I wrote an article for The Atlantic about politics and culture and how they get embedded into our technology and science. I looked at the history of a medical device, called a spirometer, that was used to justify slavery. How doctors evaluate our lung health is still influenced by this machine, even today. Some people still believe that race is a kind of genetic essence, even though there are many, many reasons to know that isn’t true.
The notion that people of color have a racially defined deficiency isn’t new. The 19th century practice of measuring skulls, and equating them with morality and intelligence, is perhaps the most infamous example. But race-based measurements still persist. Today, doctors examine our lungs using spirometers that are “race corrected.” Normal values for lung health are reduced for patients that doctors identify as black. Not only might this practice mask economic or environmental explanations for lower lung capacity, but the logic of innate, racial difference is built into things like disability estimates, pre-employment physicals, and clinical diagnoses that rely on the spirometer. Race has become a biologically distinct, scientifically valid category despite the unnatural and social process of its creation.