Why It’s Time to End Speculation About Race in Genomics

Harriet Jacobs
Jean Fagan Yellin/Google Books
Harriet Jacobs
Jean Fagan Yellin/Google Books

In a probing piece in the Wall Street Journal, Harvard scholars David Altshuler and Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Root’s editor-in-chief and , discuss the futility of using science as a tool to justify the racial advantages of some groups over others. Genomic technology has demonstrated on a significant scale that many individuals have mixed ancestry, they say.

Writing just before the outbreak of the Civil War, the fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs paused in her passionate attack on the evils of slavery to question its underlying justification: the biological fixity of race and the view, then written into law and culture, that inborn characteristics make some human beings fit by nature to be held in bondage to other human beings. "And then who are Africans?" Jacobs asked. "Who can measure the amount of Anglo-Saxon blood coursing in the veins of American slaves?"

Jacobs, who was of mixed ancestry, could hardly have imagined that a century and a half later widely available technology would make it possible to answer her question. Genetic testing can determine the proportion of any individual's ancestors who lived in Africa, Europe, Asia or the Americas, and can identify specific genes that influence traits such as skin color or risk of disease. But Jacobs probably would not have been surprised to learn this science tool would be twisted for political ends and to justify the advantages of some groups over others.

Genomic technology has now made it possible to sequence an individual's genome for as little as $1,000, and to determine aspects of ancestry and genetic risk for under $100. Scientific journals and the media are filled with stories about the role of genetics in disease, making clear the role that DNA plays in shaping individual characteristics. As more becomes known about DNA, the impulse to view race strictly through the lens of genetic inheritance is gaining force.


Read more at the Wall Street Journal.

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