How Not To Talk About Race And Genetics

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Letters, Media Archive on 2018-03-31 02:37Z by Steven

How Not To Talk About Race And Genetics

BuzzFeed
2018-03-30


Micah Baldwin / Via Flickr: micahb37

Race has long been a potent way of defining differences between human beings. But science and the categories it constructs do not operate in a political vacuum.

This open letter was produced by a group of 68 scientists and researchers. The full list of signatories can be found below.

In his newly published book Who We Are and How We Got Here, geneticist David Reich engages with the complex and often fraught intersections of genetics with our understandings of human differences — most prominently, race.

He admirably challenges misrepresentations about race and genetics made by the likes of former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade and Nobel Laureate James Watson. As an eminent scientist, Reich clearly has experience with the genetics side of this relationship. But his skillfulness with ancient and contemporary DNA should not be confused with a mastery of the cultural, political, and biological meanings of human groups.

As a group of 68 scholars from disciplines ranging across the natural sciences, medical and population health sciences, social sciences, law, and humanities, we would like to make it clear that Reich’s understanding of “race” — most recently in a Times column warning that “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races’” — is seriously flawed…

Read the entire letter here.

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Tales of African-American History Found in DNA

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2016-05-29 21:06Z by Steven

Tales of African-American History Found in DNA

The New York Times
2016-05-27

Carl Zimmer

The history of African-Americans has been shaped in part by two great journeys.

The first brought hundreds of thousands of Africans to the southern United States as slaves. The second, the Great Migration, began around 1910 and sent six million African-Americans from the South to New York, Chicago and other cities across the country.

In a study published on Friday, a team of geneticists sought evidence for this history in the DNA of living African-Americans. The findings, published in PLOS Genetics, provide a map of African-American genetic diversity, shedding light on both their history and their health.

Buried in DNA, the researchers found the marks of slavery’s cruelties, including further evidence that white slave owners routinely fathered children with women held as slaves.

And there are signs of the migration that led their descendants away from such oppression: Genetically related African-Americans are distributed closely along the routes they took to leave the South, the scientists discovered…

…The history of African-Americans poses special challenges for geneticists. During the slave trade, their ancestors were captured from genetically diverse populations across a portion of West Africa. Adding to the complexity is the fact that living African-Americans also may trace some of their ancestry to Europeans and Native Americans…

…Most of the Native American DNA identified by Dr. Gravel and his colleagues in African-Americans occurs now in tiny chunks. The scientists concluded that most of the mingling between Africans and Native Americans took place soon after the first slaves arrived in the American colonies in the early 1600s.

The European DNA in African-Americans, on the other hand, occurs in slightly longer chunks, indicating a more recent origin. Dr. Gravel and his colleagues estimate that its introduction dates to the decades before the Civil War

Read the entire article here.

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The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome

Posted in Books, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Slavery, Social Science on 2016-01-10 17:12Z by Steven

The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome

Beacon Press
2016-01-12
216pages
6 x 9 Inches
Cloth ISBN: 978-080703301-2

Alondra Nelson, Dean of Social Science; Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies
Columbia University, New York, New York

The unexpected story of how genetic testing is affecting race in America

We know DNA is a master key that unlocks medical and forensic secrets, but its genealogical life is both revelatory and endlessly fascinating. Tracing genealogy is now the second-most popular hobby amongst Americans, as well as the second-most visited online category. This billion-dollar industry has spawned popular television shows, websites, and Internet communities, and a booming heritage tourism circuit.

The tsunami of interest in genetic ancestry tracing from the African American community has been especially overwhelming. In The Social Life of DNA, Alondra Nelson takes us on an unprecedented journey into how the double helix has wound its way into the heart of the most urgent contemporary social issues around race.

For over a decade, Nelson has deeply studied this phenomenon. Artfully weaving together keenly observed interactions with root-seekers alongside illuminating historical details and revealing personal narrative, she shows that genetic genealogy is a new tool for addressing old and enduring issues. In The Social Life of DNA, she explains how these cutting-edge DNA-based techniques are being used in myriad ways, including grappling with the unfinished business of slavery: to foster reconciliation, to establish ties with African ancestral homelands, to rethink and sometimes alter citizenship, and to make legal claims for slavery reparations specifically based on ancestry.

Nelson incisively shows that DNA is a portal to the past that yields insight for the present and future, shining a light on social traumas and historical injustices that still resonate today. Science can be a crucial ally to activism to spur social change and transform twenty-first-century racial politics. But Nelson warns her readers to be discerning: for the social repair we seek can’t be found in even the most sophisticated science. Engrossing and highly original, The Social Life of DNA is a must-read for anyone interested in race, science, history and how our reckoning with the past may help us to chart a more just course for tomorrow.

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Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Social Science on 2015-03-03 20:21Z by Steven

Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry

Social Studies of Science
Volume 38, Number 5 (October 2008)
pages 759-783
DOI: 10.1177/0306312708091929

Alondra Nelson, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies; Director, Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality
Columbia University, New York, New York

This paper considers the extent to which the geneticization of `race’ and ethnicity is the prevailing outcome of genetic testing for genealogical purposes. The decoding of the human genome precipitated a change of paradigms in genetics research, from an emphasis on genetic similarity to a focus on molecular-level differences among individuals and groups. This shift from lumping to splitting spurred ongoing disagreements among scholars about the significance of `race’ and ethnicity in the genetics era. I characterize these divergent perspectives as `pragmatism’ and `naturalism’. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, I argue that neither position fully accounts for how understandings of `race’ and ethnicity are being transformed with genetic genealogy testing. While there is some acquiescence to genetic thinking about ancestry, and by implication, `race’, among African-American and black British consumers of genetic genealogy testing, test-takers also adjudicate between sources of genealogical information and from these construct meaningful biographical narratives. Consumers engage in highly situated `objective’ and `affiliative’ self-fashioning, interpreting genetic test results in the context of their `genealogical aspirations’. I conclude that issues of site, scale, and subjectification must be attended to if scholars are to understand whether and to what extent social identities are being transformed by recent developments in genetic science.

Read or purchase the article here.

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But the primary reason these ancestry stories entrance us is because they bring us face-to-face with our national fascination with and anxieties about racial miscegenation.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2012-08-05 03:47Z by Steven

We have a high threshold for political gossip and, in the digital age, genealogy is a fast fad that shows no sign of passing out of vogue. But the primary reason these ancestry stories entrance us is because they bring us face-to-face with our national fascination with and anxieties about racial miscegenation.

Alondra Nelson, “Obama is a Descendant of Nefertiti & Confucius Too,” Dominion of New York, July 31, 2012. http://www.dominionofnewyork.com/2012/07/31/obama-is-a-descendant-of-nefertiti-confucius-too/

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Obama is a Descendant of Nefertiti & Confucius Too

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Barack Obama, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2012-08-01 22:11Z by Steven

Obama is a Descendant of Nefertiti & Confucius Too

Dominion of New York
2012-07-31

Alondra Nelson, Associate Professor of Sociology
Columbia University

There was breaking news yesterday in the lively world of presidential genealogy. Barack Obama–who is regarded as an inauthentic African-American by some because his late mother, Stanley Anne Dunham, was a white woman and his father’s ancestry traced to Kenya rather than Kentucky or the Carolinas–was suggested to be descended on his maternal side from John Punch, a black man.

Researchers at Ancestry.com, the online root-seeking company, derived Obama’s relationship to Punch using a combination of standard genealogical research and Y-chromosome genetic analysis. (Y-DNA is passed essentially unchanged from fathers to sons to grandsons to great-grandsons, etc.) The timing of this announcement could not be better for the Provo, Utah company that just reported booming fourth quarter profits and is rumored to be seeking a buyer.

An indentured servant in 17th century Virginia, Punch would earn the lamentable designation of “the first documented African enslaved for life in American history” when he was reduced to chattel as punishment for his attempt to escape servitude. Punch, like Obama the elder, was an African; tragically, what makes Punch “African-American” is his slave status. With rebellious, freedom-loving roots firmly planted in the New World, our nation’s first president of African descent —Punch’s 11th great grandson–may just be “black enough” after all…

…We have a high threshold for political gossip and, in the digital age, genealogy is a fast fad that shows no sign of passing out of vogue. But the primary reason these ancestry stories entrance us is because they bring us face-to-face with our national fascination with and anxieties about racial miscegenation. Take, for example, the minor controversy over Rachel L. Swarns recently published American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multicultural Ancestors of Michelle Obama. Megan Smolenyak, the prominent genealogist who conducted the research for Swarns’ widely-read 2007 co-authored article that revealed Michelle Obama’s white slavery-era ancestors, critiqued it in the Huffington Post. Smolenyak was stunned that:

the maternal half of the first lady’s family tree — her mother Marian (Shields) Robinson’s side [was] overlooked. Though Michelle Obama has classic Great Migration roots winding their way back to at least eleven states, southern Virginia — and especially Henry and Pittsylvania counties — can claim more of her heritage than any other location. Fully a quarter of her ancestry traces to this area on the North Carolina border, but inexplicably, it’s this portion of her family tree that’s given short-shrift.

Smolenyak further complained that “the ‘revelation’ of the white ancestor via DNA testing” wasn’t unexpected; “the only true surprise in the book” she concluded, was “the absence of over a third of Mrs. Obama’s known ancestors.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History

Posted in Anthologies, Anthropology, Books, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, Social Science on 2011-12-12 03:12Z by Steven

Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History

Rutgers University Press
2012-03-15
368 pages
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8135-5255-2
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8135-5254-5

Keith Wailoo, Townsend Martin Professor of History and Public Affairs
Princeton University

Alondra Nelson, Associate Professor of Sociology
Columbia University

Catherine Lee, Assistant Professor of Sociology; Faculty Associate
Institute for Health
Rutgers University

Our genetic markers have come to be regarded as portals to the past. Analysis of these markers is increasingly used to tell the story of human migration; to investigate and judge issues of social membership and kinship; to rewrite history and collective memory; to right past wrongs and to arbitrate legal claims and human rights controversies; and to open new thinking about health and well-being. At the same time, in many societies genetic evidence is being called upon to repair the racial past and to transform scholarly and popular opinion about the “nature” of identity in the present.

Genetics and the Unsettled Past considers the alignment of genetic science with commercial genealogy, with legal and forensic developments, and with pharmaceutical innovation to examine how these trends lend renewed authority to biological understandings of race and history.

This unique collection brings together scholars from a wide range of disciplines to explore the emerging and often contested connections among race, DNA, and history. Written for a general audience, the book’s essays touch upon a variety of topics, including the rise and implications of DNA in genealogy, law, and other fields; the cultural and political uses and misuses of genetic information; the way in which DNA testing is reshaping understandings of group identity for French Canadians, Native Americans, South Africans, and many others within and across cultural and national boundaries; and the sweeping implications of genetics for society today.

In this interview for Dalton Conley’s book, You May Ask Yourself, Alondra Nelson describes her research on genetic testing and how it is changing the way people think about race.

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SOCI W 3277x: Post-Racial America?

Posted in Course Offerings, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2011-09-03 04:05Z by Steven

SOCI W 3277x: Post-Racial America?

Barnard College, Columbia University
Fall 2011

Alondra Nelson, Associate Professor of Sociology

What is race? Is the US a post-racial society? Is such a society desirable? Is a post-racial society necessarily a just and egalitarian one? We consider these questions from ethnographic, historical, and theoretical perspectives. Topics discussed include intersectionality, multiracial identity, colorism, genetics, and the race and/or class debate.

For more information, click here.

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Racial Categories in Medical Practice: How Useful Are They?

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Census/Demographics, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy on 2010-02-08 19:50Z by Steven

Racial Categories in Medical Practice: How Useful Are They?

PLoS Medicine
Volume 4, Number 9 (September 2007)
pages 1423-1428
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.0040271

Lundy Braun
Departments of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Africana Studies
Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

Duana Fullwiley, Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and of Medical Anthropology
Harvard University

Anne Fausto-Sterling
Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Biochemistry, Program in Women’s Studies, and Chair of the Faculty Committee on Science and Technology Studies
Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

Evelynn M. Hammonds, Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity
History of Science and of African and African American Studies programs
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Alondra Nelson
Departments of Sociology and African American Studies
Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut

William Quivers
Department of Physics
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

Susan M. Reverby
Women’s Studies Department,
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts

Alexandra Shields
Harvard/MGH Cente on Genomics, Vulnerable Populations and Health Disparities,
Massachusetts General Hospital
Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

The Trouble with Race

Is it good medical practice for physicians to “eyeball” a patient’s race when assessing their medical status or even to ask them to identify their race? This question was captured in a 2005 episode of “House M.D.,”  Fox television’s medical drama. In the episode, a black patient with heart disease refuses a hospital physician’s prescription for what is clearly supposed to be BiDil, the drug approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration only for “self-identified” African-Americans. Dr. House, on seeing the patient for followup, insists on the same prescription.  The patient again refuses, telling House, “I’m not buying into no racist drug, OK?” House, a white physician asks, “It’s racist because it helps black people more than white people? Well, on behalf of my peeps, let me say, thanks for dying on principle for us.” The patient replies, “Look. My heart’s red, your heart’s red.  And it don’t make no sense to give us different drugs.”  Who is right here, House or his patient? And what does this episode tell us about the way race plays itself out in the physician-patient clinical encounter? What of clinical importance can be learned by making a quick racial assessment?  That an ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitor may not be effective? That screening for sickle cell anemia is a waste of time? Sorting patients by race may seem useful during a time constrained interview, but we argue that acting on rapid racial assessment can lead to missed diagnoses and inappropriate treatments…

Racial Categories Are Historical, Not Natural

…Racial definitions are historically and nationally specific. In her comparison of the history of racial categories in the US and Brazilian census from the late 18th century to the present, political scientist Melissa Nobles demonstrated that categories emerge and are  deployed in different ways over time. For example, during the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, at the height of US anxiety about “miscegenation,” categories such as “mulatto” were vehicles for expressing and containing cultural anxiety about racial purity.  Bolstered by scientific ideas about race, data collected on the numbers of “mulattoes” were shaped by the desire to prove that “hybrids” would die out

…A dark-skinned, curly-headed person who identifies as African American may, indeed, have much in his or her history and upbringing to justify that identification. But he or she may also have a white grandparent and several Cherokee ancestors. Thus, returning to the example of glaucoma, it is more important to know a patient’s family history than to assess his or her race.  And collecting family history ought to mean not only compiling a list of which diseases family members have, but making some attempt to assess common (familial) habits such as diet and life experiences (e.g., first- versus second-generation immigrants, living conditions, or same versus widely varied work experience and geographical locations). Similarly, when the history of passing for white is ignored, those who identify themselves as “white” are assumed to have no ancestral “black blood.”  Finally, immigration patterns constantly change. A “black” person walking into a Boston, Massachusetts clinic could easily be the child of a recent immigrant from Ethiopia or Brazil who has a genetic makeup as well as cultural and environmental exposures that differ significantly from the descendents of 19th century US slaves from the western coast of Africa…

Read the entire article here.

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