Comments on Mary-Claire King, Tanner Lectures, 2006-07
“Genomics, Race, and Medicine”
Jennifer L. Hochschild
President Bok’s predecessor once started a talk by observing that disciplines that have a name proclaiming them to be a “science,” aren’t – his examples being agricultural science, domestic science, and political science. As was often the case, his observation was acute, probably right, funny, and not altogether tactful. I thought of this little anecdote when confronted with Dr. King’s vitae and articles; I was deeply impressed, very intrigued, and rather intimidated. I then remembered that, unlike others in my discipline of political science, I don’t claim to be a scientist -- or even aspire to be one. So I won’t try to comment directly on the subject of genomics, race, and medicine, unlike the commentators over the next few days, who do have legitimate claims to being scientists.
Instead, I want to raise some political and moral questions involved in thinking about race at the level of genomics, in the hopes that Dr. King will tell us how geneticists might help to resolve them. They are: How might the American racial order change if we knew the genomic profile of all Americans, or had the realistic capacity to do so? Who and what would be made better off -- and worse off -- if genomics were to become an element of how Americans understand and practice race?
I will not try to make predictions on these questions; I don’t know enough of the science to do so responsibly, and in any case the outcomes will be determined more by political actions and the construction of political choices yet to come than by the science itself. Instead, I will point to political and normative issues that could plausibly result from a widespread public genomic understanding of race
A Thought Experiment on DNA Testing
Consider a thought experiment with 3 stipulations: 1) every American has a realistic opportunity to discover his or her genetic makeup, 2) a large proportion (half or more??) voluntarily choose to do so, and 3) the results of the tests are reasonably accurate scientifically and are widely understood to be so. I think that is a realistic presumption about the state of things one or two decades from now.
Why will people do genetic testing? One purpose will be medical – to determine the right drugs for fighting their particular form of cancer, to determine if they are carriers of particular traits, to see if they have a genetic predisposition to a particular illness, and so on. A second purpose will be the simple, or not-so-simple, human desire for roots -- where I came from, who my ancestors were, perhaps whether any of my characteristics can plausibly be described as inherited, whether I can get some financial or other material advantage from connection with a given racial or ethnic group. As Newsweek puts it, “our blood holds the secrets to who we are.” (2/6/06). I want to focus most of my comments on this second purpose, although the two are clearly related.
Let us further assume that there will be surprises in the results – African Americans and Asians will discover more European ancestry than they expected; European Americans will discover more African ancestry than they expected; Latinos will discover more Native American ancestry. I speak partly from experience; I did a DNA test last summer, and will report on my own experience in a few minutes. Some may discover “clean lines” going back to a particular region of a particular continent. Some will even be given more precise information, correct or not, for example that they are “linked to the Kpelle people of what is now Liberia” (Oprah Winfrey) or that they are “probably a descendent of the Mbundu or Kumundu tribe in present-day Angola” (Quincy Jones) – [both quotes from Wash. Post, 10/22/06].
What is likely to result from such an enterprise? First, some people will feel the need to come to grips with their own multiraciality. As so often, Skip Gates is ahead of the cultural curve here:
As for my mitochondrial DNA, my mother’s mother’s mother’s lineage? Would it be Yoruba, as I fervently hoped?... A number of exact matches turned up, leading straight back to that African Kingdom called Northern Europe, to the genes of (among others) a female Ashkenazi Jew.” (WSJ, 2/1/06).
In TV show: “I have the blues. Can I still have the blues?” (as a female part-Ashkenazi Jew, I can tell him that the answer is “yes”)
Even more dramatically, “Wayne Joseph grew up a black American in Louisiana and Los Angeles.” Did DNA testing, “I figured I’d come back about 70% African and 30% something else.” When the results arrived, “I was floored.” He was found to be 57% Indo-European, 39% Native American, 4% East Asian” – no African at all. “For almost a year, Joseph searched his soul…. Before the test, “I was unequivocally black. Now I’m a metaphor for America.” (Newsweek, 2/6/06).
Or even, for another woman, formerly in Black Power movement, who discovered that she had no African ancestry on father’s side, “What does this mean; who am I then? For me to have a whole half of my identity to come back and say, “sorry, no African here,” it doesn’t even matter what the other half says. It just negates it all…. It doesn’t fit, it doesn’t feel right.” (Harmon, NYT, 1/22/06). [These stories are irresistible to journalists – there is now a whole cottage industry of such cases, and there will surely be more.]
Some people are deeply gratified by the results of DNA tests, even or perhaps especially when they give results that the person knew nothing about. Consider the woman abandoned by her birth mother and brought up in foster homes; genetic matching found a link to the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone. Now, “I have a place where I can go back and say, ‘this is who I am; this is my home. That’s something I never, ever expected to say’.” (Willing, USA Today, 3/4/06). A post-doctoral Fellow at DuBois Institute this year doing ethnographic research on this issue finds that some of her respondents are profoundly moved, to tears, by obtaining what they understand to be an answer to where their ancestors come from DNA tests.
One could generate the same array of quotations about the more purely medical consequences of testing DNA. Some people will have their fears of genetic predispositions to disease confirmed; others will have their fears removed. Some will be surprised by unexpected results, and for some of those, their core identity may be shaken in ways that one can’t really anticipate.
Implications for Individuals
So what are the implications of this array of results and responses to results? At the level of individuals, discovering one’s racial ancestry, and one’s medical genetic profile, are presumably good things, for several reasons. First, academics generally believe that more information is better than less or none, and also believe that information which moves us toward a more correct understanding of some phenomenon rather than a mistaken understanding is desirable.
Second, a standard piece of advice to students embarking on empirical research is that “the three rules of data analysis are disaggregate, disaggregate, disaggregate.” Genetic testing does that, of course, well below the level of nationality, ethnicity, race, group, or even individual. If disaggregation in data from public opinion surveys or censuses or school achievement tests does a better job of revealing citizens’ views, demographic shifts, or patterns of learning than do lumpier analyses, presumably the same holds for DNA testing, at least as a starting premise.
A third reason that DNA-level knowledge would be good for individuals is more purely normative. Not all people must or will embrace multiraciality if they discover a mixed genetic heritage with regard to region of ancestry. After all, “Identity is metaphysical, not physical” as a genetic scientist in Israel points out (Harmon, NYT, 1/22/06). But choosing to identify with one group, even if one has ancestry from various regions of the world or even if one has no ancestry from the group with which one is choosing to identify, focuses one’s attention on exactly that – racial or group identity is a choice, at least from a liberal individualist perspective.
A caveat is quickly needed here: racial identity is only partly self-chosen, since people are treated in dramatically different ways depending on what race others take them to be. We can all easily think of examples, ranging from novels about the tragic mulatta to violence against people who married the “wrong” person moved into the “wrong” community, to remind us that identity is not only chosen by the individual and may sometimes not be chosen by the individual at all. So one issue raised by the conjunction of genomics and race is the degree to which people can choose to disaggregate, to identify with the group or groups that they want, as well as which group they will identify with.
Suppose, nevertheless, that a lot of people do embrace multiraciality after their DNA tests reveals genomes from an array of regions or continents – would that be a good thing? Again, from a liberal individualist perspective it might well be. Consider the student in the following anecdote:
I did not have a problem until someone said, “how can you consider yourself interracial? You are black!” [The professor in my Black Awareness class said,] “you can’t be both.” So I said, “well, I am both, you can’t tell me I am not.” So he said, “if there was a war, blacks are on one side and whites are on the other side, which side would you go on?” I said, “probably neither, because I would have to choose between my father and my mother and I don’t have a favorite.” (in Ursula Brown)
Surely in a liberal society she should have the right to honor both her father and her mother; analogously, if he chose to, Skip Gates should have the right to honor both his Jewish and his West African forebears. This is the claim of advocates of multiracialism as a self-conscious, intentional, publicly recognized group. The self-proclaimed Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage has 12 elements, one of which is “To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people” .(© Maria P. P. Root, 1993, 1994).
What if a lot of Whites discovered that they had some African, Asian, or Native American ancestry -- might they become less racially exclusionary or committed to racial hierarchy? For example, the re-haired, freckled, apparently Scottish Jack Hitt points out in Harper’s Magazine that “I carry the DNA marker found in great abundance among the Fulbe tribe of contemporary Nigeria,” and he describes how that has made him look at news stories about Africa differently. Probably most Whites who discover racial mixture would not rush to embrace their Asian or African ancestry – but maybe some would.
If one follows this logic far enough, it is conceivable that Americans could develop a recognition of, if not commitment to, multiracialism, or rather a gut-level understanding that race really is a social construction. Might that make them more willing to open up other questions, such as the legitimacy of racial stereotypes or racial profiling? I don’t know, but maybe the geneticists can give us a language by which the whole structure of nominal racial groups can be challenged.
One more question arises with regard to implications for individuals of being able to link a person’s genetic patterns to that of a particular region or ethnicity. As one reporter wrote, “Mitochondial DNA can point the way home.” (Fears Wash. Post, 10/22/06) One cannot help but be moved by the sentiments of relief, homecoming even, that some people express when told of their ancestry. But this seems very un-American, at least in conventional wisdom about America as the place where one can start over. “IN THE BEGINNING,” wrote John Locke, “all the world was America.” – a new place, with no history, no class or racial structure, to overcome. Three centuries later, Americans still asserted the joys of starting over -- moving to the new country or the new country’s frontier to begin afresh. As a Montana frontierswoman put it in the mid 1800s, “We never ask women where they come from or what they did before they came to live in our neck of the woods. If they wore a wedding band and were good wives, mothers, and neighbors that was enough for us to know” (Jeffrey, 1979).
So what should we make of the passion for genealogy, roots, mitochondrial connections to a group that one perhaps had never heard of? I don’t know – was the argument that the great joy of America was the chance to begin anew simply wrong all along? Or did it apply only to voluntary immigrants, a.k.a whites? Or was it correct 50 or 100 years ago, and Americans have genuinely changed? I hope someone takes up this question more systematically – maybe not the geneticists, but people following their lead.
Implications for Groups
My earlier guess that whites would not rush to embrace a multiracial identity points us to the next set of questions: what would be the implications of widespread DNA testing for groups, as distinguished from individuals. I have suggested that information of this sort is good for individuals on liberal grounds of freedom of choice and the virtues of more information about medical conditions. But DNA testing that produced a move toward multiracial, or simply confused, identities might be a very bad thing for nonwhite groups in American society. I see several possible reasons.
This set of questions is predicated on the view that racial hierarchy remains almost as powerful as it was 100 years ago, even though it is less visible and overt. That is certainly the view of many of my colleagues in the field of African American studies, the view of many political activists and ordinary citizens, and it is my view roughly every other day. In that case, encouraging individuals to think of themselves as multiracial can appear to be the first step down the slippery slope of reinventing the old and discredited mulatto escape hatch. Arthur Fletcher, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, worried that he could “see a whole host of light-skinned black Americans running for the door the minute they have another choice.” (Kim Williams, p. 42) Substitute “mixed-ancestry” for “light-skinned” in that sentence, and you tap into a deep fear.
Furthermore, any new information that fosters the idea that most people are only partly members of one ancestry group might undermine policies designed to overcome racial subordination. Thus Harold McDougall of the NAACP testified to a Congressional committee that:
Overcoming the long history of discrimination in employment, lending, housing, and education requires that demographic data be kept on racial and ethnic groups who have historically been the targets of discrimination by members of the European-American majority group…. Thus the creation of a multiracial classification might disaggregate the apparent numbers of members of discrete minority groups, diluting benefits to which they are entitled as a protective class under civil rights laws and under the Constitution. In our quest for self-identification, we must take care not to recreate, reinforce, or even expand the caste system we are all trying so hard to overcome (McDougall 1997).
In this view, in other words, moving from a commitment to the idea that nominal racial groups are a meaningful set of categories on which to base public policy to a focus on mixture and complexity will reinforce, in practice, the old and persistent forms of exclusion. If DNA testing were to become common, and if it were to reveal a great deal of racial mixture, and if that revelation would affect people’s commitment to a single racial identity (other than white), that anxiety would arise.
Another concern for non-white groups about DNA testing contemplates where the research might go with regard to group-based characteristics. “A team of scientists at the University of Utah has proposed that the unusual pattern of genetic diseases seen among Jews of central or northern European origin … is the result of natural selection for enhanced intellectual ability.” Their article is published in a peer-reviewed, respected journal – it is not the effusion of a few renegade left-over eugenicists. Steven Pinker’s first response to this report was surely universally shared: “It would be hard to overstate how politically incorrect this paper is.” But he went on to comment that “It’s certainly a thorough and well-argued paper, not one that can easily be dismissed outright.” (all in Wade, NYT, 6/3/05). Another example: Bruce Lahn, a professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago, “reported the results of a new DNA analysis: he had found signs of recent evolution in the brains of some people, but not of others…. Genetic changes over the past several thousand years might be linked to brain size and intelligence…. The changes had taken hold and spread widely in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, but weren’t common in sub-Saharan Africa.” This too was published in a serious journal. The response from the director of the genome program at the National Institutes of Health: “this is not the place you want to report a weak association that might or might not stand up.” (Regalado, WSJ 6/16/06). It is easy to see how groups would suffer if the American racial hierarchy is still strong, or even if good old stereotypes persist absent a full-fledged hierarchy. 
A final group-level concern revolves, ironically, around efforts to change the American racial order and undermine group-based hierarchy. The federal government has sometimes sought in recent years to compensate for several centuries of conquest and maltreatment of American Indians, though reparations for land seizures and licensing to run casinos. Millions of dollars a year can flow into tribes. The Seminoles had black slaves before the Civil War, who were granted full tribal citizenship after the Civil War. But membership rules were changed to exclude descendents of the Freedmen.in the 1980s, probably for reasons having nothing to do with federal funds. The controversy over Black Seminoles’ tribal membership have simmered for years—and Black Seminoles are now turning to DNA tests to determine their fraction of “Indian blood.” Their motivations are variously described – they are trying to get access to the monetary windfall, according to some, and they are striving to “reclaim their heritage” and long-standing identity, according to others (quote from Wired, 8/06(??). An e-mail list discussion of this issue appropriately pointed to scientific mistakes in the DNA testing and the potential misuses of these data – but correspondents also warned that “what we cannot do is dismiss the impact these studies will have on issues of indigenous identity and sovereignty.” (Riggs, H-AmIndian 4/18/06).
In short, what is good for individuals may be bad for groups, even groups to which those individuals belong. Information attainable from genetic testing may resolve an aching need to know one’s heritage, may permit a better match between disease and drug, may encourage the breakdown of rigid and artificial boundaries – AND it may provide ammunition to abolish needed policies to overcome racial segregation and subordination, may add too many people to some groups and subtract people from others, and may revive old notions of ethnic superiority or inferiority. How should political philosophers, scientists, public officials, and ordinary citizens adjudicate between these undoubted benefits and these plausible harms?
The Politics of Reinforcing or Breaking Down Racial Boundaries
Let me conclude by pointing to an even broader set of puzzles about the relationship between DNA and race, which will generate enormous political complexities if it moves into the public arena.
On the one hand, most (though not all) geneticists insist that race is a social construction unsupported by genomic evidence, and in fact thoroughly discredited by it. Most social scientists concur.
On the other hand, some genetics research seems to reinforce the claim of genuine differences among population groups. The chief example is the drug BiDil, recently approved by the FDA on the grounds that “the African American community is affected at a greater rate by heart failure than that of the corresponding Caucasian population” and BiDil works in their treatment, although not in treatment for whites (note 6 in Duster, Science article). And many social activists also want to maintain racial boundaries, as I’ve just described.
So we see articles showing that DNA research proves once and for all that races do not exist. And we see articles expressing concern about “Race and Reification in Science," in Science magazine (Duster, 2/2005) Howard University Hospital set out to collect DNA samples from its largely black patient population in order to ensure that genomic research includes enough African Americans -- while a Distinguished University Professor of Law writes that “the contemporary scientific understanding of human genetics… is likely to… debunk notions of racial classification and the very concept of race as a biologically relevant category” (Richman, “Genetic Residues…” n.d.). The NAACP sponsored advertisements urging people not to check more than one race on the 2000 census – while Skip Gates goes on national television to reveal and joke about his Irish and Jewish forebears.
The poor federal government is caught in the middle. The Office of Management and Budget tries to placate all sides -- stating in The Federal Register that race is a social construction, authorizing a census form that asks people to choose one or more races, permitting 126 combinations of race and Hispanic ethnicity to emerge from that form, and also writing rules that encourage or mandate re-aggregation into nominal racial groups in court cases. The FDA authorized an “ethnic drug” (BiDil) while the Department of Education is now writing regulations that give priority to “multiracial” self-definitions over single-race ones.
The science that Dr. King is doing and telling us about is amazingly exciting; the politics of it are enough to leave us not only confused but breathless. I have always felt that scientists did harder work than we mere political scientists, but on this subject, at least, I am no longer so sure.
A footnote: My own DNA test revealed that I am about 1/7 American Indian and almost ¼ South Asian. My mother’s explanation of the American Indian: “my great-grandfather married a woman from Canada, and no one ever knew much about her.” My father’s explanation of the South Asian: “nonsense. Don’t believe those tests.” I leave it to Dr. King to tell me what to infer from all of that.
 Two other concerns about the effects on groups of DNA testing warrant attention. One is directly and obviously linked to the traditional racial hierarchy of the United States. The sociologist Troy Duster reports that the technology telling us (inaccurately) “what proportion of our ancestry can be linked… to sub-Saharan Africa… is… 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.” Duster, Chronicle, 2/3/06). That is the point at which the stipulation in my thought experiment that these data are accurate or taken to be accurate needs to be removed. I have no idea how extensive the practice is that Duster reports, or how much credence police put in the DNA tests revealing whether a person on the scene was black or white, or even how much credence police should put in the DNA tests. But it is not hard to imagine people using this sort of evidence, whether or not they genuinely believe it to be true and seeking to verify it, to search for suspects – and it is not hard to see how that search could be racially biased (not least in its definition of who is to be labeled “black” or “white”).