In his essay, “How a Drug Becomes ‘Ethnic’: Law, Commerce, and the Production of Racial Categories in Medicine,” Jonathan Kahn argues that the claims that BiDil is a drug made especially for African Americans is “built around assertions…[that] hypothesized underlying genetic differences between blacks and whites (p. 3).”
I was surprised to read that such a recent drug was touted by the press as a breakthrough as the first ethnic drug. Here I was thinking that race and ethnicity were social constructions. How is it possible that a drug made originally for general heart disease is repatented with almost nothing changed, other than some studies being done which proved that African Americans have more heart disease than others, and is widely accepted? Shocking. Kahn writes that the studies concluded: "Observed racial disparities in mortality….in black heart failure patients may be due in part to ethnic differences in the underlying pathophysiology of heart failure (p.2)." Really? Or is it just that mostly poorer African American folks have to eat unhealthy greasy food because it’s cheap and readily accessible? Or because they are stressed out because of racism?
Kahn theorizes that BiDil was reinvented as an ethnic drug for legal and commercial reasons rather than biomedical. Legally, every 10 years or so a drug’s patent runs out, so in order for the pharmaceutical companies to keep making a profit off their investment they must remarket the same drug a different way, after slightly modifying the drug in some way that probably doesn’t even change the drug’s effect or intent in the slightest. Commercially, heart disease is a big problem within communities of color, African American men and women are an important demographic that pharmaceutical companies have chosen to market this drug to.
The risk of using race as a scapegoat to explain differences between populations is dangerous. Not until recently has there been a movement to discredit old ideas that people of color were genetically inferior – these laws influenced laws, policies and built structure that are still in place which accept race as a biological instead of social identity. Kahn argues, "Ethnicity may be leading the federal government improperly to endorse the use of race as a biological category in classifying its citizenry (p.4)," and this is just what happened all over again, for the millionth time.
It’s so disappointing to see that scientists are so stuck in their field that instead of looking at an issue as a social inequality, they just see flawed DNA or bad genetics. This is even represented my class sometimes, the IT students make me feel like us GWSS majors and minors are reaching for explanations, because obviously, they study this field and know what really happens – this feminist theory shit and is not backed up by science at all…how convenient.