[oasis][columns]

HIV Immunity and Racial Politics

By Patricia Nell Warren


As headlines blare the big news about a mutant gene for HIV immunity, I am not too surprised. My years in agriculture and livestock breeding taught me that disease often spurs a living organism to mutate immunity. Some Dutch elms are immune to elm disease. Some food plants are bred to resist disease. Some animals inherit an immunity -- to feline leukemia virus, for example. Why should humans be different?

What's worrisome about this news is that a racial label might be slapped on the mutant CCR5 gene. According to the Los Angeles Times, one researcher, Dr. Nathan R. Landau, states that around 1 out of 100 Western European whites are genetically resistant to HIV infection. By contrast, the Times said, both of the research teams announcing the news are stating that not one among several hundred Africans and Asians had the gene.

But hold your horses. What is a "white"?

Americans are taught to label themselves racially. Every day, we are presented with forms where we must check the right box for Caucasian, Native American, African American, Asian, Mexican-American, Pacific Islander, or Other. Many of us are "other" -- meaning racially mixed. Yet this significant fact often gets blurred. Why? Because, in so many cultures, the mixed-blood is an outcast. Since the days of slavery and tribal wars, many U.S. families have agonized at "passing for white." Some families stopped at nothing, including altering birth certificates, so they could sweep that Asian or native American grannie, or that bunch of "high yellow" cousins, under the rug.

So it is one thing to identify as "white," "black," etc. for survival reasons. It is also natural to identify as black or native American when the moment comes to reclaim pride in one's brown skin. But when it comes to scientific scrutiny of the actual millions of genes that are part of one's DNA, labels don't cut it. Take me, for example. I could pass for "white" -- fair skin, blue-grey eyes, brown hair. But my native American blood is visible to anybody who looks hard. One many-times-great-grandmother of mine, Keziah, no last name recorded, who married a German Quaker in the early 1800s, was evidently an escaped slave. Yet nothing in my outward appearance hints at Keziah's presence in my family tree.

Many Americans have a similar background. Some who identify as "black" actually have strong native American blood, going back to intermarriage in early days. Some self-identified Latinos are visibly part African American. As for enrolled members of U.S. tribes, few are actually "pure." The rest are mixed-bloods, no matter how intensely they may feel otherwise.

People usually "identify" on what they see in the mirror -- skin color, hair texture, build, etc. Geneticists refer to this as phenotype -- inherited characteristics that are visible, or have a discernible result, as in inherited disease like hemophilia. But there is also genotype -- the sum total of our DNA, which includes any recessive characteristics that we carry, but do not visibly express. If an ovum or sperm happens to carry a copy of that hidden gene, it will be quietly passed to the next generation. A single copy of a mutant or recessive gene can be wafted forward for 15 or 20 generations, before its carrier finally mates with another human who happens to have the same characteristic. Then, and only then, will it spring to view -- as in hair color, or inherited disability, or immunity.

The CCR5 figures are supposedly based on over 1400 Western European "whites." Europeans are mixed too! Since Roman times, southern Europe was swept by trade, immigration and conquest from North Africa. More recent invasions of genes came from central Asian peoples -- Turks, Magyars, Mongols. All these ethnic hues produced a genetic rainbow that gave Hitler nightmares. Since 1960, the genetic swamping of Europe has continued unabated as immigrant workers of every ethnicity have flocked there. Indeed, this tiny, overcrowded continent is now boiling with its own brand of anti-immigrant feeling. Europe lily-white? Hardly.

So...what is behind the "white" phenotypes in these new studies? Who are their grandparents? Great-grandparents? Great-great-grandparents?

It's easy to see attitude coming, from white supremacists who will seize this research as their "great white hope" -- what they view as more "proof" of Aryan superiority. Others, I'm sure, will hope that researchers are already taking a closer look at their subjects' family trees. Maybe, when the final tally is in, they'll find that immunity to HIV is influenced by another factor besides race.

So sorry, but this mixed-blood doesn't buy the "white" thing.


Patricia Nell Warren is author of "The Front Runner" and other best-selling books, as well as a widely published commentator. Her publisher is Wildcat Press. Copyright (c) 1996 by Patricia Nell Warren. All Rights Reserved.
©1996 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.