Rethinking 21st Century Racism on the Way Home

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2014-12-12 02:17Z by Steven

Rethinking 21st Century Racism on the Way Home

GeneWatch
Council for Responsible Genetics
Volume 27, Issue 2 (May-July 2014)

Victoria Massie, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Anthropology
University of California, Berkeley

Returning home from fieldwork can be difficult when you find yourself caught between an unintended call back to your project and the impending reality that home has lost its capacity to act as sanctuary. That was at least the situated liminality I encountered in the John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 16, 2013. Fresh off of a flight from Belgium after leaving Cameroon, I met America at a crossroads. It had been a little over 48 hours since the news had circulated around the country, and the world, that self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman-turned-vigilante George Zimmerman was found not guilty for stalking and shooting in the chest at point-blank range a young 17 year-old boy, Trayvon Martin, who was simply returning home after buying some skittles and iced tea.

Indeed, since I had left it in May, America had proven itself audacious and arrogant in ways that I could not stomach. To think it had only been a few days earlier that I met with a young Cameroonian woman at a café in downtown Douala to inform her that, despite the election of Barack Obama, America still has yet to fully confront the legacy of racism. That it still haunts those bodies whose skin does not prove bright enough to mirror the clouds. That despite her dreams of changing the world through medicine, America was not necessarily likely to welcome her, at least not with open arms. That she, like me, like my family, like many of my friends, would come to find herself engaging in the fight of her life in the pursuit of her happiness away from home.

As I sat in the waiting area, anxious to board my final flight to San Francisco, I doubted my advice had been marked by anything more than na√Įvet√©. After all, surrounded by television screens in every direction, all of which seemed to be tuned in to the same program on CNN, I listened as one of the jurors, protected by the veil of anonymity in a world marked by surveillance, echoed the President’s official statement that the verdict was justice served.

I was not thirsty enough to swallow the audacious idea that one could condone the possibility that it could ever be rational to consume black life, my life, with all of its innocent willingness to exist, with impunity…

…Much work has been done to discuss the problematic ways American racial categories are, without even a second thought, being re-inscribed into the genome through what has come to be called genetic “ancestry.” And though its applications were first limited to the field of biomedicine, the burgeoning field of direct-to-consumer DNA tests has turned ancestry testing into the latest American pastime. From spit-parties at New York fashion week to Baptist church services and family reunion backyard barbeques, it seems most Americans know someone who has taken a genetic ancestry test, or have done so themselves. While I was working at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley this summer, the director, Marcy Darnovsky, shared with me her recent encounter with a woman in a checkout line in Trader Joe’s. With a voice that carried across the aisles, the woman standing in front of her announced to a friend – and, unintentionally, the rest of the grocery store – the various percentages of African, European, Asian and Native American ancestry seamlessly replicating within her…

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Who You Really Are

Posted in Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2014-11-20 01:46Z by Steven

Who You Really Are

GeneWatch
Council for Responsible Genetics
Volume 27, Issue 2 (May-July 2014)

Robert Pollack, Professor of Biological Sciences, Earth Institute Professor, Adjunct Professor of Religion, Lecturer in Psychiatry
Columbia University, New York, New York

Patricia Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law
Columbia University, New York, New York

“International Biosciences offer a broad range of DNA Testing services designed to provide indisputable answers to emotional questions….”
www.ibdna.com/regions/UK/EN/?page=blackAmericans

“Your story awaits – go find it…”
www.ancestry.com

“Welcome to you.”
www.23andMe.com

Oh the happy marketplace for genetic information! The hunt is on: From royal roots to hidden baby-daddies, to making sure you’re not accidentally related to any of those many, many Kardashians. The very definition of “ancestry” is freighted with social meaning. “Tracking” it tempts one to imaginary flights about inheritance, wealth, esteem, identity, purity of lineage – and correction! How we all long to be redeemed by such searches, released from the unfairly limited befoggery of what we actually know of ourselves. What bliss instead to follow our most deliciously arrogant, nakedly ambitious fantasies of some Mystery Me, some hitherto unspoken-of chromosomal configuration that will distinguish and redeem. Given that hunger, it isn’t hard to market DNA as a product, like cement, designed to fill in the gaps, and provide stick-um for the jigsaw puzzle of ourselves. Within that marketplace, the definition of DNA is not confined by science but rendered connotatively huge, larger than galaxies, unconfined, a universe of wildest imagination. Yearning. Cure. Immortality. Control. A golem created from the skeletons of the past to address anxiety about what will happen to the present body.

Yet the boring bottom line is that we are all doomed to be embarrassed by the vulgar commonality of our humanity. We are all alone, orphans, bastards, individuals, adopted, adapted, lost, sold down the river, rediscovered like Moses in the bulrushes. We are, not one of us, descendants of a pure untainted line…

Read the entire article here.

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Tell Me a Story: Genomics vs. Indigenous Origin Narratives

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, Native Americans/First Nation, Religion, United States on 2013-10-12 02:45Z by Steven

Tell Me a Story: Genomics vs. Indigenous Origin Narratives

GeneWatch
Council for Responsible Genetics
Volume 26, Number 4, Religion & Genetics (Aug-Oct 2013)
pages 11-13

Kim TallBear, Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of Texas, Austin

On April 13, 2005 the Indigenous Peoples’ Council on Biocolonialism issued a press release opposing the Genographic Project, which aimed to sample 100,000 indigenous and other traditional peoples to “trace the migratory history of the human species” and “map how the Earth was populated.” IPCB critiques Genographic, and the Human Genome Diversity Project before it, as the contemporary continuation of colonial, extractive research. The analysis is also a fundamental historical examination of Western science. IPCB foregrounds the intellectual and institutional authority that science, a powerful tool of colonizing states, has to appropriate indigenous bodies – both dead and living – material cultural artifacts, and indigenous cultural narratives in the service of academic knowledge production.

Critics point out that such knowledge rarely serves indigenous peoples’ interests and can actively harm them. In the 19th and early 20th centuries massacre sites and graves were plundered for body parts to be used in scientific investigations that inform today’s anthropological and biological research on Native Americans. Throughout the 20th century, indigenous peoples around the world witnessed the too common practice of “helicopter research” – quick sampling without return of results or benefit to subjects. Indigenous DNA samples and data taken in earlier decades when ethics standards were lax continue to be used and cited in contemporary investigations, bringing those injustices into the 21st century. And new, more ethical research still takes time from other pressing projects and needs. Informed community review and collaboration with researchers will increase community benefit, but informed participation has costs. It takes resources to build capacity to sit at the table as equals instead of as vulnerable subjects – as simply the raw materials for science…

Read the entire article here.

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The Elusive Variability of Race

Posted in Articles, Brazil, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Mexico, Social Science on 2013-03-31 04:59Z by Steven

The Elusive Variability of Race

GeneWatch
Council for Responsible Genetics
Volume 21, Issue 3-4 (July-August 2009)
2009-07-30
Pages 4-6

Patricia J. Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law
Columbia University

The question of race is, at its core, a questioning of humanity itself.  In various eras and locales, race has been marked by color of skin, texture of hair, dress, musical prowess, digital dexterity, rote memorization, mien, mannerisms, disease, athletic ability, capacity to write poetry, sense of rhythm, sobriety, childlike cheerfulness, animal anger, language, continent of origin, hypodescent, hyperdescent, religious affiliation, thrift, flamboyance, slyness, physical size, or presence of a moral conscience. These presumed markers may appear random in the aggregate, but they have nevertheless been deployed to rationalize the distribution of resources and rights to some groups and not others. Behind the concept of race, in other words, is a deeper interrogation of what distinguishes beasts from brothers;  of who is presumed entitled or dispossessed,  person or slave, autonomous or alien, compatriot or enemy.

In the contemporary United States, race is based chiefly on broad and variously calibrated metrics of African ancestry. To get a full sense of the ideological incoherence of race and racism, however, one must also include the longer history: the centuries-old Chinese condescension to native Taiwanese Islanders; the English derogation of the Irish for “pug noses”; the plight of the Dalit (i.e., untouchables) in India; or comprehensively eugenic regimes like Hitler’s.

Despite the enormous definitional diversity of what race even means, and despite the fact that the biological studies – from Charles Darwin’s observations to the Human Genome Project – have patiently, repetitively and definitively shown that all humans are a single species, there remain many determined to reinscribe a multitude of old racialist superstitions onto the biotechnologies of the future.¬† Despite the biological evidence – and a towering body of social science that is cumulative (observations over time), comprehensive (multiple levels of inquiry) and convergent (from a variety of sources, places, disciplines) – we are still asking the same centuries-old questions…

…So what is race if not biology?

Race is a hierarchical social construct that assigns human value and group power. Social constructions are human inventions, the products of mind and circumstance. This is not to say that they are imaginary. Racialized taxonomies have real consequences upon biological functions, including the expression of genes. They affect the material conditions of survival-relative respect and privilege, education, wealth or poverty, diet, medical and dental care, birth control, housing options and degree of stigma…

…If history has shown us anything, it’s that race is contradictory and unstable. Yet our linguistically embedded notions of race seem to be on the verge of transposing themselves yet again into a context where genetic percentages act as the ciphers for culture and status, as well as economic and political attributes. In another generation or two, the privileges of whiteness may be extended to those who are “half” this or that.¬† Indeed, some of the discussions about Barack Obama’s “biracialism” seemed to invite precisely such an interpretation. Let us not mistake it for anything like progress, however: biracialism always has a short shelf life. For example, by the time he was elected President, Barack Obama was no longer our first “half and half president” but had become all African-American all the time. Indeed, Obama himself seemed to acknowledge the more complex reality of his own lineage in an off-the-cuff aside, when, speaking about his daughters’ search for a puppy, he observed that most shelter dogs are “mutts like me.”

In fact, of course, we’re all mutts – and as Americans, we’ve been mixing it up faster and more thoroughly than anyplace on earth. At the same time, we live in a state of tremendous denial about the rambunctiousness of our recent lineage. The language by which we assign racial category narrows or expands our perception of who is more like whom, tells us who can be considered marriageable or untouchable. The habit of burying the relentlessly polyglot nature of our American identity renders us blind to how intimately we are tied as kin.

In the United States’ vexed history of color-consciousness, anti-miscegenation laws (the last of which were struck down only in 1967) enshrined the notion of hypodescent. Hypodescent is a cultural phenomenon whereby the child of parents who come from differing social classes will be assigned the status of the parent with the lower standing. Most parts of the Deep South adhered to it with great rigidity, in what is commonly called the “one drop and you’re black” rule. Take for example, New York Times editor Anatole Broyard, who denied any relation to his darker-skinned siblings and “passed” as white for most of his adult life. There were many who expressed shock when it was uncovered that he was “really” black. Some states, like Louisiana, practiced a more gradated form of hypodescent, indicating hierarchies of status with vocabulary like “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octaroon.” And even today, despite our diasporic, fragmented, postmodern cosmopolitanism, there is a thoughtless or unconscious tendency to preserve these taxonomies, no matter how incoherent. Consider Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter Senator Strom Thurmond had by his family’s black maid. She lived her life as a “Negro,” then as an “African American,” and attended an “all-black” college. But in her 70s, when Thurmond’s paternity became publicized, she was suddenly redesignated “biracial.” Tiger Woods and Kimora Lee Simmons are alternatively thought of as African-American or “biracial,” but rarely as “Asian-American.”

In contrast, many parts of Latin America, like Brazil or Mexico, assign race by the opposite process, hyperdescent. That’s when those with any ancestry of the dominant social group, such as European, identify themselves as European or white, when they may also have African or Indian parents. As more Latinos have become citizens of the United States, we have interesting examples of this cultural cognitive dissonance: Just think about Beyonc√© Knowles and Jennifer Lopez. Phenotypically they look very similar. Yet Knowles is generally referred to as black or African-American; Lopez is generally thought of as white (particularly among her Latino fan base) or Latina (among the rest of us), but she is never called black or even biracial…

Read the entire article here.

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Book Review: Race in a Bottle

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2013-03-24 02:04Z by Steven

Book Review: Race in a Bottle

GeneWatch
Council for Responsible Genetics
Volume 26 Issue 1, March 2013

Lundy Braun, Royce Family Professor in Teaching Excellence and Professor of Medical Science and Africana Studies
Brown University

In Race in a Bottle, Jonathan Kahn tracks the contentious history of BiDil, the first drug targeted specifically to African Americans. Ironically, race-based drug treatment emerged in the wake of the sequencing of the human genome, a project that theoretically promised both to scientifically refute the notion of genetically distinct racial groups and to usher in an era of personalized medicine. Though hyped by researchers, the FDA, and the press as an important first step toward personalized medicine, BiDil is a drug administered to patients based on their membership in a group…

…Critical to Kahn’s argument regarding evidence is the fact that the clinical trials on which the company based its patent application for BiDil were never designed to compare racial difference in response to the drug. Using “care of the data” as an organizing theme, Kahn highlights one of the many troubling aspects of this controversy: the extraordinarily loose, if not sloppy, construction of what passed as evidence in the patent application and FDA hearings. From the use of misleading statistics on mortality from heart failure in African Americans, to the failure to define the central variable of race, to the design of a clinical trial (A-HeFT) that included only African Americans (and therefore could not determine differential efficacy) to the lack of any mechanistic understanding for a differential effect, Kahn shows that attention to the data was consistently problematic when it came to matters of race. The chapter on the FDA hearings is particularly illuminating…

Read the entire review here.

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Ancestry Testing and DNA: Uses, Limits – and Caveat Emptor

Posted in Africa, Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Social Science on 2010-07-23 19:17Z by Steven

Ancestry Testing and DNA: Uses, Limits – and Caveat Emptor

GeneWatch
Council for Responsible Genetics
Volume 22, Issue 3-4 (July-August 2009)
2009-07-30
Pages 16-18

Troy Duster, Professor of Sociology
New York University

Direct consumer use of DNA¬† tests for ancestry tracing has taken off in the last five years, and we are not just talking about probes for first-generation genetic lineage as in the “Who’s your daddy?” tests popularized on daytime television.¬† Since 2002, nearly a half-million people have purchased tests from at least two dozen companies marketing direct-to-consumer kits.¬† The motives for testing range from the desire for ancestral links to those who lived on other continents five-hundred plus years ago to a more modest interest in reconstructing family histories.¬† For many African-Americans, the quest to find a link to regions and peoples of sub-Saharan Africa can take on a spiritual or even messianic quest, at least partially explained by the fact that the Middle Passage across the Atlantic during the slave trade explicitly and purposefully obliterated linguistic, cultural, religious, political and kinship ties.¬† The 2006 PBS television series, African American Lives, brought this quest into sharp relief.¬† First celebrity and later ordinary Blacks were mesmerized by stories of DNA matches that claimed to reveal or refute specific ancestral links to Africa, to Native American heritage, and surprising to some, East Asian or European populations.

In sharp contrast, CBS’ 60 minutes aired a dramatic segment in the fall of 2007 (October 7) that portrayed a direct and sharp challenge to the claims-making about such ancestry testing.¬† The segment began with Vy Higgensen, an African-American woman from New York’s Harlem triumphantly affirming her connection to “new kin” (one of whom was a white male cattle rancher from Missouri).¬† But as the program unfolds, we see a disturbing cloud of doubt drift over the last part of the segment that ends with a less than subtle hint at specious claims.¬† A first test from the company African Ancestry, claims that Higgensen is linked to ancestors in the Sierra Leone, the Mende people.¬† She rejoices. “I am thrilled!¬† It puts a name, a place, a location, a people!”¬† But then she is shown the results of a second test, from another company, Relative Genetics, which claims that she instead has a genetic match to the Wobe tribe of the Ivory Coast.¬† She seems unruffled.¬† Yet a third test, from Trace Genetics, claims that her ancestors are from Senegal, the Mendenka.¬† Now she seems agitated, visibly concerned, confused – and most certainly disappointed that what began as a definitive match to a particular group or region of Africa has now turned into a “you pick which one you want to believe” game.

What can DNA tell us about our genetic lineage, and where does it fall short? What explains Vy Higgensen’s multiple results from different testing sites? Flawed methodology? Partial truths hyped as definitive findings? Did the testing companies use different methods or deploy different reference populations – or both?…

…There is a yet more ominous and troubling element of the reliance upon DNA analysis to determine who we are in terms of lineage, identity, and identification. The very technology that tells us what proportion of our ancestry can be linked, proportionately, to sub-Saharan Africa (ancestry-informative markers) is the same being offered to police stations around the country to “predict” or “estimate” whether the DNA left at a crime scene belongs to a white or black person. This “ethnic estimation” using DNA relies on a social definition of the phenotype (the observable physical or biochemical characteristics of an organism, determined by both genetic makeup and environmental influences). That is, in order to say that someone is 85 percent African, we must know who is 100 percent African. Any molecular, population, or behavioral geneticist who uses the term “percent European” or “percent Native American” is obliged to disclose that the measuring point of this “purity” (100 percent) is a statistical artifact that begins not with the DNA, but with a researcher adopting the folk categories of race and ethnicity…

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