Will the Alt-Right Peddle a New Kind of Racist Genetics?

Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic, December 29, 2016

Jedidiah Carlson was googling a genetics research paper when he stumbled upon the white nationalist forum Stormfront. Carlson is a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and he is—to be clear—absolutely not a white nationalist. {snip}

{snip} “The threads would turn into an informal tutoring session and journal club,” observes Carlson. “Some of the posters have a really profound understanding of everyday concepts in population genetics.”

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Modern geneticists now take pains to distance their work from the racist assumptions of eugenics. Yet since the dawn of the genomic revolution, sociologists and historians have warned that even seemingly benign genetics research can reinforce a belief that different races are essentially different—an argument made most famously by Troy Duster in his book Backdoor to Eugenics. If a genetic test can identify you as 78 percent Norwegian, 12 percent Scottish, and 10 percent Italian, then it’s easy to assume there is such thing as white DNA. If scientists find that a new drug works works better in African Americans because of a certain mutation common among them, then it’s easy to believe that races are genetically meaningful categories.

The problem is not with the science per se, but with the set of an underlying assumptions about race that we always imprint on the latest science. True, genetics has led to real breakthroughs in medicine, but it is also the latest in a centuries-long effort to understand biological differences. {snip}

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In the genomic age, it is now easy to compare the DNA of people from around the world. And it has indeed revealed that our racial categories are fuzzy proxies for genetic difference—an African man may be more closely related to an Asian than to another African. And to put it in perspective, all of the genetic diversity in humans comprises just 0.1 percent of the human genome.

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The trouble with the way we talk about race is that our biological differences are by degree rather by category. The borders of a country or continent are not magical lines that demarcate one genetically distinct population from another. {snip} But because we lack a common vocabulary to talk about these differences between people by degree, we draw boundaries with our words and categorize them: Korean, Mongol, Asian.

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Even though geneticists know how messy these racial categories are, the categories are still deeply rooted in biomedical research. The U.S. National Institute of Health, the country’s largest funder of biomedical research, requires researchers to collect data on the race and ethnicity of clinical research participants. So when scientists go to analyze their data, one of the things they can always do is look for differences between the races. The very act of collecting data defines the questions scientists do ask. {snip}

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Genetics has allowed scientists to start probing exactly how much innate genetic differences between races do matter in health, but this has unintended consequences, too. Jo Phelan, a sociologist recently retired from Columbia, has devised studies seeing how simply reading a news article about racial differences in genetic risk for heart attacks reinforces the belief that whites and African Americans are essentially different. The problem is that these differences are statistical—a mutation may be more prevalent in African Americans but that doesn’t mean every African American has it. There is no gene or set of genes that consistently codes for black, white, or any other race.

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Now the falling cost of technology has made the results of DNA sequencing available to anyone willing to shell out a couple hundred bucks to companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Phelan has done similar studies on how such mail-in DNA tests reinforce a belief in racial differences. In a survey of over 500 participants, she found that reading about DNA ancestry tests increased one’s belief in essential differences between racial groups. And one group intensely interested in getting DNA ancestry tests? White nationalists, which Elspeth Reeve chronicled in an excellent piece in Vice earlier this year.

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“White supremacists are kind of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to beliefs about race,” says [NYU sociologist Ann] Morning. Their rhetoric is extreme, of course, but the idea that race represents real biological differences is pervasive. Genetics are just the latest frontier.

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