Race. The word is woven into what was and is South Carolina. It is an emotional word, sorting people out by skin color. For most South Carolinians, it’s either black or white.
When I first visited South Carolina in 1964, people were either white or colored. Whites were defiantly in control.
As an aspiring seminarian, I was assigned to organize vacation Bible school at Luray Christian Church. Luray is on U.S. 321, north of Estill. To the east of the highway there were white people. To the west, coloreds.
This was novel to me since I grew up Dallas. The only time I saw a colored person was when my mother, who had just delivered my younger sister, drove to a poor part of town, picked up a woman named Chatty and brought her to our house to help do washing, ironing and house cleaning. Chatty was colored, overweight, good-natured, and we liked her a lot.
As a freshman at the University of Texas in 1962, I heard black and white students discussing together their plans to protest for equality for blacks in the South; another novel experience for me. In my sociology class on the nature of prejudice I learned that I was quite prejudiced in my perception of people with darker skin.
In 1988, Jesse Jackson, trying to replace the racial term “black,” said that since most blacks had a recent African origin, they should call themselves African-Americans. Today, the media use African-American and black interchangeably. But I expect that most Americans who have a choice of identifying themselves as either black or African-American would choose black.
I was startled and pleased when I visited majority-black Bermuda several years ago. Inequalities still exist, but equal opportunity is decidedly much further along in this British colony than here at home. That experience, combined with a visit to the State Museum’s recent exhibit — “Race: are we so different?” — made me look deeper into our use of the term “race” in our discussions and research on health, medicine, education, housing, employment, religion, politics, law and other social constructs.
All of us are in the same species, Homo sapiens. All humans, black or white, trace their ancestors to what is now the Republic of Kenya on the west coast of Africa.
Dark-skinned humans moving from Africa to northern-most Europe evolved, through natural selection, to have blue eyes, pale skin and blond hair. These physical characteristics enabled northern Europeans to synthesize vitamin D even though they had significantly less sunlight than humans in more southern latitudes.
Today, part of my work is to evaluate clinical trial protocols. Too often, medical researchers from some of the country’s most prestigious universities are still evaluating race as a partial contributor to health. Race, in many of these proposed studies, is based on the subject’s self-identification as either black or white.
It is not race but socioeconomic status and the geography in which a person lives or has lived that contribute to a person’s health status. Even sickle-cell anemia, commonly associated only with dark-skinned people, can be found in light-skinned people as well.
There is no correlation between a person’s racial label and his or her genome. Race is a social creation, not scientific. There is a social relationship between skin color and discrimination in many societies, including, as we all know, the Palmetto State.
The law protects us from discrimination based on skin color. But if we continue to perpetuate the use of skin color labels, whether pale or dark, white or black, Anglo-American or African-American, we encourage and perpetuate discrimination.
Skin color has as many shades as the color of a leaf on a tree, but it should be a distinction that makes no difference.
Dr. Smith is president of Metromark Market Research and a clinical research assistant professor of internal medicine at the USC School of Medicine; contact him at email@example.com.