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Nationally renowned scientist talks racism, genetics at APSU

Joseph L. Graves Jr., a nationally renowned geneticist and author, delivers a lecture entitled "Racism not Race: A Scientific Approach to the Myth of Race and the Cost of Racism" on March 21 at Austin Peay State University's Jack Hunt STEM Center.

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Austin Peay State University hosted "Racism not Race: A Scientific Approach to the Myth of Race and the Cost of Racism," a lecture by renowned geneticist Joseph L. Graves Jr., March 21 at the Jack Hunt STEM Center.

As an expert on human genetic variation and what it means to be human - both biologically and socially - Graves addressed the myths of race and the social construct of racism. As the first African American evolutionary biologist, Graves has conducted extensive research on the topic.

“Over the course of our careers, we found that there's ongoing confusion concerning the meaning and significance of human biological variation, particularly in its relation to things like disease predisposition,” Graves said of “Racism, Not Race: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions,” a book he co-authored with Dr. Alan Goodman. “Our book is for readers who want to work towards human equity and for people who are nervous about saying the wrong thing. And in many cases, these two groups overlap.”

The lecture focused on the disparities in health care related to medical misconceptions, the disadvantages of underrepresentation in the STEM fields and the impacts of racism on education, including the influence of educators on racism. Graves pointed to the fact that while African Americans in the U.S. have higher rates of heart disease, cancer and influenza, these ailments are indicative of factors unrelated to genetic differences, such as structural racism.

“Any two people in this audience share, by chance alone, 99.9 percent of their genome in common,” Graves said. We're talking about 0.1% of your genome [that] differentiates you as an individual.

“People often think about individual personal acts of racism and too much of the focus on racism has been on individual, personal acts. But in fact, the things that are causing the health disparities that we observe in society are not individual, personal acts.”

Associate Professor Dr. Philip Short, co-director of the Jack Hunt STEM Center in the Eriksson College of Education, said it is important to bring in diverse voices to Austin Peay to address topics of concern to faculty, staff and students.

“As many of us on the APSU campus invest ourselves in well-intended diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, a haunting notion frequently surfaces for those who ponder the underlying causes for inequity and injustice,” Short said. “If we know, from biological sciences, that no evidence suggests categorizing humans by distinct ‘races,’ why does racism even exist? Moreover, do we risk perpetuating false concepts of natural determinism and class distinctions in the language we often use for, again, well-intended purposes?”

Short looks forward to using Graves’ lecture as a way to promote diversity, equity and inclusion efforts at Austin Peay.

“He left us with the impacting question of how to operationalize his information for tangible progress toward equity, access, inclusion and justice in our community,” Short said.

Graves is a professor of biological sciences in the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nano-engineering at North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro. He has authored several books, including his bestseller, "The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millenium," and "The Race Myth: Why We Pretend That Race Exists in America." He released "A Voice in the Wilderness: A Pioneering Biologist Explains How Evolution Can Help Us Solve Our Biggest Problems" in 2022.

This event was co-sponsored by the Diversity Councils of the Eriksson College of Education and the College of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics, the APSU Diversity Committee and the Office of Equity, Access and Inclusion.