The Intersection of Race and Blood

Blood can be racially or ethnically specific, so having more blood donors in certain groups can be crucial for saving the lives of patients who share their backgrounds.

Comments: 50

  1. Something about how this is written makes me think it will take off as “proof” for anyone wanting to claim racial purity, “pure blood”.

  2. @Laume Things are taken out of context and twisted for other reasons all the time. This report makes no assertions that any type of blood is any better or worse than any other type. But not has never stopped anyone before.

  3. You're right, but the article is written to seemingly support the scientifically outdated and imperfect shortcut of trying to use race/ethnicity rather than modern DNA analysis to determine the DNA sequences of a given donor's blood.

  4. Many of my friends of diverse backgrounds would love to donate blood, but are barred from doing so because of who they have sex with...

  5. @C No, they're barred because of their higher risk of having HIV.

  6. @C Is there, perhaps, a reason for that?

  7. @Thomas Martin @gruff The reason is outdated prejudice at this point. I see no reason why my friend who has been with his boyfriend and only his boyfriend for 3 years is any riskier than someone who has had a large number of sexual partners of the opposite sex.

  8. Good timing on this article, I just donated at my local library. Time to peel off the bandaid. I'm not of recent African decent, so sadly my blood won't be great for a patient with sickle cell, but it should be good enough for a trauma patient! Best part, the cookies and juice.

  9. I donated until my doctor told me to stop because my red cells were too small. Still waiting to get the go-ahead from her. But I'm not a minority. We have vans that go to local places like the library to get donations; I would guess that improves getting donors from all over. Perhaps NY could do the same if they aren't already?

  10. So where does AB come from?

  11. Knowing one with a great sense of Humor, he always said "from crazy mixed up genes." Not being a scientist, I will go with his humor since I cannot donate having lived in Europe during Mad Cow and living with a sister with infectious hepatitis early on.

  12. @Rebecca, the AB blood type is considered to be very recent, and likely dates from the "Mongol horde" invasions under Genghis Khan etc that swept from Central Asia into Europe. A new mixed population developed a blood type that combined both European markers (A) and Asian markers (B). This is what my doctor has told me, anyway.

  13. @Rebecca It is just the mix of the A allele and the B allele. Which are just passed down from parents who have one of these alleles on their chromosomes.

  14. It's almost as if the conventional wisdom that "Science has proven that race doesn't exist biologically" is, like, wrong.

  15. @Steve Sailer This information doesn't actually contribute anything to that question. The article is pretty clear that these blood type trends are correlated with environmental factors associated with the geography in which various groups have lived. These blood types clearly do not serve as category boundaries that match up with what most people would think of as race (especially since there is too much overlap between groups). If they did, then the 27% of Asians who have type A blood couldn't be considered Asian; they'd have to be considered Caucasian--that is, only if you were willing to accept that a biological marker present in only ~40% of a population (in this case Caucasian) serves as a useful identifier of that population (which would then exclude the other ~60%)).

  16. @Seth Knox Agree. The author seems to use race, ancestry, nationality, and ethnicity interchangeably.

  17. I just donated a pint of my O negative on Monday and hate that the donor site was empty. It’s such a small way to make a big impact.

  18. When I was six years old, my mother nearly died from an ectopic pregnancy. What saved her was a transfusion, blood from anonymous donors that was there when needed. When I turned 18 and became eligible to donate blood, I did so gratefully, time and again. I don’t care if this helps whites, blacks, Asians or whoever. It is the humane thing to do.

  19. When I signed on with the bone marrow registry, I received a letter telling me they were glad to have me on file because my mix is unusual. As a practical matter, it's unlikely that anyone who is a match will need me, but I'll be there. Downside, I will probably be out of luck if I need a match someday.

  20. My ancestors came here from England, Ireland, and the Netherlands. My O negative blood has been found to be compatible with that of people of African descent who have sickle cell disease, and NYBC sends me tags to give to the donation technicians to earmark my donation for sickle cell patients. That's what keeps me going back to donate, thinking of those unknown, but very specific, people who are helped by my pint of blood. I’m going to be a donor till I’m too old to give.

  21. @Elizabeth How did you find out that your blood was compatible?

  22. I have B- blood, which is fairly rare and in demand. Yet, because I have spent five years of my life outside the United States, I am not permitted to donate. This crude screening method for things Creutzfeldt Jakob disease may make sense for the general population, but might be worth it for donors like me. (The odds of me having that disease are slim to none. I wasn't in England and was never much of a meat eater any way.) As the world goes increasingly mobile, the five-year rule will eliminate ever larger swathes of the population from blood donation.

  23. @A Little Grumpy, I'm B-, too! I try to donate when I can, as a friend lost a lot of blood giving birth and was saved by donated blood. But the 'blood industrial complex' financial stuff does unsettle me. I know it costs money to screen, preserve and transport the blood but I do wish it was cheaper for the people who need it.

  24. I thought "race" was a social construct, and not scientifically grounded. I noticed that the word "race" did not surface in the article until the end. It seemed to be equated to people of African descent, aka African Americans, which is another name for black people, a "race". While I don't dispute the facts in the article, I do think more attention needs to be drawn to how these findings integrate with a concept "race" which has no scientific basis.

  25. @Chris. Chris, you are entirely correct. As a retired sociologist of social stratification, I spent hours upon hours explaining that homo sapiens are 1 race. Differences in skin color are simply ethnic differences, NOT racial. Although to play the devil's advocate, the only homo sapiens who are without ANY genetic mixing with Neanderthals and Cro-magnon (truly NOT homo sapiens) are Africans, where humanity began it's trek outside Africa.

  26. @Chris Clearly "race," at least as it's currently understood and as demonstrated in this article, does indeed have a scientific basis.

  27. @Chris yes - it was used sorta interchangeably with "ancestry" and "ethnicity" and sometimes with "nationality." I think the article then reinforces the belief as from DD in the comment below that "clearly race does have a scientific basis" but I am not sure that was the intent. I think the author hasn't really thought that part through. Barbara and Karen Fields' book Racecraft has a great chapter on "blood" that I need to go re-read.

  28. I've never donated blood because I was told that if you visit areas where malaria is prevelant ( India) they cannot accept your blood. Can somebody please clarify this sentiment?

  29. @Vandana When I visited a malaria region (Kilimanjaro) the ARC barred me from donating for 12 months. If you're outside that window, you may want to check with them.

  30. "the Indian B antigen is known to be lacking in the blood of Iranians, Pakistanis and Indians, so donors had to have both parents from these populations. Two donors live in the United States, two in Britain and one in Australia." 5? What about the billion or so people in Iran, Pakistan and India?

  31. This casts a different light on a piece of 40 years ago. An article in Reader's Digest, July 1981, is entitled "Russian Blood". I'm Russian, subspecies American, and was offended by the article. Now, I need to rethink all that. An American in Siberia was bleeding internally. An accompanying American doctor found blood cell damage in the wake of a Russian transfusion. American blood was flown in, and recovery began. A good ending. But, the doctor's mused: "Ordinarily, there is no reason why a patient cannot be transfused with blood of the same type but of different ethnic origin. Sometimes, however, minor incompatibilities can prevent a successful transfusion... Is his body rejecting the Russian blood?" As your article states, this would have been hogwash at the time: ethnicity did not matter in transfusions. What one had, apparently, was a Russophobic piece of pseudo-science, more in line with early 20th century scientific racism than with modern biological knowledge. I took it as a milder version of Hitler's claim that we Slavs were biologically subhuman. Now I see that the doctor in Siberia was quite possibly correct. So, I have dropped this part of my criticism. But, such a problem in any other country would not have been worth a Digest article. I still think its subtext is that there is something biologically wrong with us. PS: The new result is a shattering blow to Postmodernism's "race doesn't exist". Debunking nihilism is always welcome.

  32. @alyosha Does race exist or is it tribe that exists? Both Trevor Noah and Barack Obama are African on one side and European of a sort on the other. But based on this article, Noah’s Khosa mother and Obama’s Luo father might very well have given them sufficiently different antibodies that they are not ideal donors for each other.

  33. @alyosha American is not an ethnicity.

  34. A telling quote from this article: "without a budget to precisely screen every donation, they could home in on antigens known to be specific to certain populations." Race/ethnicity is simply being used as an imperfect indicator of the DNA sequences of the donor blood, which is what actually matters medically. It's too bad that the author chose to reinforce this problematic tradition rather than support the expanded use of modern DNA screening of donated blood.

  35. @Mondo Man if I knew my blood was being DNA tested I would not donate. And I would hate not to donate, because I’m a handy AB- donor, which has high compatibility for plasma. But there are major privacy issues with DNA. as bad as racial profiling is, only imagine how much worse it would be with genetic information. I’ll provide my race, would provide my ethnic specifics as best I know it, but more than that - no thanks. Seen Gattaca? Also - with what money this DNA testing?

  36. whenever i read or hear the words "can be" my statistical, empirical and judgmental reflex is always: "how likely, and how often?"

  37. A companion piece to this article should be published, demonstrating the real workings of the blood donation industry. Ostensibly philanthropic, it is in fact highly profitable according to some reports I've read.

  38. @DD almost all blood supply in the US is ‘donated’ [ie at zero cost]. Granted there are costs associated with collection, testing, etc I just dont get it: why is a unit cost $500-$1000?? Because they can.

  39. I work in a hospital blood bank. We have a chart showing the prevalence of the blood group antigens most likely to cause antibodies in various ethnic groups on the door of our freezer. We refer to that chart almost daily. Knowing a patient's ethnicity can help us to find appropriate, compatible blood more efficiently, and more rapidly. We don't skip any steps, but the information does allow us to focus our testing.

  40. For all of those earnest souls who are so very convinced that race is a mere social construct - it is always worthwhile to revisit the most excellent NYT article of a year ago that ignited the most recent firestorm. How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’ By David Reich So - no - race is not 'simply' a social construct and we obviously still need to address the question posed in the article last year. "So how should we prepare for the likelihood that in the coming years, genetic studies will show that many traits are influenced by genetic variations, and that these traits will differ on average across human populations?"

  41. As other commenters have said, this article problematically conflates race, ethnicity, and ancestry. Early on, it says some blood types are racially specific. Then it goes on to describe characteristics that are more prevalent among populations that are geographically distinct- like sickle cell, or Type A blood- but not exclusive to a particular race. Sickle cell is more prevalent among African Americans, but is more common among people of Mediterranean descent (who might check "white" on a census form) than people of southern African heritage. Our racial categories lump together people of different geographical heritage and ancestry; traits vary independently across these boundaries. We need diversity in blood donors, but race is a broad and relatively poor proxy for this diversity.

  42. There is no such thing as African-American blood, as a type. This article is dangerously misleading in that it manages to suggest otherwise, and so reifies race. Percentages of biological markers for illness likelihood differ statistically by place. And so by descent. While it might save some lab time to collect blood samples having to do with malaria immunity from people who appear to have African descent, in other words, dark skin and African-American heritage, that is statistically true only. One could find perfect matches outside that group, too. Same with altered white blood cell types. African Blackness comes in all percentages everywhere and in the US, derives from all over the African continent since the second (modern) migration of Africans to the United States.

  43. I disagree with the premise. I am of West African, Native American and Scotch-Irish descent. My O+ blood type is suitable for transfusion to the largest array of human beings of any. To have any blood I donate sent only to sickle cell anemia patients would mean everyone else would be deprived of the opportunity to use it. This advocacy strikes me as a new kind of ‘scientific racism.’

  44. O negative is the most suitable for the widest array of recipients.

  45. Race, by definition, is not biological. It is a method of social classification based on phenotype (physical appearance) that has historically been used as an excuse for oppression, dispossession, and enslavement. Biological features (such as blood) that are shared among a population due to shared heritage is a feature of ethnicity. As just one example, consider how ethnically and historically distinct the Fante people of Ghana and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia are. And yet, to dominant societies, they are both considered black. The reality is that there is no such thing as black blood. This article falsely bolsters intellectually bankrupt biological theories of race that were decisively proved wrong about a century ago. It shows an astonishing lack of awareness of the historical meaning of race. And it deserves swift emendation.

  46. Race and ethnicity are both social/cultural constructs. Neither is a biological reality. Yes, certain groups of people whose origins are from a certain area are more likely to be genetically similar, including their blood types and factors. And, yes, from a probablistic point of view it makes excellent sense to consider one's lineage in both diagnosing and treating medical conditions. However, given the often discriminatory and even violent socio-political usage of "race" and "ethnicity", we all, especially journalists and doctors, should employ more accurate verbiage to describe the situation.

  47. I will not donate blood because I cannot be assured that the alcohol swabs used are gluten free or that the needles were not packaged in facilities where peanuts were present and that the Red Cross is not secretly slipping autism-inducing vaccines into us. Of course, if I ever require a transfusion an exception could be made in that case.