Race, genetics and the right

Filed under: Featured,Transforming Race Conference |

By Sujatha Jesudason, Executive Director, Generations Ahead

I have a confession to make – even after six years of working on race and genetics, the science of genetics still make my eyes glaze over. Chromosomes, alleles, ACGT — I paid attention to none of these things until I made the connection between race and human genetics. I always knew that biological notions of race were used to justify racism, but like many, I thought those days were long past.  But race-as-biology is making a comeback in the updated form of race-as-genetics, and as racial justice advocates we need to be vigilant and prepared, especially given the strange new bedfellows it is arriving with.

Thankfully, one doesn’t have to know the difference between DNA and RNA to become concerned about the ways in which race as a social category is increasingly being mapped on to and conflated with genetic variation.  Scientists state that there is more genetic variation within any given group of humans (defined linguistically, geographically or culturally) than there is between any two groups of humans. Meaning there’s more variation between any two Indian people living next door to each other in India than there is between a Black and an Indian person living in the US.

Making a leap from genetic differences between individuals to assumptions about genetic differences between groups socially categorized by race can erase many aspects of structural racism. Racialized health disparities then become more about genetic differences than about lack of access to health care, environmental racism and poverty. And, in another leap called behavioral genetics, propensities for aggression, fidelity, and shyness are also linked to genes.

Once you have race linked to genes, and genes linked to behavior, you know it’s not long before race is genetically linked to behavior.  Race = genes + genes = behavior, therefore race = behavior. For example, somebody might claim that the reason our DNA forensic databases contain disproportionately more people of color has less to do with racism in the criminal justice system and more to do with imagined genes for violence, aggression and criminality.

Racial categories so powerfully shape our worldview that many scientists, knowingly or unknowingly, carry those categories into the scientific, forensic and medical worlds.  The first inclination when looking at genetic variations and differences is to categorize them by race. This is what happens in when it comes to race-specific medicines like BiDil, genetic ancestry tests, DNA forensics, and genetic trait selection.  Like the chicken and the egg, which comes first, the social hierarchies and inequalities of race, or the scientific evidence of racialized differences?

Equally alarming are those that are claiming the moral and ethical high ground in this new political battleground. The pharmaceutical industry asserts that they are altruistically attending to African American health through BiDil, the first FDA approved race-based drug for heart disease, although many claim it was based on poor and problematic research.

The criminal justice system purports to use DNA forensics to avoid wrongful convictions, of mostly men of color. And the religious right professes to defend the human rights of Asian and Black women through banning race and sex selective abortions.

Tapping into fears around “designer babies,” eugenics and rapidly emerging genetic trait selection technologies, the religious right is implementing a new anti-abortion strategy of banning abortions based on the race, color and sex. At the federal level, Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) introduced the “Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2009,” and just last week, Georgia Right to Life kicked off its “Black Babies are an Endangered Species” campaign, both intended to ban race and sex selective abortions. While sex selection is a real medical practice of unknown frequency in the US, their claims of race selection are based on the comparatively higher rates of abortion among Black women, rates more related to poverty, lack of access to contraception and comprehensive sexuality education than racial genocide, as they claim.

However factual or misleading trends in sex and race selection might be, it’s deeply disturbing, and infuriating to watch these groups use our hard-fought language of human rights, racial justice and civil rights, along with terms like eugenics and genocide to inflict more damage on women of color.

As racial justice advocates, we need to be both deeply involved in the fight to ensure that a new discourse of race = genetics does not gain scientific, social or political legitimacy, as much as we need to ensure that we maintain the moral and ethical high ground when talking about race, gender and genetics. If we are to keep the focus on addressing structural racism, we cannot allow the debate to veer off into the mythical territory of race-as-biology again.

Join me, and Osagie Obasogie, at a workshop on The Racial Politics of Genetic Technologies at 9:30 am Friday, March 12 to discuss these issues more in-depth.

Friday, March 12 at the Transforming Race Conference from 9:30  -  10:45 a.m.

Sujatha began working at the intersection of race, reproduction and genetics at the Center for Genetics and Society in 2004. She founded Generations Ahead in 2008 to organize a social justice perspective in the public policy debates on genetic technologies. She serves on the Board of Directors of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and comes to this work with a background in immigration, racial justice, domestic violence prevention, particularly in the South Asian community, and reproductive justice in communities of color. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in sociology.


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Author: Kirwan Institute (430 Articles)

Kirwan Institute

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