My mother died of complications from breast cancer at the age of fifty-one. The doctors did all that they could for her. Well actually, they did all they could had she been of Northern European ancestry. Medical researchers are only now realizing that black women are less likely to get cancer than white women. However, when they do, that group is three times more likely to develop the aggressive, triple-negative form of breast cancer, which affects less than fifteen percent of white women. Given the type of cancer, which may be exacerbated by traditional treatment protocols, and many black women’s lack of access to adequate medical care, it is no wonder that African-American women suffer a breast cancer death rate (according to the Center for Disease Control), that is sixty percent higher than that of white women. It may have been too late for Mama, but present-day cancer specialists are finally beginning to recognize ethnic differences in breast cancers and adapt treatment protocols accordingly. If only ancestral factors were researched in other arenas of medicine and public health as well.
Whatever treatments and nutritional standards have been shown to work for people of Northern European origin are imposed on all other segments of America’s multi-ethnic population, no matter what the consequences. For instance, well-intentioned doctors encourage their black patients to consume more dairy products. However, elderly blacks seldom suffer from osteoporosis or low bone density, even though they have never drunk milk on account of lactose-intolerance (apart from in early childhood). It would make far more sense for the medical community to study young, healthy blacks (80% lactose-intolerant), Native Americans and Asians (99% lactose intolerant), Latinos (65% lactose-intolerant) and other non-dairy-consuming populations in order to learn how alternate physiological processes build strong bones. Instead, medical practitioners, backed by United States Department of Agriculture nutritional guidelines, scare conscientious parents into plying lactose-intolerant children, with high-fat, high-cholesterol dairy products to avoid calcium deficiency. It’s no wonder that obesity rates among African-American, Latino and Asian adoptee children have skyrocketed.
Most premature deaths among blacks, Latinos and Native Americans are caused by complications from such lifestyle diseases as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. But the medical community operates under the dictates of an unexamined paradigm, which I have come to call “Nordic universality.”
The role played by race in American society has diminished in recent years to the point where a black man now sits in the White House. Given that history, it seems almost un-American, some might argue, to begin pigeon-holing people on the basis of physiological or nutritional differences. This is especially so, given the uproar created by publication of the 1994 bestseller, The Bell Curve. Its authors, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, purported to show that racial differences exist in brain functioning, making whites cognitively superior to blacks.
However, the Human Genome Project has given biogeneticists irrefutable evidence that the concept of the three races (blacks, whites and Asians) is a fiction. What the genetic data does show is that the world is inhabited by fluid, overlapping, population groups, which number in the thousands. This is because our human biology adapts over time both to environmental conditions and the available nourishment. For people with darker skin in tropical climes, melanin acts as a protective biological shield against ultraviolet radiation. The Inuit of Northern Canada and Alaska have subsisted for thousands of years on a diet of whale blubber and seals, which is devoid of vegetables and grains. And yet they rarely suffer from the cardiovascular diseases associated with high-fat diets, which are endemic to western societies. People of Northern European ancestry, East Africans, and other dairy-consuming societies have evolved the genetic ability to produce lactase as adults, the enzyme needed to break down the lactose in dairy products. These traits are unknown in many areas of the world, including West Africa, where tsetse fly infestations made it all but impossible for the ancestors of African-Americans to breed dairy-producing beasts of burden.
The health care community needs to shake off the shadow of The Bell Curve and the racial exclusivity it has fostered. In doing so, it may finally begin grappling with the bio-diverse richness of American society. And even more important, it might stop writing prescriptions for minorities from other peoples’ medical files.