In 1851, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine graduate Samuel Cartwright delivered a report to the Medical Association of Louisiana claiming that blacks’ health was improved by slavery.

He theorized that forced physical labor improved blacks’ inferior lung capacity, so slavery was actually a necessity to bettering their health.

Penn Law School professor Dorothy Roberts first heard this anecdote from a talk by Brown University professor Lundy Braun detailing the history of the spirometer, a medical device used to measure lung capacity.

Some spirometers historically, and even in modern medicine, adjust the measurements according to the race of the patient. Cartwright used the device to justify the need for continued slavery to protect blacks’ health. Braun’s presentation included a picture of a modern spirometer with a button labeled “race,” and through numerous conversations with medical students, Roberts has found that some medical students are still trained to use spirometers based on patients’ race.

For Roberts, this is a major problem. “My definition of race is that it is a political system to govern people based on invented biological demarcation, and it is not a natural division of human beings,” she said. “So it is much more plausible that inequities in health that fall along racial lines are caused by social determinants.”

Braun’s talk sparked an idea for a future project in the new program she developed at Penn this year called the Program on Race, Science and Society .

“What I’d like to accomplish is to bring together faculty from across the campus in the life sciences, the social sciences and the humanities to develop transformative, transdisciplinary approaches to the role of race in scientific research and technological development,” Roberts said.

The program works with the Center for Africana Studies and will host its inaugural symposium on Friday called “The Future of Race and Science: Regression or Revolution?”

“I called it ‘Regression or Revolution’ because I think we’re at a really important crossroads to determine whether science is going to continue on a path that uses an antiquated view of race as a natural category or whether it’s going to revolutionize the way that race is understood and used in science,” Roberts said.

The new program hopes to help spur that revolution.

Roberts formed a faculty working group to allow professors to share their relevant research and collaborate on future projects, like one inspired by Braun’s presentation that would investigate the use of race in data collection and medical technology.

Sociology professor Tukufu Zuberi , a member of the working group, said that in his experience, “Every time scientists pick [race] up, they make a mess of it.”

He said that studies have misused statistical analyses when looking at questions of race, which has perpetuated rather than helped alleviate examples of racism.

It has been shown that African Americans are over-represented in prison populations and African American drivers are pulled over by police more often than white drivers. But Zuberi said science often attempts to look at these discrepancies backwards.

While many would be inclined to ask why so many African Americans get pulled over, Zuberi said, “The real way of looking at issues of race — once we assume the common humanity of all — would be to find out why police are selectively stopping more African Americans than others.”

Medical School professor Chyke Doubeni , another member of the working group, said that flawed understandings of race could also have medical consequences that lead to serious health inequities.

Doubeni is currently researching colon cancer, and although there are racial differences in the incidence rates and death risks between Hispanics and African Americans, for example, he said it is more likely that those differences are due to social factors than genetic ones.

“We believe that more than anything else, this is because they are less likely to receive the preventive measures,” he said of African Americans, who have been shown to have the highest risk of colon cancer.

Doubeni said that some research suggests that there may be some racial differences in terms of health, but in his experience, “these differences are the result of differences in behavior or culture or socioeconomic status and all of these go back to the issues of social determinants of health more than they do for biology.”

Roberts aims to use this program to re-conceptualize race from a biological category to a social one in scientific research, which she said complements her role of advancing the “interdisciplinary agenda of the university” as a Penn Integrates Knowledge professor.

“We already have various centers that can complement the work of the program and faculty across the campus who are doing related research, and so I think that we are perfectly situated to be at the cutting edge of this important topic,” she said.

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