“Perceive. Identify. Regulate.” How to be Racist with 21st Century Science

[Image via Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary & Creative Commons]

[“Molecularization of Identity” Workshop Recap, Part 1]

The diagram of racism was shockingly simple: four highlighted brain regions with black arrows between them, forming an almost-isosceles triangle.


[Diagram by Elizabeth Phelps’ group at NYU via The Brain Bank blog]

Perception. Identification. Regulation. 

Those are the three steps in the cognition of racism, according to a handful of neuroscientists.

The diagram’s presenters weren’t the neuroscientists themselves, but a pair of sociologists who study neuroscientistsOliver Rollins of Penn and Torsten Heinemann of University of Hamburg.  The neuroscientists who try to spot neural patterns of racism in fMRI argue that  before a racist action occurs, several things happen in a person’s brain: First, they have to see or hear the other person, which triggers a response in the amygdala, a brain structure that contributes to people becoming jumpy and/or aggressive. Next, the signal moves to the anterior cingulate cortex, which identifies the other person as a threat or a non-threat. Finally, the signal moves to the prefrontal cortex, which makes a conscious decision: “Do I hurt or try to escape from this person?” 

The neuroscientists who study racism tend to be optimistic about the possibility of changing racist individuals’ cognition patterns via social interaction or even through medication, Rollins and Heinemann explained. However,  though the neuroscientists’ approach is commendable, it doesn’t address systemic racism. 

“If there’s a racist ‘Stop-and-Frisk‘ policy in place that allows you to stop any black men, it may not matter whether the individual cop has a racial bias,” Rollins said.

Treating racism as a biological pattern or pathology may also lead to privacy issues (Who is allowed to know about your racism test results?) and iffy hiring practices. (Should someone whose brain activity fits the racist profile be denied a job as a teacher, even if there are zero documented cases of them taking racist action?)

Rollins and Heinemann aren’t against the research they study--a charge that often gets hurled at science-studying sociologists unfairly–but do want to point out some of its potential pitfalls, especially the pitfalls that arise when people place too much emphasis on scientific authority.

Their presentation was part of a whirlwind conference called “Molecularization of Identity: Science and Subjectivity of Science in the 21st Century”, which included 24(!) different research talks (plus about a dozen meta-commentaries by senior scholars) on social dynamics around science and molecular biology, in particular.

The conference’s main sponsor was Harvard Kennedy School’s Science, Technology & Society Program, and the lead organizers were Harvard STS post-doc Ian McGonigle and Princeton sociologist Ruha Benjamin. (Long time readers may remember Ruha from a recap I wrote on one of her talks back in 2014.)

“Molecularization of Identity” was an eye-opening and, at times, brain-melting experience. The speakers included anthropologists, historians, geneticists, bioengineers, ethicists, policy scholars, and the aforementioned sociologists, the presentations addressed biotechnology’s impact on at least a dozen countries, plus ISIS.

Cramming this conference into my standard recap format would be impossible. Instead, I’ll be posting a series of three interconnected essays,  recapping and responding to the conference. (This is part 1 of 3).

Rollins and Heinemann’s presentation was chronologically the last of the conference, but when I reviewed my notes, the pattern of racist cognition they described–“Perceive. Identify. Regulate.”–outlined many of the previous talks about governments’ use of genetics against non-whites with eerie precision.


“Genes” are the New “Blood”

Almost every presenter brought PowerPoint slides, but Jessica Kolopenuk simply spoke. “I’d like to begin by acknowledging that, as I understand it, we are standing on Wampanoag land,” she said.  Harvard may be nearly four centuries old, but the fact remains: it was built on land seized by white settlers.

Kolopenuk is a Nehiyaw Cree woman and a grad student at University of Victoria, who studies how the US and Canadian governments use genetics and genomics to locate (perceive), label (identify), and control (regulate) indigenous people. 

When she was 26 years old, population geneticists tested Kolopenuk’s mitrochondrial DNA and found mutations that most often appear in North American indigenous people’s DNA. At the moment, she became a Native American in the eyes of her country’s government.

[Correction: Kolopenuk just tweeted at me that the Canadian government still uses “Indian blood” as the way of deciding who has “Indian status”. Up until the c-31 amendment in 1985, indigenous women could lose their “Indian status” if they married a non-indigenous man…because apparently that changes “blood” ties?…Since “blood” is still the dominant metaphor for legal stuff, “genes” are not quite the new “blood”, although connected.) 

Sequencing mitochondrial DNA is a distinctly Western method for establishing kinship. The blood ties that people may claim matter less than the data gleaned from their DNA.  Genetic sequencing is how outsiders characterize us, Kolopenuk argued. “It enables erasure and regulation.” 

Even though the price of DNA sequencing is falling rapidly,  commercial genetic ancestry tests, government genetic forensics projects, and most biomedical initiatives only sequence a select handful of regions in a person’s DNA. Whoever is running the test gets to pick and choose which genes are included in the data. 

That point came up again and again in presentations on topics as diverse as adoption services in Israel, (Mitochondrial DNA sequences often end up at the forefront of ancestry debates because unlike the DNA in the cell’s nucleus, mitochondrial DNA passes directly from mother to child.)

21st century biologists insist that race isn’t biological. But, Kolopenuk pointed out, population geneticists still use 19th century race constructs (black, white, Native, Asian, mestizo/Hispanic, etc.) to interpret their molecular data. The focus remains on categorizing people by race, with as much precision as possible. 

However, genetic precision creates sub-divisions between people, Kolopenuk said. It disregards non-Western ideas about kinship and closeness–for instance, her fellow Bear Clan members often claim kinship with literal bears— and pinpoints people into ever smaller categories. In fact, genetic tests sometimes contradict or challenge claims that people make about which tribe they belong to.

Many geneticists would like to believe that they are simply translating self-identifications into biogenetic terms, but assuming that First Nations identities need to be translated in the first place echoes the assumptions of the white settlers who colonized and murdered their ancestors.

Geneticists’ activity also has far-reaching impacts on culture. The expression “It’s in my genes” is replacing “It’s in my blood,” Kolopenuk noted in her conclusion.


What is it with Governments and genes?

National genome projects were a running theme throughout the conference. Vivette García Deister and Ernesto Schwartz Marin both discussed the Mexican government’s interest in establishing an indigenous Mexican genome, one that would contrast with mixed-ancestry mestizo genetics. (More on their presentations to come in Part 2…) Laura Foster of Indiana University told us about the post-apartheid genome project in South Africa. One of the project’s organizers actively promoted the idea of genetics yielding a “national identity”, in order to convince more people to participate.  But the lead scientist wrote on the consent forms–which all participants had to sign prior to contributing their DNA–that the purpose of the project was to map out historical migration patterns in South Africa and that DNA has nothing to do with living people’s identity. 

Foster and a few other speakers noted that many people seem to view DNA not so much as a diagram of who they are but as a history of where their ancestors came from.  Still, ancestral origins can have a huge impact on human identity and access to property rights.

David Gurwitz, a geneticist from Tel Aviv University, noted that many people around the world email him, asking him whether he can test them for “Jewish genes.” He usually refers them to private companies, since that’s not what his lab does.  However, he says, gene variants–aka “alleles”–that have been linked to Jewish migrations turn up in genomes of people from Argentina and Brazil (“Catholic countries!”) because many Sephardi Jews from Spain fled religious persecution and assimilated into the general population in Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

Additionally, a study in 2000 revealed that modern Palestinians share much of the same genetic history and same genetic variants as their Jewish neighbors/rivals/oppressors. In fact, according to that study, Palestinians are likely more genetically similar to the Jews of Ancient Judea than those who emigrated from Europe to Israel.  To Gurwitz, this raises some important questions, such as What do we mean when we say “Jewish gene” or “[insert any nationality here] gene”? Who says that it’s not a Palestinian gene that some Jewish people happen to have?  And why are people so convinced that genes can tell them something about nationality in the first place?


Genes Under Surveillance

These questions aren’t purely academic, since many governments are already using genetics in law enforcement.  Stanford researcher Anna Jabloner‘s presentation  focused on the CalDNA database, where the state of California stores genetic information on almost anyone who gets arrested. (The exact details of the law have changed a few times due to court cases, but they can still collect DNA in a wide range of cases. It used to be everyone.)

Note that a person doesn’t have to be convicted of a crime for their genetic material to be taken and stored in the database. Even if the arrest was based on a slight hunch or racial profiling, the cops can still collect and store the arrestee’s genetic info indefinitely. California now has the world’s third largest genetic database.

Since blacks and Latinos are more likely to get arrested than whites, the database’s existence raises the question: Who desires a molecular identity?  (The individual? Or the state that seeks a means of control?)

When Jabloner spoke with a 23andme scientist who works on assigning races to gene variants, the 23andme scientist insisted, “they [the 23andme customers] just want to know.”

On one level, that’s true. But many of the people who are most curious about their genetic ancestry are the people least at risk of suffering due to genetics-based laws. Affluent white people (myself included) generally aren’t particularly scared of being labeled by scientific institutions and the U.S. government, because science and the U.S. government usually work in their favor. They’re less likely to be arrested and less likely to be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit, based on faulty DNA evidence.

Private gene sequencing companies like 23andme advertise knowing your genome as being empowering. Jabloner noted that many 23andme customers feel “entitled to molecular visibility for herself”.

But what exists as a curiosity-satisfying form of empowerment for one social group can be an unfair form of surveillance for another. 

So now what?


My Personal Response

Some journalists (not to mention scientists) I know are very skeptical or even dismissive of STS scholars. They say, “Oh, they just argue but never decide what they want us to do” or say “Oh, they’re just showing off how smart they are.” (STS is pretty much the academic equivalent of parkour, so a lot of the talks did feature rhetorical backflips of questionable necessity).

But too often, harried journalists forget that there’s actually a sizeable population of very smart academics who study the issues we cover in extreme depth.  We leave them out of stories and end up simply repeating the stories that the scientists tell us. (Personally, although I think scientists have loads of fascinating stories that deserve to be told and get super-irked when scientists’ perspectives get left out of policy decisions, there are also people on science’s receiving end who have far less access to reporters. Their stories need to be part of science journalism, too.)  That’s a problem. 

From where I sit, in a posh Boston suburb populated by Harvard Medical School’s alumni and lab techs, the way governments use genetics seems incredibly 1954-like, while the scientists have largely moved on to investigating epigenetics, microbiomes, metabolisms, and synaptic pathways as the sites of molecular identity. However, old ideas are hard to kill.

Racism is still very much with us, and gene sequencing is very much still a tool that can be used by racist institutions to validate their actions. During the wrap-up portion of the conference, Harvard’s Sheila Jasanoff–who is pretty much the Grand Dame of Harvard STS– said that the ideas that come up in Ivy League sociology workshops need to be “democratized”.

I, for one, agree. And there were far more ideas at this conference that deserve more discussion. Check back for Parts 2 and 3 of this recap on Monday. [Update 5/9/16: Due to technical issues, Part 2 will debut on Tuesday, and part 3 will debut on Thursday.] Until then, cheers!


Governments and scientific institutions still routinely collect genetic info–among other kinds of biometric data–on people and use it to back up systemic racism.


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