Journalists’ use of race by color continues to create confusion

April 30, 2013 at 12:01 am | Posted in African American, Alzheimer's disease, blacks, Daniel Chang, DNA, equality, Ethnicity in America, European American, Human Genome, Media and Race, minority, Race in America, skin color, The New York Times, University of Miami, whites | 2 Comments
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Two articles reporting on “Alzheimer’s disease in blacks” arrived at different conclusions about the study’s affect on African Americans. The first article discussed here in the last blog was written by Daniel Chang in the Miami Herald (4/11/13) entitled “Researchers identify possible new gene linked to Alzheimer’s disease in blacks.” The earlier article in The New York Times (4/9/13) written by Gina Kolata is entitled “In Blacks, Alzheimer’s Study Finds Same Variant Genes as in Whites.” We find some interesting similarities as well as differences in comparing these two articles that focused on the same topic: Alzheimer’s disease in blacks.
Actually, the similarities are few; first, they include a reference to “Alzheimer’s disease in blacks” in their headlines. Next, they both discuss the gene ABCA7. Other similarities might exist, but these two are the major ones. The Chang article suggested that the important concern is that this ABCA7 gene is found in blacks and is also linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, we had problems with the use of the word blacks. The only reference to blacks by Kolata appears in the headline. Obviously, someone else could have written the headline for Kolata’s article without fully reading or appreciating the text.
The differences between the Chang article and Kolata’s are many, but the major ones verify the comments made in the last blog by Chang regarding the use of blacks as an identity. Nowhere in Kolata’s article does the reference to blacks appear. Because of this deliberate act, the readers are spared any confusion about the study or who it involves “African-Americans have a slightly higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease than people of largely European ancestry, but there is no major genetic difference that could account for the slight excess risk, new research shows.” In effect, no major concerns for African Americans acquiring Alzheimer’s disease were detected as a result of this study. This statement is contrary to the Chang statement:”University of Miami medical school researchers working with geneticist and physicians from other institutions have identified a new gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease in blacks, a finding that doctors say could help them prescribe more effective drugs for patients affected by the disease.”
The Kolata article does not place emphasis on blacks as does the Chang article, but on the disease; it says that “The results are from one of the only large studies ever done on Alzheimer’s in African-Americans. Researchers identified the same gene variant in older African-Americans that they had found in older people of European ancestry.” Chang’s article never mentions people of European ancestry. Kolata’s article continued, noting that the study “…found that African-Americans with Alzheimer’s disease were slightly more likely to have one gene, ABCA7 that is thought to confer risk for the disease.” In addition, the Kolata article noted that “Another gene, AP0E4, long known to increase Alzheimer’s risk in older white people, was present in about the same proportion of African-Americans with Alzheimer’s as it is in people of European ancestry.”This quote mentions the word “white” for the first and only time in the article.
So, what is the point being made here? The point is when ethnic identity is used and clearly defined, such as in African American and European ancestry or European Americans little confusion occurs. When color is used as ethnic identity, no one knows for certain who is being identified. The fact that the Chang article used blacks only suggested that some biological difference appeared in African Americans that did not exist in European Americans. The use of color, be it black or white, always suggest race and different races at that. Using the terms African American and people of European ancestry in her article, Kolata avoids the confusion associated with the color words.
We can compliment Kolata on her avoidance of suggesting a so-called racial difference in the Alzheimer’s study when she commented that “The researchers calculated that ABCA7 increased Alzheimer’s risk by about 80 percent in African- Americans, compared with about 10 percent to 20 percent in people of European ancestry. “ She added that “Those are considered modest increases; a gene that carries a significant risk would increase the chances of getting a disease by well over 200 percent.” She continued by noting that “…ABCA7 was not very common, still leaving most Alzheimer’s risk unexplained. About 9 of every 100 African-American with Alzheimer’s had the gene, compared with 6 out of 100 who did not have the disease.”
All the attention to blacks paid by Chang was totally unnecessary. One Alzheimer’s researcher, Dr. John Hardy, commented on the study by applauding the participants for their focus on minorities then “cautioned that the difference in risk between African-Americans and those of European ancestry who had ABCA7 was unlikely to be meaningful.” Actually, the Chang article seemed to promote race and racial differences as the focus of his article when the information did not support it. The Kolata article presented the study information in a clear and unbiased way. Her article is a good example of how ethnic identities rather than race can be used positively and effectively. Other journalists would do well to follow her example

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  1. Thank you for this excellent example of why words matter. I hear often that the use of the words “black” or “African American” really don’t matter. Your analysis of two different articles on the same study unquestionably demonstrates the significance of the use of these words. It absolutely matters.

  2. As a medical professional, I am asked to designate a race (per my impression), even when the person’s identity is unknown or when their appearance doesn’t suggest a particular race or ethnicity. Also, because of the way the classification works, sometimes people who are Hispanic (Central or South American), Middle Eastern or Indian and are clearly do not have features distinguishable from many African-Americans are classified as “White” because they “don’t fit” in any other category that’s been designated by the local government. Even more confusing, if the family insists on a designation that does not fit their “appearance”, my personal observation and assessment does not count (as it would with other features like height or weight), and I have not been provided with “scientific criteria” to give me guidance on the matter. I have been practically sneered at, and told “it should be obvious”, but on many occasions, it has not been; it is also acknowledged on these occasions, when I mention it, that there are no scientific criteria to distinguish race.


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