The New York Times published a remarkably interesting article speculating about the role of genetic testing and racial discrimination this past Sunday. To wit:
…genetic information is slipping out of the laboratory and into everyday life, carrying with it the inescapable message that people of different races have different DNA. Ancestry tests tell customers what percentage of their genes are from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. The heart-disease drug BiDil is marketed exclusively to African-Americans, who seem genetically predisposed to respond to it. Jews are offered prenatal tests for genetic disorders rarely found in other ethnic groups.
Such developments are providing some of the first tangible benefits of the genetic revolution. Yet some social critics fear they may also be giving long-discredited racial prejudices a new potency. The notion that race is more than skin deep, they fear, could undermine principles of equal treatment and opportunity that have relied on the presumption that we are all fundamentally equal…..
Though few of the bits of human genetic code that vary between individuals have yet to be tied to physical or behavioral traits, scientists have found that roughly 10 percent of them are more common in certain continental groups and can be used to distinguish people of different races. They say that studying the differences, which arose during the tens of thousands of years that human populations evolved on separate continents after their ancestors dispersed from humanity's birthplace in East Africa, is crucial to mapping the genetic basis for disease.
But many geneticists, wary of fueling discrimination and worried that speaking openly about race could endanger support for their research, are loath to discuss the social implications of their findings. Still, some acknowledge that as their data and methods are extended to nonmedical traits, the field is at what one leading researcher recently called "a very delicate time, and a dangerous time."
"There are clear differences between people of different continental ancestries," said Marcus W. Feldman, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University. "It's not there yet for things like I.Q., but I can see it coming. And it has the potential to spark a new era of racism if we do not start explaining it better."
Unfortunately, given the exquisite ability of human beings to make invidious out-group and in-group distinctions (see soccer hooliganism, Serbs and Croats, and blue eyes versus brown eyes), I have no doubt that some people will try to use any findings of genetic science about racial differences between people to justify their prejudices.
The Times notes:
Race, many sociologists and anthropologists have argued for decades, is a social invention historically used to justify prejudice and persecution.
"Social invention" or not, notions of genetic essentialism seem to be widespread in our society. The Times cites a Pennsylvania State University professor's attempt to use genetic testing to undermine his students' thinking about racial categories. In some cases, at least, the opposite happened:
…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."
Whole Times article here.