we would LIKE to know whether the cause of these things is genetic or not, but until we do (which would be almost impossible), we'll go with statistics. Statistically, if a black man walks into a doctor's office, he SHOULD look at possible hypertension more than if a white man walks in.

But when this concept gets brought up, most people (especially non-scientifically-minded people) bring all kinds of excess baggage with the label of being black or not, and what it means to be prejudiced, and all that. Yeah, if a doctor is stubbornly assuming that because you're black your problems HAVE to be heart related, that's stupid. But would anyone make the same amount of commotion if the same stupid doctor insisted that a fat person's medical issue HAD to be from diabetes? Statistics are statistics, a good doctor is going to consider them, but not live by them.

There's nothing offensive about saying that we've discovered something is more prevalent in one race than in another. Or that in America, someone who is something other than white is "ethnic" in some fashion. Statistically, most of us are white. The "no ethnicity" state is the same for everyone: It's YOUR ethnicity. Just like people who aren't from your country are foreign. Some things just aren't offensive, they are just the language or evidence that's available. Did you hear about the study that racially less homogeneous neighborhoods tend to have greater incidences of crime, lower school test scores, and other such things? I didn't like it either, it seems wrong. But calling the study racist because it finds integration seems to not work isn't the solution. It's figuring out why that study showed that, and learning more.

Dec. 18 2008 12:05 AM

Interesting show. I wanted to respond to "bob" who wished to correct you about race and ethnicity. He stated that there are 5 races and 2 ethnicities because that is the NIH guidelines. I ask "bob", why should we accept what NIH says as right?
Race is a social construct, therefore it is fallible. It is an imperfect attempt to, as said in the show, divide people into "us" and "them," based on limited information.
NIH says I must first pick an ethnicity, then a race. Ethnicity makes sense to me - because *I* define it as similar to one's ancestry. I would pick Latina - Hispanic if you must. Then I must pick a race? What race would you have me choose? White? No, sorry, but I am not White. I do not have a similar cultural experience to White people in this country. If you looked at me, you would agree, most likely easily identifying me as Latina. But I'm not dark enough for you to say I'm Black. So what "race" would you choose for me?
Race is a unsatisfactory - and often unsatisfying - classification tool for sorting people. It is very imperfect, whatever its uses. We cannot say that anyone has figured it out clearly, and we certainly cannot say with certainty that there are a certain number of races and ethnicities. That number will always vary with whom you speak with and what country you are in. So please beware of stating absolutes on such an ambiguous topic.

And by the way, for the producers, I have to agree with "chris." I haven't listened to RadioLab often, but the sound effects during this show were rather distracting and often seemed unnecessary. Rely on having great material to create your show.

Dec. 17 2008 09:38 PM

Ouch. Maybe it's just me, but the sound effects in the last few episodes have really been detracting from the story. They are jarring enough that is almost makes me want to stop listening.

Thanks for fixing the intro though. It's much less painful now.

Dec. 17 2008 05:04 PM

Yay! A fantastic show!

You guys really hit on some very key issues and discussed them very well.

I loved the segment that showed how *fluid* race can be, especially for some one who is of an ambiguous mix ;-)

The funny thing is, I am comfortable with my cultural identity, where it get sticky is dealing with how other people perceive me...

At any rate, great show!!!

Dec. 17 2008 02:28 PM

Robert Kurzban did a study in the late 90's (published 2001) that demonstrated that people automatically sort other people based on three general parameters that are immediately obvious: race, gender, and age. The study also attempted to replace race and gender with other cues of coalition, in this case shirt color. The results indicate that when shirt color is more obvious that race, people then assign group affiliation based on shirt color more strongly than on race.

The published study can be found here

Dec. 17 2008 09:14 AM
Himelet Lafitte

Racial differences are developed by inbreeding. Hence, a Nordic person will always beget another Nordic person. Nordics have confused the white race so as to control the world, which really isn't in their capacity. Without Greek-Romans Nordics stink period. The idea would be to extend mediterranean culture/religion to the world without prejudice.

Dec. 17 2008 06:55 AM

Our DNA may show that 2000 years ago we originated from the plains of the Mongolian Plateau, but growing up in a Detroit inner city neighborhood seems to have more to do with who we are or who we think we are.

I've always felt that it was dangerous to "crow" about one's ancestry because it is a hairs breath from racism. The St. Patrick's Day Parade could, with only a little imagination, become something that might resemble a KKK march. What pride can someone derive from being a third generation immigrant that makes them unique from another?

I think it wise to try to discard the baggage of race and heritage as much as it can be possible as it does more harm than good.

Dec. 16 2008 10:20 PM

Good episode. One quick correction and then a comment. There are 5 races (white, black, Asian, Native American, and pacific islander) and two ethnicities (hispanic/non hispanic) Hispanic is not a race. these are the NIH guidelines for gathering "self reported" race and ethnicity. (you are supposed to ask for ethnicity first and then let the respondent pick all of the races that they feel apply.)
My comment is that while I think that quick and total gene profiling will greatly decrease physician use of race in their diagnosis, it is misguided and unrealistic to expect doctors to discard it now. Real life is about taking all the clues, of which race is clearly (just) one, and narrowing things down to an answer. Your health is too important to risk because some person not in the exam room is squeamish about the concept of race. We use self reported gender too, and gender is as we have seen sometimes ambiguous. Should we stop asking or using that classification?

Dec. 16 2008 08:28 PM

I just wanted to comment that I am disappointed in Jad's comment about a picture of a man resembling "a vaguely ethnic version of Tom Selleck". Is this to say that Tom Selleck belong's to no specific ethnicity. Or is this a comment that anyone who doesn't look typically "white" is ethnic looking and therefor "foreign looking".

While I would never state, nor do I feel, that the comment was meant to be offensive or accurate, I do feel disappointed that someone so obviously educated can say something so obviously narrow minded.

I bring this up not to chastise "Jad", who I enjoy, but to all those who state blanket and baseless comments such as, "You look ethnic", "Your accent sounds weird/ridiculous (see: Sarah Palin)", and for us Hispanics "Did your parents come from Mexico".

One of the most unique and fulling aspects of our country (the USA), is our diversity, but it is a diversity that everyone is a part of. There is no pure or "natural" American ethnicity, therefore we are all ethnic looking, we all have acsents, and we all have relatives that came from elsewhere.

I know this is a long letter, hinged on a short observation, but I feel it is a point that has to be read. Read because I am continuously disappointed that no amount of education or "privilege", has earned people the knowledge to know, that we are all different, nobody's the "natural" one, and that's a great thing.

Dec. 16 2008 06:08 PM

This segment was really interesting and I think part of the reason it's so difficult to talk about what elements of race may possibly be biological is because of the ways in which science is often used to justify unnatural relations of power in the social world. 100 years ago scientific racism was used to justify slavery, the Holocaust and various forms of genocide and social inequality. So the deeper question here is what is the relationship between scientific knowledge and social knowledge? What elements of scientific knowledge are inescabably social?
However, I was really put off by Wayne Joseph's story. He seemed to act as if finding out that having zero percent African ancestry negated the experience of being Black. Since race is a social construct, our perceptions of race have little to do with biology but instead emerge out our social experiences. Having a certain percentage of African ancestry is not what "makes" one Black, having a certain hair texture or a certain skin color -- it's how we are perceived by others and ourselves. Having zero African ancestry will probably not stop Mr. Joseph from occasionally being stopped or harassed by the police. If we start assuming that social experiences of race are the result of biology (i.e. would Mr. Joseph go to a black high school or marry a black woman if he had known he had no African ancestry) ignores what race is really about -- a social category that regulates the social world -- regardless of science or biology.
What this segment revealed is that trying to talk about the connections between race and science is also connected to a question about power relations in our society. It also revealed how scientific researchers tend to conflate social, geographical, and biological terms in their analysis which further obscures how race connects to biology.
It would be really awesome if you accompanied this segment with another about the history of scientific racism and how that affects this conversation.

Dec. 16 2008 04:46 PM

You know, I found it interesting that you skirted around racism, but really never delved into it. I guess that could be could be an episode in and of itself…

A few times throughout show I was reminded about how class/privilege takes into a huge account of how we all view race and associate ourselves with certain groups. Have you considered doing a show on tribes?

Dec. 16 2008 03:13 PM

That's funny, I listened to it and got "race is more than just a social construct but it is *really* complicated"

Dec. 16 2008 11:52 AM
alexandre van de sande

There's a radiolab as good as any! Great program, great scientific questions and great humane answers.

Race in Brazil is perceived not as descendant, but as color. As a result, people are not described as african or european descendents, but as Light-brown, dark-mulato, blue-black, yellow-white, Colin powell is therefore white, Obama is moreno. ironically racism against you depends on how much you tanned (or not) in the last summer.

As the program clearly shows, race is nothing but a social construct.

Dec. 16 2008 10:39 AM

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