DNA and Scientific Racism

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a piece by Amy Harmon called “In DNA Era, New Worries about Prejudice,” that requires more discussion and analysis. To start, there is a factual error in the New York Times piece that I think it’s import to draw attention to, and that is, Harmon writes:

“The DNA of any two people, they emphasized, is at least 99 percent identical.”

When, in fact, Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health, has stated that the Human Genome Project:

“helped to inform us about how remarkably similar all human beings are—99.9% at the DNA level.Those who wish to draw precise racial boundaries around certain groups will not be able to use science as a legitimate justification” (Collins and Mansoura, 2001:221).

So, that the quest to “map the difference,” the mission of the misguided HapMap Project is actually the pursuit of variation of 0.1% not 1% as stated in the article.

In the “multimedia graphic” that accompanies that Times article, the headline reads “Minute Genetic Differences Can Mean A Lot,” and then the three examples Harmon charts are 1) pale skin among “Europeans” 2) tendency to sweat “less” (which begs the question, sweat less than whom?) among “Asians” and 3) “Africans” resistance to certain diseases. This kind of pseudo-science from the Times raises more questions than it answers. What do these differences “mean”? And, what is “a lot” in this context? While the focus of the article is on the “concern” (again, one wonders among whom?) about prejudice such research will inevitably promote (such as the post by the blogger Half Sigma mentioned in the article) what both the New York Times and the blogger Half Sigma miss here is a very common fallacy. As geneticists Collins and Mansoura point out in their article, quoted above, that those who wish to draw “precise boundaries” around certain racial groups will not be able to use science as a legitimate justification. Take for example, the category “Asian” which supposedl “sweats less” in the Times piece. Who exactly does this include? Chinese? Korean (North and South?) Japanese? Indian? Pakistani? These groups have long traditions and cultures that are quite distinct from one another. It is only from the armchair vantage point of the U.S. or Europe that “Asian” has any sort of coherent meaning, and even then it is contested. In the UK for example, “Asian” is category that includes those from India and Pakistan, though that is not the typical usage here in the U.S. And, if you read the genetic literature, those conducting researchers continues to use self-identification – how people identify themselves in terms of racial/ethnic identity – as the means to identify populations for genetic study, arguing that it is more economical to categorize people based on phenotypically based notions of “race” rather than to look exclusively at individual genetic composition for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease (e.g., Risch and others, 2002). Geneticists such as Risch and colleagues argue that:

“population genetic studies have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry—namely African, Caucasian (Europe and Middle East), Asian, Pacific Islander (for example, Australian, New Guinean, and Melanesian), and Native American” (Risch, N., Burchard, E., Ziv, E., and Tang, H. (2002). “Categorization of Humans in Biomedical Research: Genes, Race, and Disease.” Genome Biology, 2002, 3(7):3).

And, Risch and colleagues also include a figure, a line drawing, to illustrate their conceptualization of racial difference (Figure 1 from Risch et al.). This illustration, a long line with discrete, pronged lines off to one side indicating unified, distinct, and mutually exclusive racial categories, is not only incorrect in terms of the available genetic research that we are 99.9% alike, but it also flies in the face of decades of anthropological and sociological and biological research attesting to the fact that there is more variation within one of these categories than between the categories. Basically, these geneticists are using race as a heuristic device, as a “convenient short hand” for lots of other social, cultural and ancestral factors.

In a recent co-authored chapter I wrote with my colleague  Amy Jo Schulz (Daniels, J., & Schulz, A.J. (2006). Constructing whiteness in health disparities research. In A. J. Schulz & L. Mullings (Eds.), Gender, Race, Class, and Health (pp. 89-127). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishing), we examined the way that whiteness and white racial privilege are being re-written into the DNA era. Here’s what we had to say about this in our chapter:

The continued use of “race” as a heuristic device for investigation at the genomic level is paradoxical, when on its face individualized genetic therapy would mean testing and categorization on the individual level. This return to the use of classical racial categories in population genetics studies despite empirical evidence documenting the clear limits of these categories as indicative of ancestry or heritage (such as the U.S. census and birth record examples described earlier in this chapter) highlights the power of these socially constructed categories within science, as well as the role of scientific research in continuing to reproduce these categories. …attributing racial variations in patterns of disease to the genetic composition of racial or ethnic groups is based on a series of imperfect assumptions. Specifically, “self-identified race is a surrogate for ancestral geographic origin, which is a surrogate for variation across the genome, which is a surrogate for variation in disease-relevant alleles, which is a surrogate for individual disease risk” (Bonham, Warshauer-Baker, and Collins, 2005:13, citing Collins, 2004). With each imperfect assumption, the link between socially constructed racial categories and genetic sources of disease gets less clear, like a copy of a copy of a copy that continues to blur with each reproduction; yet the genetic frame, and the supposedly biological basis for Whiteness, remains unchallenged. This reliance on race as a sorting mechanism of convenience in the face of genomic research that demonstrates this is a less than completely reliable proxy simultaneously naturalizes racial disparities while it holds out the promise of eliminating racial disparities in health. And it leaves the Whiteness within those disparities unexamined. (Daniels and Schulz, 2006).

The key is here is that “race” is used as a sorting mechanism of convenience. I know this from the literature, and I know this from first-hand experience. I sat on a grant review committee recently for a national-level competition for multi-million dollar grants of an agency I won’t name. The review committee was quite large, probably 25 or more scholars from around the U.S. One of the grant applications that the other reviewers (mostly from the biological sciences) rated the highest was one that proposed to look at the “genetic racial differences among Blacks and whites” to different kinds of treatment for HIV/AIDS. I rated this grant proposal among the lowest I had reviewed because of the methodology: all of the participants in the study would be sorted into the supposedly self-evident categories “Black” and “white” based on self-identification. When I raised this objection among my colleagues in the biological and health sciences, they all blinked hard, and looked at me as if I’d committed some sort of unpleasant faux pas. The chair of the committee finally acquiesced that this was a methodological flaw in the proposal, but the grant was nevertheless awarded millions of dollars. This research, like so much else being done in this field, takes an unclear category and reifies it as “scientifically real,” and then the general public (like the blogger mentioned above) picks it up and uses it to justify the already-in-place white racial frame.

Despite the fact that whiteness is often implicated in this type of genetic research, “whiteness” as a racial category remains largely unexamined and white privilege is propped up once again. Here’s more from our chapter:

Furthermore, scholars have also pointed out the impulse to attach genetic conditions to labeled racial or ethnic groups, while those attached to “Whites” remain invisible. For example, genetically linked conditions such as Tay-Sachs or sickle cell anemia have become labeled as “Jewish” and “Black” diseases respectively because they are associated with people who are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans. However, a disease such as cystic fibrosis, which is genetically linked to subgroups of the White population, does not get labeled as difference (Katz Rothman, 1998). The link, then, between genetic condition and Whiteness is ephemeral, while the connection between genetic condition and members of (already) labeled racial and ethnic groups is intractable (Daniels and Schulz, 2006).

The last three paragraphs of the NYTimes piece come the closest to getting at this intractable quality that we point out in our chapter, and here the Times turns to Samuel Richards, at Penn State:

Race, many sociologists and anthropologists have argued for decades, is a social invention historically used to justify prejudice and persecution. But when Samuel M. Richards gave his students at Pennsylvania State University genetic ancestry tests to establish the imprecision of socially constructed racial categories, he found the exercise reinforced them instead.

One white-skinned student, told she was 9 percent West African, went to a Kwanzaa celebration, for instance, but would not dream of going to an Asian cultural event because her DNA did not match, Dr. Richards said. Preconceived notions of race seemed all the more authentic when quantified by DNA.

“Before, it was, ‘I’m white because I have white skin and grew up in white culture,’ ” Dr. Richards said. “Now it’s, ‘I really know I’m white, so white is this big neon sign hanging over my head.’ It’s like, oh, no, come on. That wasn’t the point.”

I think what Prof. Sam Richards has been doing around the issue of DNA and race is admirable, but it seems clear from his own evaluation above that students (and the broader public) miss the point about no one being of any “one race” genetically – and indeed, that this is impossible. Instead, they use that information to shore up the white racial frame already in place. We need to do more to get people thinking more critically about the race and racism “in the DNA era” and offer frameworks that counter notions of biologically-grounded racial superiority and inferiority.