Recently, there was an article in the New York Times titled “DNA Tells Students They Aren’t Who They Thought,” about a sociology class at Pennsylvania State University. Professor Mark Shriver regularly administers DNA tests to students and has them analyzed for what the article calls “genetic ancestry.” Shriver is a partner in DNAPrint Genomics, which has devised a test that “compares DNA with that of four parent populations, western European, west African, east Asian and indigenous American.”
That the test could reveal ancestry based on broad migratory patterns over human history is not a surprise. Certain clusterings of genetic mutations over millennia occur more frequently among specific populations. Melanin concentration, for example, can reveal how one’s ancestors adapted to more or less sunny climates; evolutionary selection for sickle cell anemia was a response to malarial mosquitoes. But there is no specific genetic marker that distinguishes one race from another. External differences–like hair, skin color and eye shape–are not linked to inner differences, no matter how strong the myths about skull size, extra leg muscles or musical aptitude. I should think that this would all be abundantly clear by this enlightened age, but none of it was laid out in the article in the Times. Rather, there were only three columns discussing the degree to which the Penn State students were revealed to be “white” or “black.” “About half of the 100 students tested this semester were white,” according to another instructor. “And every one of them said, ‘Oh man I hope I’m part black,’ because it would upset their parents…. People want to identify with this pop multiracial culture. They don’t want to live next to it, but they want to be part of it. It’s cool.”
It is odd, this insistence that there is no such thing as race even as we wouldn’t want it moving in next door. There is, too, a remarkable persistence in re-inscribing race onto the narrative of biological inheritance. This science is always pursued for only the noblest of reasons: in Shriver’s instance, “the potential importance of racial or ethnic background to drug trials.” I will save for later my concern about the commercial competition for “race-specific” medicines. For now, consider the description of one student who “discovered” she was “58 percent European and 42 percent African.” Yet the “parent populations” tested for were described only as “western European” and “west African.” The young woman “has always thought of herself as half black and half white because her mother is Irish-Lithuanian and her father West Indian.” But Lithuania is generally considered a part of Eastern Europe, and therefore not technically part of the population tested for. And while “West Indian” is clearly used as a cipher for her African ancestry, one can be “white”–like Alexander Hamilton–while being West Indian. And the Irish were not considered white in colonial times.