Race in the Life Sciences: An Empirical Assessment, 1950-2000

By Osagie K. Obasogie et al.
May 1, 2015

The mainstream narrative regarding the evolution of race as an idea in the scientific community is that biological understandings of race dominated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries up until World War II, after which a social constructionist approach is thought to have taken hold. Many believe that the horrific outcomes of the most notorious applications of biological race—eugenics and the Holocaust—moved scientists away from thinking that race reflects inherent differences and toward an understanding that race is a largely social, cultural, and political phenomenon. This understanding of the evolution of race as a scientific idea informed the way that many areas of law conceptualize human equality, including civil rights, human rights, and constitutional law.

This Article provides one of the first large-scale empirical assessments of publications in peer-reviewed biomedical and life science journals to examine whether biological theories of race actually lost credibility in the life sciences after World War II. We find that biological theories of race transformed yet persisted in the dominant academic discourse up through modern times—a finding that contradicts the central narrative that the life sciences became “color-blind” or “post-racial” several decades ago. The continued salience of biological race in the life sciences suggests that more attention needs to be paid to the questionable assumptions driving this research on biological race and its potential spillover effects, i.e., how persisting claims of biological race in the scientific literature might reconstitute its significance in law and society in a manner that may be harmful to racial minorities.