The Meaning of Race in the DNA Era: Science, History and the Law

The Meaning of Race in the DNA Era: Science, History and the Law

The Temple Journal of Science, Technology & Environmental Law
Volume 27, Number 2 (Fall 2008)
pages 231-265

Christian B. Sundquist, Associate Professor of Law
Albany Law School


What is “race”? Does the concept of race represent a natural and inevitable understanding of human difference? Does race have any biological meaning, or is it merely an artificial construct employed by society and political bodies? If race is the former, then how can modern society avoid a rebirth of racial eugenics? And yet if race is an arbitrary tool of social organization without genetic content, then how should we interpret purported forensic racial determinations based on DNA analyses?

Race is biology. Race is ancestry. Race is genetic.

The meaning of “race” is constantly questioned yet rarely understood. Early theories of race assigned social, intellectual, and moral values to perceived differences among groups of people. The perception that race should be defined in terms of genetic and biologic difference fueled the “race science” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which time geneticists, physiognomists, eugenicists, anthropologists and others purported to find scientific justification for denying equal treatment to non-“white” persons.

Part I of this article thus examines the provenance of the “race” concept. The categorization of humans into “racial” groups was neither natural nor inevitable. The initial separation of humans into “racial” categories was understood to simply reflect inherent biological differences between groups of people. These differences supposedly accounted for natural variances in intelligence, morality, and physical and sexual prowess. As such, these pseudo-biological differences were used to justify and explain power differentials between “races” of people.

Race is constructed. Race is biologically meaningless. Race is power.

The pseudo-scientific understandings of race supplied by nineteenth-century geneticists and biologists were applied by Nazi Germany in a manner that shocked the world. As a result, the concept of race following World War II increasingly was understood as a socio-political construction with no biological meaning. Modern sociological theories thus uniformly understand race as a social grouping of persons necessary to preserve unbalanced relationships of power. Part II of this article examines this post-war refutation of nineteenth-century “race science,” as well as the core assumptions underlying modern racial theory.

Race is phenotype. Race is color. Race is language. Race is citizenship. Race is class. Race is culture. Race is assimilation. Race is law.

Reducing race to a single critical “essence” is an impossible endeavor. While one’s phenotype and color may contribute to racial categorization, so can one’s national origin, social class and language. As a result, race has a complex social meaning that depends in part on the prevailing “common understanding and meaning” of society. Not-so-antiquated notions of race once deemed Italian, Irish and Southern European immigrants and their descendants as “non-white” and cursed with inferior genetic stock. These groups eventually obtained “Whiteness” based on changing social understandings of their assimilatory potential, and the formation of a racial identity defined in opposition to “Blackness.” The elusive nature of race is similarly illustrated by the conflict between the legal racialization of Middle Eastern and Mexican persons as “white” during certain historical periods, and the social racialization of these persons as “non-white” and racially distinct during other times.

Race is subjective. Race is objective. Race is whiteness. Race is blackness. Race is fixed. Race is malleable. Race is performance.

Race is constantly in flux depending on one’s baseline understanding of the nature of race. I am black according to certain understandings of race, while other interpretations may render me white. I am Latino, Creole, Egyptian, and “other” according to some outsider interpretations of race, yet I can also be reduced to “mixed” by utilizing an alternative understanding of race. Outsider perceptions of race in turn may change according to my performance of race, and how race is performed around me.
Race is biology.

Race is ancestry. Race is genetic.

Notwithstanding the post-war rejection of a biological interpretation of race, modern genetic science has increasingly claimed the ability to identify “race” through the biological analysis of DNA samples. Law enforcement agencies in the United States and elsewhere analyze individual DNA samples to identify the likely “race” of a criminal suspect, while courts in the United States increasingly admit expert testimony stating the statistical probability that a criminal suspect belongs to a specific race based on such DNA analyses. Such a re-biologicalization of race clearly contradicts the classical post-war theory of race as a social construct. Part III of this article examines the contemporary re-interpretation of race as having some biologically traceable genetic essence.

Race is constructed. Race is biologically meaningless. Race is power.

The claims of modern genetics notwithstanding, race remains a biologically meaningless concept of human categorization. Race simply has no traceable genetic essence, and the proliferation of racial DNA testing represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of race rather than the neutral application of scientific principles. Part IV of this article argues that contemporary genetics has misapprehended the elusive nature of race in a manner strikingly similar to that of the nineteenth-century race science…

Read the entire article here.

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