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The rhetoric of race in breast cancer research

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Since 1998 the Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer has documented the undue burden of breast cancer for women of colour. Geneticists claim that social variables cannot fully explain breast cancer statistics, pointing to evidence that, when black women receive the same health care as Whites, they are still more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive, deadly forms of the disease. Moreover, they claim, racism and traditional risk factors such as reproductive history cannot fully explain why rates are so high among younger black women. The argument that the biology of African-American women-in particular, their genes-explains some percentage of excess incidence and mortality rates presumes that ancestry is a risk factor for breast cancer. It presumes, moreover, that racial categories such as African-American’, while socially constructed, nevertheless capture the reality of evolutionary history. Indeed, debates about ancestry, race and health disparities demonstrate quite starkly the ways in which race’ is a rhetorical artefact, reflecting and deflecting the object world of human genetic diversity in ways that shape research agendas and influence public policy debates. Situating the rhetoric of race in genomics research within a larger socio-political context, Happe further argues that the use of race in genomics research is an instantiation of what race theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant call a racial project’, defined as simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines’.

Keywords: African-American women's health; breast cancer; genetic testing; genomics; genomics and medicine; health disparities; medical humanities; race; race and medicine; rhetoric

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2006-09-01

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