"In The Blood: Sickle Cell Anemia and the Politics of Race"


Melbourne Tapper
$22.50 cloth, 160 pages

Bookcover.jpegAlthough we now know that sickle cell anemia strikes individuals from a variety of backgrounds, the disease has been labeled throughout the 20th century as a "black" one. Melbourne Tapper, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, examines how this came to be in his new book.

Tapper wrote in his introduction: "An overwhelming number of people with sickling in the United States are of African descent, and the phenomenon occurs among Africans living in Africa. This in itself does not imply, however, that sickling is a disease specific to the black body-a 'racial disease.'. . . To explain why sickling continues to be seen as a black-related disease, we need to examine the ideological underpinnings of the research projects and government actions that throughout this century have rendered sickling as a disease of the black body."

Tapper shows that from its discovery in 1910 in a black Caribbean student and through further studies in the ensuing decades, researchers reached incorrect conclusions about the disease out of a political and medical desire to establish a scientific marker for race. If, for instance, a white-skinned person tested positive for sickle cell, they assumed the person must have an African ancestor. Sickle cell anemia has been used for years in this fashion to substantiate in a supposedly unbiased manner the "fact" that there are genetic diseases wholly unique to a racial group that separates them from their fellow human beings.

-University of Pennsylvania Press

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Originally published on January 28, 1999