Chasing Identity…

from GeneWatch Magazine, 27-2 | May-July 2014
By Robert Pollack, Patricia Williams
“International Biosciences offer a broad range of DNA Testing services designed to provide indisputable answers to emotional questions….”   –
“Your story awaits – go find it…”
“Welcome to you.”  –
        Oh the happy marketplace for genetic information! The hunt is on: From royal roots to hidden baby-daddies, to making sure you’re not accidentally related to any of those many, many Kardashians. The very definition of “ancestry” is freighted with social meaning. “Tracking” it tempts one to imaginary flights about inheritance, wealth, esteem, identity, purity of lineage – and correction! How we all long to be redeemed by such searches, released from the unfairly limited befoggery of what we actually know of ourselves. What bliss instead to follow our most deliciously arrogant, nakedly ambitious fantasies of some Mystery Me, some hitherto unspoken-of chromosomal configuration that will distinguish and redeem. Given that hunger, it isn’t hard to market DNA as a product, like cement, designed to fill in the gaps, and provide stick-um for the jigsaw puzzle of ourselves.

Within that marketplace, the definition of DNA is not confined by science but rendered connotatively huge, larger than galaxies, unconfined, a universe of wildest imagination. Yearning. Cure. Immortality. Control. A golem created from the skeletons of the past to address anxiety about what will happen to the present body. Yet the boring bottom line is that we are all doomed to be embarrassed by the vulgar commonality of our humanity. We are all alone, orphans, bastards, individuals, adopted, adapted, lost, sold down the river, rediscovered like Moses in the bulrushes. We are, not one of us, descendants of a pure untainted line.

There’s a narrative at the heart of the fascination with DNA ancestry tracking. It evokes the solving of mysteries, of finding home, and ultimate belonging. In the past, it has been the role of ritual to provide a sense of continuity, to connect the lessons of the past to the promise of the future. If until recently we have reenacted the words of our ancestors and lived by their texts, now we scour our DNA for heavenly indications of freedom from wondering, wandering and want. We hunt for the signs of our continuance. There is comfort in all that, but one will notice it is not a scientific enterprise. Rather, it is the deployment of metaphor and analogy and simile. How are we like or unlike “them, or “my tribe,” or a longed-for twin or a much-feared doppelganger? We search for origin myths; it is the essence of human endeavor.

Yet what is purchased with ancestry or DTC kits is not, as the advertisements crow, “you” or your “identity” or “the answer” to “emotional questions” or belonging. The science is much less romantic: DNA tests can show with fair certainty inclusive relation to near family. It can exclude relation where paternity is contested or in the analysis of forensic evidence. It can show with varying degrees of probability relation to certain haplotype groupings and population clusters. It can predict with accuracy a very small handful of heritable disorders, like Huntington’s Disease. It may one day be able to provide reliable information about our propensities for a wide range of other illnesses, but that is currently not the case. Indeed, the rush to “predict” health from reading the tea leaves of our DNA has been of such concern that the FDA recently shut down that sector of 23andMe’s service. And as readers of GeneWatch well know, there have been state investigations, federal hearings, as well as a host of consumer lawsuits contesting proffered test results that range from the altogether inaccurate to the statistically unsustainable. This lack of accountability of ancestry tracking companies – and particularly direct-to-consumer so-called “health” offerings – seems lost amid the warm fuzzy storytelling of their ads.

In effect, there’s a kind of bait and switch going on. The real asset of these enterprises is the collective data siphoned from individual consumers. The wealth that will be the return on corporate investment is premised on building large enough data sets – from millions of individuals ideally – to extract much more accurate associations, trends, patterns. The goal is to be able to sell insights about large-scale population genetics. Unfortunately, this much has little to do with what purchasers of the kits think they are getting. In the meantime, companies seem happy to have gotten consumers to actually pay them by handing over the gold of their DNA in exchange for often largely unsubstantiated surmise about relation to ancient princesses or the consistency of one’s earwax.

We have each, separately, written before in these pages about the imbalance and unfairness of such exchange and about the risks of reading social category onto the chemistry of DNA. Yet our collaboration here is to specifically tackle the dangers of treating ancestry tracking as though it were a party drug or an astrological chart of one’s destiny. Our concern is that such play feeds and perpetuates the overly deterministic fantasies of a culture longing for easy answers. If we imagine ourselves as solely the product of our genes, then we buy not just into a fatalism that underestimates the role of fortune, free will, and the distantly repercussive flapping of butterfly wings, but we also minimize the role of other molecular and biological processes. In particular, it blinkers all of us – scientists, policy makers and legislators – by inviting us to overlook the strong evidence of environment’s power to alter DNA’s expression.

In fact, rapidly emerging insights about epigenetic functioning unsettles much of even very recent molecular biology. Until the last decade or so, our understanding of genetic differences relied on models of gene expression that operated in an all-or-nothing way, so that different versions of the same DNA stretch were thought to result in inevitably different structures of proteins and inevitably different networks of regulation of protein construction and activation. These genetic differences were also thought to be inherited in an all-or-nothing way – a given version of a DNA stretch chosen or not by the sperm or egg that begin the next generation. The flaw in this flat Mendelianism is that its accuracy in explaining only a part of Darwinian inheritance leaves the residue of what some have interpreted as a scientific justification – genetic difference – for eugenic atrocities from slavery to the Shoah. But we humans are enormously plastic organisms, and the marginalization of “nurture” as something separate or apart from our biology has too often allowed us to ignore or deny the social burden of our species’ late- maturing neural circuitry.

Since about the year 2000, moreover, research has been accumulating that epigenetic differences are expressed in a tuneable way. Biologists have revealed a quicksilvered dynamism of gene transcription, vastly increasing our understanding of the dense and myriad complexities of the relation between genotype and phenotype. Columbia University Professor Frances Champagne has observed: “Across a variety of species, there is evidence for the effect of social experiences occurring across the lifespan on epigenetic pathways leading to broad phenotypic effects, including stress responsivity, learning/memory, and reproductive behavior.”[1] In other words, life’s experiences chemically alter the chromatin carrying a DNA sequence, tuning the degree to which that gene’s product or regulatory function will be turned on or off for some length of time. Some of these epigenetic differences appear to be heritable, when the chemical alterations in a DNA stretch are also applied to the DNA of the cells that differentiate into sperm or egg.

A word of caution: Even this latter notion, the potential heritability of epigenetic interaction, can be misinterpreted much too easily as cultural, racial or ethnic destiny. But that thinking carries forward precisely the genetic essentialism that this research unsettles. It is habit to think of “inheritance,” for example, as the definition of a person’s inalterable genetic fate. But the vulnerability of transcriptional activity and cellular differentiation to environment renders that accounting intrinsically incomplete and therefore simply wrong. We are alterable in a million-billion ways that defy any political moment or ideological overlay, for we are alterable around a common base line. For example, a recent global cross-sectional study published in The Lancet, of 60,000 newborns in Brazil, China, India, Italy, Kenya, Oman, Britain and the U.S., shows that “Babies’ growth in the womb and their size at birth, especially their length, are strikingly similar the world over – when babies are born to healthy, well- educated and well-nourished mothers…. These new results show that race and ethnicity are not the primary factors. What matters more is the educational, health and nutritional status of the mothers, and care provided during pregnancy.”[2] Observes Professor Jose Villar, lead author of the study: “Currently we are not all equal at birth. But we can be … Don’t say that women in some parts of the world have small children because they are predestined to do so. It’s simply not true.”
We write this at a moment when an entire generation of Syrian children are suffering the ravages of an horrendous war. Child soldiers in the Central African Republic are starving and traumatized. And in the United States, generations of children grow up addled, unloved, undereducated – if very well-armed – and addicted to a drug trade whose circularity contributes to the displacement of generations of Central American children whose situation has become so desperate that, unaccompanied, they cross deserts and continents, seeking entry to the United States in order to escape the murderous reign of drug lords who themselves are the traumatic reiterations of earlier, similarly-murderous banana republic regimes.

Because epigenetic reflections of socialized life are, for better and for worse, sometimes passed on to the next generation as well, we now have a data-driven mechanism to explain why, for example, kindness can repair the damage done by cruelty, both in one generation and through the generations. We have, in other words, good science to document how governments, corporations, oligarchies, syndicates or other formations can propagate – or not – the fate of millions: whether by maintenance of civil society or by acts of outright war; whether by comprehensive education or by refusing to fund reparative safety-nets of food and shelter for all young children; whether by ethics of fairness and respect or by the perpetuation of racial hatred or gendered indignity. Regardless of epigenetic burden, we now understand that social structure has a significant role in the remediation of even organic trauma. Human development assures that with regard to the most interesting aspects of a person’s identity – those that attach to hope – DNA versions are not at all as important as the luck of life with others. This luck is not encoded, but it is imposed by others as if it were.

We live in urgently depleted ecological times. Our planetary population is more rapidly diasporic than at any time in known history. Much of that displacement is generated by war and desperate want. As never before, there are legions of orphans among us. Yet there are fewer extant rituals reassuring us that studying our past will teach us the way to any future at all, never mind that of beloved community. Given the mess, it is not unpredictable that the human organism desires connection by any means possible. Even among the most technologically advanced citizens on earth, there seems to be a tendency to look to fundamentalisms as truth, whether in religion or biology. (Surely it’s not an accident that, in the United States for example, the most frequent users of DNA ancestry tracking services – Jews and African-Americans – are those with long histories of displacement.) But looking to DNA for the healing of our traumas and losses is a rhetorical, even prayerful enterprise. It is neither a rational nor a scientific one. As Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta, a co-author of the Lancet study, has stated: “The fact that when mothers are in good health, babies grow in the womb in very similar ways the world over is a tremendously positive message of hope … But there is a challenge as well. There are implications in terms of the way we think about public health: This is about the health and life chances of future citizens everywhere on the planet.”

For all the fun and fancy of reading ourselves through a DNA test kit, therefore, we need to constantly remind ourselves that identity, family, one’s sense of belonging – indeed, just the basic right to exist – can never be purchased from fortune-telling that plumbs our bodies to know our souls. Nothing can take the place of a more just and generous society.
Patricia Williams, JD, is a Professor of Law at Columbia University and a member of CRG’s Board of Directors. She writes a monthly column for The Nation called “Diary of a Mad Law Professor.”
Robert Pollack, PhD, is Professor of Biological Sciences, Earth Institute Professor, Adjunct Professor of Religion, Lecturer in Psychiatry at the Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, and Director of the Earth Institute’s Center for the Study of Science and Religion, all at Columbia University; and Adjunct Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary.
2. José Villar, Aris T Papageorghiou, Ruyan Pang, Eric O Ohuma, Leila Cheikh Ismail, Fernando C Barros, Ann Lambert, Maria Carvalho, Yasmin A Jaffer, Enrico Bertino, Michael G Gravett, Doug G Altman, Manorama Purwar, Ihunnaya O Frederick, Julia A Noble, Cesar G Victora, Zulfiqar A Bhutta, Stephen H Kennedy.The likeness of fetal growth and newborn size across non-isolated populations in the INTERGROWTH-21st Project: the Fetal Growth Longitudinal Study and Newborn Cross-Sectional Study. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/S2213-8587(14)70121-4
University of Oxford. “Babies born to healthy moms worldwide are strikingly similar in size.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 July 2014. <>.


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White Rabbit

Published on The Nation (
White Rabbit

Patricia J. Williams | June 23, 2014

[Patricia Williams also discussed A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History by Nicholas Wade in her column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor. [1]”]

“And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall, tell ’em a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call…”

Late last month, a woman named Janelle Ambrosia went to pieces when a man in a parking lot turned on his motor, scaring her two young children. The car didn’t move; it was the sound of the motor that startled them. But the woman became so unhinged—threatening to throw her coffee at him and get her husband to kill him–that the man locked himself in, took out his cell phone and filmed her screaming at him at great and noisy length, calling him a “nigger! Nasty fucking nigger!” His video of that confrontation went viral; in response, Ambrosia took to the radio to explain: “If you look it up, ‘nigger’ means an ignorant person. It has nothing to do with race.”

I heard that radio interview as I was plowing my way through Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Wade is a science editor who has stirred controversy before, during his tenure at Nature and The New York Times. “Capital and information flow fairly freely,” he declares in the oft-quoted statement driving his book, “so what is it that prevents poor countries from taking out a loan, copying every Scandinavian institution, and becoming as rich and peaceful as Denmark?”

His book begins to answer this question with the basic premise that there are five “independent” races, three of which Wade deems “major.” He argues that cultures grow out of “instinctual social behaviors, such as the propensity to trust others, to follow rules and punish those who don’t, to engage in reciprocity and trade….” These behaviors, he claims, are developed separately through evolutionary biology.

What prevents so-called minor cultures from learning from major ones? Wade’s answer is incoherent. Sometimes the problem is structural, as in North Korea, where poverty, he argues, is caused by “bad institutions.” In this case, the problem can’t be genetic because “the people are the same” as in South Korea. But sometimes Wade blames genes. “Africa” (not a specific country) is tribal and warlike and resistant to innovation because of “natural selection,” a “fact” that supposedly explains why the continent has “absorbed billions of dollars of aid over the past half century and yet, for decades its standard of living has stagnated.”

Wade gets all kinds of things stunningly wrong, confusing the idea of race with the fact of genetics, and using race as a proxy for continental migration, skin color, disease, haplotype and other human variation. One of the most interesting of Wade’s indulgences is his endless, unsubstantiated hypothesizing about race as underwritten by imaginary genetic forces he confesses have not been found “yet,” and then shamelessly transforming those fictions into “common sense” and present-tense “fact.” As with Janelle Ambrosia, whether Nicholas Wade is a racist depends on the dictionary you are using. And like Janelle Ambrosia, Wade insists that he is not.

How convincing you find him also depends on the history book you’re using. Heaven knows, if you can publish 250 pages rationalizing racial inequality as biologically driven without ever mentioning the global impact of the slave trade (except for referencing how Europeans’ genetic endowment of “empathy compelled the abolition of slavery”), well, welcome to Wade’s world. In Wade’s world, there will be no mention of German and British colonial adventure to explain the “puzzling” decline in Chinese civilization during the 1800s. There will be no discussion of World War I in his genetic theory of the demise of the Ottoman Empire (it just happened “for reasons that defy scholarly consensus”). And despite stating repeatedly that “no genetic variants that enhance intelligence have yet been found,” Wade spends an entire chapter advancing unsubstantiated geneticized theories of “Jewish intelligence.” Indeed, Wade so underplays the relation of scientific racism to the Holocaust that he even muses upon aspects of the work of Joseph-Arthur Comte de Gobineau (the 19th century eugenic philosopher who came up with the idea of an Aryan “master race”) as “defensible” because, unlike Hitler, Gobineau admired Jews almost as much as his beloved Aryans, what with their being a “free strong and intelligent people, and one which…had given as many learned men to the world as it had merchants.”

For Nicholas Wade, “racism is a surprisingly modern concept, the word first appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary only in 1910.” (Janelle Ambrosia would doubtless appreciate this convenient sociology since racism didn’t exist for her until some random black guy in a parking lot invented it.) And if racism—not just the word but the “concept”—didn’t exist until 1910, then it’s a short leap to Wade’s conclusion, that “ fears that the evolutionary understanding of race will promote a new phase of racism or imperialism are surely exaggerated. The lessons of past abuses are vivid enough…This interpretation of Darwinism has been so thoroughly repudiated that it is hard to conceive of any circumstance in which it could be successfully resurrected.”

But resurrection is precisely what Wade does. Wade pins the label of “race” on phenomena that are, by his own admission, either nonexistent or do not at all correspond to known genetic functions. That move alone reinscribes the convoluted, shape-shifting social baggage of racial division onto our biology.

To understand how Wade muddles the science of genetics, using it to create his major and minor “races,” let us consider the example of a genetically-inflected condition that we never attribute to race. Suppose we found a genetic predisposition that might contribute to a greater frequency of dyslexia within certain kinship groups, and that statistical data located such groupings in Northern Finland, Eastern Nebraska and a small corner of Namibia. Dyslexia is heritable and therefore variable in small population clusters. But it exists throughout the human population. Would it make any sense to call it “the Finnish gene” or a “Nebraskan deficit” or a “Namibian trait?”

Dyslexia would be no more “obviously Nebraskan” than it is “obviously Namibian.” Yet this is the sort of generalization that Wade makes about characteristics like industriousness and generosity and proclivities for trade or warfare. And he goes further when he draws world-historic conclusions. It is as if he were to look only at the cluster from that small corner of Namibia, name it the “black-African-can’t-read” gene and “infer” or “surmise,” (some of his favorite words) that because of “the gene for illiteracy” it is just “common sense” (he uses that term a lot, too) that all Africans have been naturally selected for the pre-modern—melted into a singular culture, no less, that can’t adapt to the civilized world.

By the same token, conditions like enzyme deficiencies, tolerance for altitude, the ability to metabolize certain proteins or construct nucleic acids, or the susceptibility to certain diseases are distributed throughout our species. Humans are susceptible to a whole range of diseases we often delude ourselves into thinking of as the property of “only” particular ethnicities or races, such as Tay-Sachs or Kawasaki Disease or sickle-cell anemia or skin cancer. But even high stochastic frequency is no substitute for actual diagnosis: mere correlation is not the same as cause and effect. And it is not only those who identify as Jewish or Japanese or blacks or whites who succumb to these diseases.

Thus, adaptations to varying ecological conditions (like altitude or famine) are best thought of as variations on a common human theme. To deconstruct one of Wade’s examples, the mere fact that the red blood cells of some Tibetans who live in the Himalayas have developed an ability to oxygenate efficiently at extreme heights does not or should not be used to mark Tibetans as a race “distinct” or apart from Han Chinese—any more than it would make Tibetans “the same as” Peruvians who’ve adapted similarly in response to Andean altitudes. To even think of this kind of human adaptation as “racial” rather than as the myriad adjustments of living human biology is to think in categories that are overlaid with social attitudes and mythology.

Nevertheless, Wade relentlessly pushes human variability into big socio-linguistic boxes of “difference.” Raced difference. Just small variations he says out of one side of his mouth. Small variations that he then weaves into huge narrative tapestries of “genetic” social difference. Differences so immensely powerful that empires are built or collapse because of them. They rise, they fall because, well, it’s just in their nature.

Wade’s turn to “nature” is an old one. Auguste Comte, the so-called “father of sociology” proposed in the early 19th century that human thought could be summarized by three progressive stages of contemplation about the physical world: first, child-like religious explanation; second, metaphysical or “naturalized” explanation; and third, scientific or highest-order thinking, by which he meant positivism, aligning his quest for truth with observation and quantification. In some ways, Nicholas Wade represents an odd throw-back to Comte-ian descriptions of the second order, and sometimes even the first. Using his best Heart of Darkness primitivizing gaze, Wade describes religion in hunter-gatherer societies as utterly devoid of any aspect of ritual or order, instead simply “centered around communal dances. The dances are long and vigorous and extend far into the night. There is something about rhythmic movement in unison that instills a sense of belonging to a group.” “Nature,” meanwhile, becomes an active agent in Wade’s rhetoric, repeatedly situated like a goddess, a ghost, an invisible spirit of eugenic redemption.

With “nature” underwriting social traits like Western production efficiencies, East Asian autocracies, and “the success of Jews” in economic affairs, Wade is washed comfortably clean of political motivation. It is not Wade but “nature,” who goes about dropping a “a genetic anchor” hither and yon for traits like thrift, industry, honesty, conformity and innovation, thereby explaining why “expatriot English populations throughout the world have behaved like one another…and why the same is true of the Chinese abroad…and why Malay, Thai or Indonesian populations…are strangely unable to copy it.” Nature, not Wade, declares that “social behavior, of Chinese and others, is genetically shaped.”

If I were more biologically prone to snarkiness, I might suggest that it’s just the gene for arrogance emboldening Wade to make claims like “No one can yet say exactly what patterns in the neural circuitry predispose European populations to prefer open societies.” Or, “Western culture has achieved far more than other cultures…” Or, “It was Europe that discovered the world, not the other way around.” Or, that because of England’s “long peaceful history” which he charts as having begun in the year 1200, “the English” (not, mind you, the Irish, Welsh or Scots) naturally selected themselves for non-violence, literacy, “the propensity to save,” and “the propensity to work.”

How, one might ask, did “nature” accomplish all this felicitous selection? Until industrialization, claims Wade, “the wealthy had more surviving children than the poor. As many of the children of the rich fell in status, they would have spread throughout the population the genes that support the behavior useful in accumulating wealth.” Of course another way to read this is as the ontology of an unreconstructed colonial coot with an Etonian retelling of Upstairs Downstairs, something just short of an outright celebration of impregnating all the maids and slaves you can push into a closet.

Perhaps it would help to review exactly who Nicholas Wade is and where he fits into the hierarchy of his own theories. Wade has never published a peer-reviewed paper in any subject; does not have a doctorate or a master’s degree, only a bachelor’s in natural sciences. He is, however, a graduate of Eton and Cambridge, and his self-presentation in this book is that of one convinced he is the pinnacle of Wordsworth-ian fairest flowering. His vocabulary is stuck in an imaginary upper class reliquary, where words like “stock” and “breeding” may be applied to human beings, like the Irish. The careless British diction of animal husbandry-applied-to-humans litters the pages of this book. Human behavior is cheerfully compared to foxes, dogs, cows, chimps, and rats. The deep history of how this sort of Mendelian over-simplification enabled the rise of “chattel” (the archaic word for cattle) slavery is, of course, elided. Not to mention that if “breeding” served human uplift, as Wade implies, then the British royals would all be gentle geniuses.

Ordinarily I would hesitate to insinuate a connection between individual behavior and family proclivity, but Wade inspires me to throw caution to the winds and note that his grandfather was Lawrence Beesley, who wrote a book about surviving the sinking of the Titanic by launching himself into Lifeboat Number 13, since “there were no women or children” apparently in need. Following this ancestral destiny, Nicholas Wade has launched himself into a genetic lifeboat labeled not “13” but rather “English,” “Western,” “Caucasian,” as well as “innovative,” “monogamous,” “peaceable,” “literate” and “wise.”

* * *

A question looms as one slogs through this book. How did Wade, with all his flawed reasoning, careless privilege, and unsupported ideas, get published by Penguin Press, endorsed by Kirkus reviews, end up near the top of Amazon book sales before the book is even released, and, most unforgivably, occupy prime real estate in the New York Times for years upon years? Wade’s popularity seems to rest not only on the exploitation of sensational ideas for sales, but on the fact that his work looks scientific and is very hard for a lay reader to check or criticize.

We could start with the conspicuous endorsement from none other than James Watson, prominently featured on the jacket cover–not something whose legitimizing effect can be easily dismissed by the average lay reader. (For former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s similarly enthusiastic endorsement, you’ll have to go to Duke’s website.) But while Watson may have a Nobel prize for his scientific work, he was recently dismissed as head of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory precisely because he has, as he approaches slurry dotage, so often spoken like an anti-scientist. Of the great geneticist Rosalind Franklin (from whose pivotal work he borrowed heavily, without acknowledgment), Watson once wrote not only that she ought to wear lipstick, but that she “had to go or be put in her place. The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person’s laboratory.” He has expressed a desire to genetically render “all girls pretty.” He won’t hire “fat people”; thinks the Irish are “ignorant”; wants to cure “the disease of stupidity” by eliminating the bottom ten percent of humanity; has hypothesized that extra melanin gives “Latin lovers” extra libido; and is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours” – whereas “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Endorsements notwithstanding, Nicholas Wade’s book suffers from serious problems of citation. I tried to follow his footnotes for a study in which Wade discusses Russian breeder Dmitriy Belyaev’s attempt to “domesticate” foxes. But I found only references to short journalistic pieces written by…Nicholas Wade. So I looked up Belyaev on Wikipedia. There too, the first citation describing Belyaev’s work was written not by Belyaev but by none other than Nicholas Wade. Of course I’m an academic as well as a lawyer: I can continue my search in the great libraries of my university. Most casual readers will not.

A similar thing happened when I looked at the documentation grounding Wade’s overstated assertions about “the violence-promoting…MAO-A gene.” The precise mechanical and epigenetic expression of monoamine oxidase-A is a very much-discussed topic in genetics as well as law. It is a topic I address in a seminar I teach. What was surprising was the absence of reference to some of the major studies in the area that might challenge his assertion that natural selection “could have favored particular behavioral traits in the various ethnicities, whether more or less aggressive…” For, oh yes indeed, there’s the insinuation that African American men are more inherently disposed toward violence.

In short, the project of refuting this book will not be easy for the average reader. Not only does one need a fairly sophisticated interdisciplinary background to see through some of his claims, the promotion of the book is designed to cut off criticism. The most obvious–and cheapest–of those ways is Wade’s silly insistence that anyone who disagrees is a “politically correct Leftist,” only a few of whom (though he simultaneously sees them as legion) can “cow a whole campus.”

A deeper problem is that Wade’s legitimacy depends upon a closed loop of credibility–as well as a close-minded one–that has little to do with science or process or caution or inquiry, and every thing to do with the sweetly seductive pheromones of profit. Wade recently dismissed, among other seriously credentialed dissenters, a powerful critique by Jennifer Raff, a seasoned and respected research fellow at UT Austin with a dual doctorate in genetics and anthropology, as the work of a “postdoctoral student” whose reputation is “not exactly outsize.” He tends to respond, in other words, to thoughtful critiques by disparaging the status or qualifications of those who dare challenge him. Or maybe it’s just that Wade despises academics—they “won’t touch the subject of human race for fear their careers will be ruined. Only the most courageous will publicly declare that race has a biological basis.” Worst of all, he abjures the scientific process itself in his dismissal of standards of replicability, research controls, or tested results as the product of researchers who “do not act independently but rather as communities of scholars who constantly check and approve one another’s work.”

In no way do I intend to suggest that journalists should want or need degrees or even expertise in all the subjects upon which they report. But if Wade truly respects the ethics of journalism, a profession central to the democratic civilizations he so loves, he cannot publish falsehoods and sheer fiction in its name. Nicholas Wade—just like Janelle Ambrosia–will need to search harder for taxonomies beyond the lazy cultures of thought that keep leading us down the same fantastical rabbit holes.


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Upon the 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education….

….a link to a piece written on the 40th anniversary, which includes my interview with the Brown sisters:

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May 19, 2014 · 3:17 pm

The Latest Affirmative Action Decision Isn’t Just About Race

Published on The Nation (

Patricia J. Williams | April 30, 2014

The name of the Supreme Court’s latest case involving university admissions describes the battle lines: Schuette, Attorney General of Michigan v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary. When the Court found for Schuette, headlines declared the decision a landmark ruling against affirmative action. But technically, the Court did not retreat from its prior holdings: race sensitivity is still a constitutionally permissible criterion when weighing the applications of similarly qualified candidates.

The case addressed a challenge to Article I, Section 26, of the Michigan Constitution, which altered the decision-making capacity of the regents and trustees of the state’s public university system. Section 26 took away those boards’ ability to use otherwise constitutionally permissible race-sensitive criteria for admissions—i.e., a backdoor way of banning affirmative action in the state. Schuette was also a broad capitulation to an old notion of states’ rights, allowing localities to opt out of federal equal-protection measures designed to dismantle segregation. Following this ruling, states can merely override those measures, one by one. The bottom line? What is expressly permissible as a matter of the US Constitution is now forbidden in Michigan. Not only that, it has removed affirmative action in Michigan from the democratic process. Where once these policies were negotiated through elected university boards, requiring a degree of popular will, Section 26 has ended discussion with a blanket ban.

The university boards can still consider all sorts of other admissions factors. Your father wants to underwrite a chair in Old Church Slavonic poetry? Welcome to the class of 2018! Your great-grandmother’s cousin was an alumna? Walk on in! You’re an athlete? Here’s your scholarship—just don’t try to unionize, ha ha ha!

But consider another scenario. You have one place to fill and two applicants—a white kid from Grosse Pointe, and a black kid who has risen from the ashes of Detroit’s segregated, postindustrial dystopia to achieve the same scores. Put on the blindfold! We don’t see color here. According to Section 26, it’s unlawful to weigh the black kid’s distinct experiences because that would constitute either an act of discrimination against the majority white population or a grant of preferential treatment for minorities.

This matter of discriminating against the majority is something that the more conservative members of the Court have dwelled on in the past. Yet as Justice Sotomayor points out in her dissent, majorities—by definition—need no protection, because they can vote down policies contrary to their interests. What they ought not be able to do, she argues, is structure the process so that one group is burdened, as here, with no option but silence.

In Schuette, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, held that the Supreme Court will not strike down state laws that bar government decision-makers from considering an otherwise legal option. This decision imposes an inane double bind that makes remedying all sorts of equal-protection claims impossible. Sure enough, since the opinion was published, Attorney General Bill Schuette, the named appellant, has been pressing his appeal to reinstate Michigan’s ban on gay marriage with renewed relish.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent presents a detailed history of the fight for full citizenship through equal protection, expositing three generations of legal struggle. First, targeted minorities won the right to vote—a goal that has been codified in law. Second is the ongoing struggle against measures designed to make voting difficult or impossible, through poll taxes, gerrymandering and so forth. The third challenge is the problem in Schuette: whether a majority may “reconfigure the existing political process in a manner that creates a two-tiered system of political change, subjecting laws designed to protect or benefit discrete and insular minorities to a more burdensome political process than all other laws.” Here, it is the restructuring of a government decision-making process that places “substantial and unique burdens” on minorities seeking to be heard.

Let us step back and consider Schuette’s significance in conjunction with other strategies that Michigan has taken to remove decision-making from elected officials. Over the last decades, state laws have been passed requiring all cities to slash personal income taxes annually, virtually guaranteeing their bankruptcy. Detroit is only the most visible example. A city’s financial distress, in turn, triggers the ability of Rick Snyder, the Republican governor driving these “reforms,” to appoint “emergency managers” in place of elected officials. The managers knuckle down and sell off public assets to make ends meet. Indeed, Michigan has slashed funds for public universities by double digits. Although race is never mentioned as motivating the cuts, the appointment of emergency managers has targeted African-American areas where long histories of economic precariousness have left the locals vulnerable and, without the ability to fund public services through tax dollars, lacking basic infrastructure.

The abrogation of democracy in the Schuette decision goes hand in hand with the reinforcement of racial inequality. While anxiety about access to higher education is, as in Schuette, perpetually styled as a battle royal between black and white, this pitting of one against the other distracts from our failure to invest in all of our public institutions, lowering the quality of life for everyone. Fear of our most needy fellow citizens getting a bigger slice of the “preferential” pie has somehow driven us to bake smaller and smaller pies served at smaller and smaller tables. We seem locked in a fight over scraps, as though unaware of the banquet of generous possibilities we might, by reinvestment, choose to build for our world.


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Filed under affirmative action, Michigan Constitution, race, gender, class, ethnicity, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, sonia sotomayor

Privacy In The Age of Genomics,

Private Accommodations
by Patricia J. Williams

published in Genewatch Magazine, vol. 27, no. 1, Spring, 2014

How much of our privacy will be challenged by decoding the human genome is an open, evolving question. Translating the coded “text” of the double helix is only half the task. Translating that information into the taxonomies of public policy requires balancing the contrasting values of scientific conventions and legal discourse.
Most obviously to most people, the indiscriminate compilation of DNA databanks here and in other countries potentially compromises not just privacy but presumptions of innocence, as well as the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This is particularly so where databases sort people using categories overlaid with biases about social history, race, genetic determinism or inborn aggression. In 2013, for example, it was revealed that police in southern Sweden had compiled a registry of over 4000 “travellers” (or Roma people), with personal information about whole families, going back to the 1800’s. The database included no other Swedes, whatever their criminal history. Nor did this pretend to be just a list of Roma criminals—it included artists, athletes, civic leaders, and over 1000 children, some as young as two years of age. Their only commonality was that they were Roma.[1] (Sweden being Sweden, the police department involved ultimately turned itself in, reporting its own violation of a number of laws including the European Convention on Human Rights.)
In the United States, suspect profiling in largely-black and Latino neighborhoods is so widely and disproportionately practised that DNA registries are inherently racially loaded and coded, if in nominally more subtle ways than Sweden’s. And in courts, there is a good deal of disingenuousness among judges who have dealt with the issue thus far. In Maryland v. King, for example, the Supreme Court characterized DNA simplistically and quite flatly, as a means of identification similar to fingerprints or photographs.[2] But of course DNA reveals much more than fingerprints or photographs—not just about ourselves but about our families. And in the future, it is likely to reveal much more.
The state of Maryland at least destroys data if it collected from an arrestee who is subsequently not convicted. That is not the case in many other states: California, for example, keeps DNA samples, even those from people merely arrested and subsequently released, unless and until the retention is challenged by an individual request to destroy. Yet in March of 2014, the 9th Circuit upheld California’s practice in the case of Haskell v. Harris.[3] The court dismissed concerns about privacy, breezily dubbing buccal swabs “routine” and ubiquitous “throughout the nation.” The swab itself was viewed as a “minor intrusion,” for the judge weighed “intrusiveness” only by the physical ease of cheek swiping; there was absolutely no consideration of the deep and lifelong intrusiveness at stake in the medical and familial information DNA may reveal, so exponentially beyond the sort of “identification” that fingerprints or photos can.
The profiling and curatorial instinct of government functionaries—from courts to police to armies—is not something to be lightly written off. For those who doubt the potential dystopian uses of genetic material, the recent film “DNA Dreams,” available on YouTube at , provides sober ground for thought. Although focused on the enormous Chinese genomic research conglomerate BGI, it highlights the porousness—indeed the evaporation–of boundary between what we are accustomed to thinking of as public and private structures and institutions in a transnational, globalized economy.
Nor is it DNA collection alone that threatens privacy; it is the ability to pair that information with the planetary tracking of every other aspect of our lives. Books like Julia Angwin’s “Dragnet Nation” and Robert McChesney’s “Digital Disconnect” document the degree to which every last intimacy of our lives is accessible to strangers: through online hospital records or the trails we leave by our shedding of hair and skin, through street cameras or what our address implies about us, through our use of cellphones, webcams, Facebook, fitness wristbands, and credit cards. In addition to the information that is gathered in legal or unregulated ways–say by neighbors, employers, corporations, and governments–we also contend with illegal or ethically vexed invasions from a fairy-tale-sounding litany of anonymous grifters, hackers, trolls, cookies, and infinitely-proliferating forms of malware.
Despite this, we sigh a bit, shrug with the cliché of it all–there are no secrets anymore!–and press “I agree” without thinking when purchasing everything from iTunes to banking services to airline tickets. Agree to what? is an inquiry routinely evaded, a closed door unshadowed by curiosity.
So it should not be a complete surprise when those unread terms come back to haunt us in seriously constraining ways. When the Microsoft corporation recently suspected an employee of stealing software code protected as trade secrets, it simply combed through users’ private emails and instant messages—not only those of the employee, but of a journalist who had blogged about communications received from the employee. Microsoft claims it was authorized to do this because of the terms of service to which all Hotmail accounts are subject. The New York Times reported that Microsoft’s actions were technically “within the boundaries of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows service providers to read and disclose customers’ communications if it is necessary to protect the rights or property of the service provider.” This is indeed a relatively unregulated realm, stretching the interpretive bounds of traditional private contract law, creating fairly dubious presumptions that consumers have choice in the matter, and have willingly given up their privacy rights in exchange for the service of the internet. Microsoft’s power invades not only individual privacy but also the ability of journalists to protect their sources. As civil rights attorney Nate Cardozo observed, “To see Microsoft using this right to essentially look through a bloggers email account for evidence of wrongdoing and then turn it over on a silver platter for law enforcement, it is extremely undesirable…” [4]
Whether we bother to read the invisible contracts that govern so much of our lives or not, the truth is that almost all service providers leave consumers with little in the way of privacy rights—it’s just rare that a company like Microsoft admits it so openly. As Edward Wasserman, Dean of UC Berkeley’s Journalism School, stated, “Microsoft essentially decided that whatever privacy expectation that its own customers supposedly had was basically a dead letter. It simply decided that in its own corporate interest, it can intrude on a person’s email.”
This very broad ability should be considered against the backdrop of how such a power might be used in the context of DNA dragnets conducted not just by governments but by global corporations with accountability to no interest but their own private profit. If most of us are at least vaguely aware of the potential for misuse when genetic data is taken by law enforcement agencies, we seem entirely willing to just give it away through the easy carelessness of such unread agreements with ancestry tracking services, direct-to-consumer health companies and so called “spit parties.”
In this over-exposed new universe, there are many who insist, “I have nothing to hide.” But the law’s protection of privacy is not dependent upon the felt necessity to hide. Privacy is a space as well as an idea. It is the distance we give each other to be happy hogs wallowing in our own mud. It is the shelter we need to be creative and think or write or compose on our own terms to say nothing of outside the box. It is the freedom to make mistakes and to improve on first efforts. It is the ability to decide when to publish an observation or whether to broadcast a considered narrative of our own experience. On a personal level, it is the right to hold at bay the prurient humiliation or judgmental gaze of others who might desire to catch us literally or figuratively with our pants down. And as a matter of citizenship, it puts distance between us and the potentially totalizing power of government functionaries who may be motivated–however beneficently or banally—to regulate political thought by acting as arbitrary censors, just-curious home invaders, authoritarian gatekeepers, or whimsical jailers.
The concept of autonomy is central to American—and most Western– juridical and political constructs of democracy. As largely-invisible data aggregators amass evidence of our every purchase, movement and heart beat, our identity as unique individuals will become subsumed to the much greater emphasis placed on our relation to some spectrum of actuarial expectation. Increasingly we will be advertised to, deflected from, assessed for criminality, disease probability or financial risk, assigned emotional valence, assorted, tagged, boxed, confined.
On top of this, social media networking has not lived up to its promise of replacing traditional intra-personas communities, emerging instead as a force that fragments human engagement as much as it coheres. Along with global media monopolies, it too often herds erstwhile polities into imaginary “teams” and embattled formations of hype, tabloidization, disinformation and fear.
All these forces conspire to create a world and a citizenry of fewer and fewer upwardly mobile “speaking subjects.” Instead we become locked into a shell-like status fixed by carelessly-composed data sets, as well as un-interrogated correlations made by invisible beaurocrats. Without oversight or due process, it will be harder and harder to challenge, never mind find out why, we came to be labelled “a this” rather than “a that.” A flight risk or a cancer risk? A quick learner or a big spender?…Like it or not, willingly or not, these are the identity groupings by which we will be judged and from which we will struggle vainly to escape. In writing about Sethe, the main character in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Avery Gordon notes that “[w]hen she hears schoolteacher’s directions to his pupil that he should put her animal characteristics on the right and her human characteristics on the left, she does not know what the world characteristic means and has to ask, but she nonetheless understands the conjuncture of power and epistemology that is the very stakes of her representability.”[5]
However reductive, the tiny particulate markers of our identity are valuable as intellectual property; they become monetized nuggets in the “knowledge economy”—little lego assemblages of data used to construct the avatars and facsimiles that stand in for us in a world repositioned as efficiently heuristic rather than participatorily democratic. Genes, cells, fingerprints, blood or isolated phenotypes become “immortal” ciphers, or fixed character properties. Governments, pharmaceutical companies, and, yes, Microsoft, attribute to incremental pieces of ourselves a separate life that engulfs or becomes more important than our complex embodied selves. It is a peculiar de-forming of our lives; just for the sake of argument I will analogize to Gordon’s description of Sethe’s fear: “Within the violence of an economy in which Sethe made the ink used to write her into a book that would literally measure her alterity, the equation literacy equals power unmasks its sinister shadow.”[6]
Law professor Jessie Allen, who authors the blog “Blackstone Weekly,”[7] a contemporary take on 18th century English jurist William Blackstone, observes that what is happening now might be very similar, as a conceptual matter, to the beginnings of the corporation. In his “Commentaries on The Laws of England,” Blackstone described early entrepreneurs’ concern with the basic limits of their own humanity: People die. That’s bad for business. The invention of the corporation effectively created an immortal legal subject, untethered to human frailty. That immortality is, in effect, a way of extruding from particular bodies a use value that can be assigned to the ether of a legal fiction—a fiction that “speaks” through articles of incorporation, and whose profit may be divvied up among distant, abstract shareholders.
There is a similar process of dispossession in the mining of our habits, our bodies, our preferences and dispositions. It’s framed as “not about us,” at least as individuals—even though it may be used to powerfully confine us as individuals, can be used to mark us even as it can rarely be claimed by us.. It’s rather about one’s group, one’s place, one’s “anonymized” metrics.
Along with this expansion of Big Data, there is a shift, as described by legal academics David Singh Grewal and Jedediah Purdy, away from liberalism’s vaunting of the autonomous legal subject and toward a neoliberal “moral vision of the person and of social life that emphasizes consumer-style choice, contract-modelled collaboration…”[8] This reconfiguration of the righted subject into what is effectively instantiation of the person as corporation has two implications for how privacy is perceived. First, the value of the individual is rewritten as alienable rather than inalienable, as cost-benefit, profit-motivated and value-added. (This explains, I suppose, the conversation I overheard among a group of high school students on the subway, busily working on a homework assignment in which they had been asked to “brand” themselves, to give that brand a catchy name, and to sell that brand in no more than five sentences, because with more than five sentences “you lose your audience.”)
Second, corporatized people don’t need healing; and indeed the rules of corporate law bend away from the idea of justice as individually remedial or personally restorative. A corporate being looks to the law not for civil rights but for the predictive, the risk-minimizing, the future-controlling immortality of guaranteed return. Through that lens, any legal system based on consent, or on individual cases and controversies begins to look cumbersome in comparison to the speedy efficiency of stochastic models. Consider again the Microsoft case: how we in the industrialized world who conduct most of our work and play—indeed our entire lives—with the assistance of computers, are always pressing little buttons that say “I agree” to terms of service, conditions of usage, and privacy limitations that we never bother to read. Consider how ritualized that behaviour has become, the act of consent rendered thoughtlessly, invisibly performative in a way that “disappears” any need for negotiated participation. The surface language of contract effectively marks only a site of erasure.
It is not as though the terms of those agreements do not exist, however. If one bothers to print off the actual contracts to which those little buttons refer, the monolithic imbalance of bargaining power rises before one, like the dark cliffs of Sauron’s castle walls, in The Lord of the Rings. Often running to thirty or forty pages of language that leave corporations with no responsibilities and individual consumers with no rights, the utter lack of public engagement with such terms means that there is virtually no consumer movement or pushback to the accumulated wealth being mined from the data that most such contracts assign to huge entities like Google or Apple or Amazon. Here is just one paragraph from the agreement that gene-tracking company 23andMe proffers:

By the same token, the popularity of massive online education forums, or so-called MOOCs, can contain very troubling terms vis a vis privacy interests as well as the transferred wealth of data: Platforms like EdX, while billing themselves as “free,” require participants to consent to being research subjects for neuroscientific studies about how students learn, or as the privacy terms as of March 27, 2014 (since all terms are “subject to change at any time”) put it: “…for purposes of scientific research, particularly, for example, in the areas of cognitive science and education.” To that end, EdX and other MOOCs have begun to publish research studies based on quietly mining the learning patterns of what is, in effect, its online global laboratory of students: “…[W]e sometimes present different users with different versions of course materials and software. We do this to personalize the experience to the individual learner (assess the learner’s level of ability and learning style, and present materials best suited to the learner), to evaluate the effectiveness of our course materials, to improve our understanding of the learning process and to otherwise improve the effectiveness of our offerings. We may publish or otherwise publicize results from this process, but, unless otherwise permitted under this Privacy Policy, those publications or public disclosures will not include Personal Information.” Hmm. “Unless otherwise permitted…”? As a student of contract law, I like to hope that all such terms would be interpreted through a filter of implied reasonableness and conscionability, yet that is not necessarily the jurisprudential trend…Here is just one other paragraph from EdX’s terms of service:
License Grant to edX. By submitting or distributing User Postings to the Site, you hereby grant to edX a worldwide, non-exclusive, transferable, assignable, sublicensable, fully paid-up, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to host, transfer, display, perform, reproduce, modify, distribute, re-distribute, relicense and otherwise use, make available and exploit your User Postings, in whole or in part, in any form and in any media formats and through any media channels (now known or hereafter developed).

I began this essay by framing the issue as one of privacy, in particular genetic privacy; let me place that concern against the cultural backdrop of our general, if radically rosy, technophiliac faith in the inevitable good of what genetic information will divulge. This is a remarkable moment, surely, with technology transforming human relations as profoundly as did the printing press. Technology is progressing so rapidly and sweepingly that it is almost impossible not to allow the imagination free reign, to push past what the science actually reveals. It is hard to resist romanticizing its possibility, as enhancement beyond all known history. We are headed towards an era of superhumans, mechanical Ubemensches.! We cannot fail! Throw out the old! Bring on the bionics!
But I remain intrigued by that notion of neoliberalism as pushing humans into corporatized boxes and those boxes as ciphers for the ancient hubris of sought immortality–the immortality of a figurative body; the crafting of a fictional, controllable or ideal mechanism that can be cobbled together from pieces and parts. Alas, I do not believe in immortality. There is only the intimately creative integrity of an embodied self. If we fail to nurture that generative space, of which privacy is the guardian, we put distance between heart and head, and our flourishing becomes unmoored from any investment in the self that is not situated in a global market place of invisible, soul-crushing number crunchers.

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Maybe-Us Corpus

Prison Culture: How Biases Trump Evidence and Land People in Jail
The imprisonment of an American couple in Qatar reveals biases in criminal justice, at home and abroad.

Patricia J. Williams April 8, 2014 | This article appeared in the April 28, 2014 edition of The Nation.

There are many ways to tell a story. Here’s one: In 2012, Chinese-Americans Grace and Matthew Huang moved with their three children from Los Angeles to Qatar for a construction project on which Mr. Huang was an engineer. In January 2013, their 8-year-old daughter, Gloria, who had been diagnosed with serious eating disorders, died of cachexia and dehydration. In March, the Huangs were sentenced to three years in a Qatari prison for homicide.

Here’s another way to tell the story: Instead of pursuing anything like a proper forensic and factual investigation, Qatari police simply arrested the Huangs for starving their daughter to death, and for child trafficking with intent to harvest her organs. In fact, there was no evidence to substantiate any abuse or intentional starvation. Gloria’s two brothers are healthy, and neighbors and family friends have gone on the record about conditions in the home. After the California Innocence Project took on the case, an examination performed by an American pathologist indicated that Gloria’s organs were intact, with no sign that an autopsy had even been performed in Qatar.

A third way of telling the story: Gloria and her two brothers, adopted from Ghana and Uganda, were described in the Doha police report as “ugly black children.” One Qatari investigator said, “The adoption process consists of searching for children who are good-looking and well-behaved, and who have hereditary features that are similar to those of the parents. But the children connected to this incident are all from Africa, and most of the families there are indigent.” This was underpinned by the broad Qatari suspicion of all forms of exogamy—traditions against marrying outside one’s kinship circle are so strong that Qatar suffers from one of the world’s highest rates of genetic disorders related to extreme consanguinity. According to the Huangs’ website, the prosecution saw no reason for these adoptions other than that the Huangs took the children into their home “in order to harvest their organs, or perhaps to perform medical experiments on them.”

Media around the world have picked up on the Huangs’ predicament and dissected it through a dizzying array of prisms: race, religion, ethics of adoption, global migration, contested definitions of eating disorders, etc. None of these analyses provide credible grounds for a criminal case against the Huangs, yet these legions of speculative associations are evocative in their own right. Americans do indeed have an unfortunate international image of buying, selling, returning and “re-homing” adopted children like commodities on eBay. And it is true that a Somali child was recently rescued from brokers who had smuggled her into Britain for alleged organ harvesting. Traffickers have made news for stealing children from sub-Saharan Africa for sale as sex slaves and, in Qatar, for use as camel jockeys. And as evangelicals, the Huangs were shadowed by tales about zealous Christian missionaries dispensing harsh beatings as a parenting practice. What’s more, 80 percent of Qatar’s residents are largely Asian migrant laborers and servants, whose rights—including those of the Huangs—are constrained by the employers serving as their “sponsors,” rendering them effectively stateless.

It is easy for us to be appalled by the Huang case and assume that such things can never happen here. But humans have biases. It is the role of our courts and government institutions to sift through those biases and waken us when we are about to be deceived by our illusions. “The norm of public reason,” as Yale law professor Dan Kahan calls it, is a concept that calls for “legislators and ordinary citizens to justify policies on grounds accessible to persons of diverse moral and cultural persuasions instead of in terms that reflect a partisan conception of the good.” Justice here and abroad depends on public systems that do not lock us up based on mere assumptions. Forensic science, critical reasoning and due process can assist us in making decisions that are based on fairness and evidence. Yet these judges’, public defenders’ and prosecutors’ offices are the tools consistently under political assault these days—routinely understaffed and budget-strapped.

Ultimately, the Huangs’ story is one of a family imprisoned—literally and figuratively—by the power of cultural narratives with lives of their own. Many Westerners are shocked by the criminalization of the Huangs, but we should take their plight as a more general object lesson about the power of biases. What will be the fate of Gloria’s two brothers here in the United States? If we imagine shimmering Brangelina rainbow uplift when we think of adopted African children, our treatment of those children, when grown, as inherently criminal and intellectually suspect is no less insidiously burdensome than the stigmas haunting the Huangs in Qatar. I am reminded of the carelessness with which the police investigated Trayvon Martin’s death. The officers in Sanford, Florida—much like their Qatari cousins—displayed so little curiosity beyond their own preconceptions that they didn’t bother to perform routine forensic examinations, like properly preserving Trayvon’s clothes or testing George Zimmerman for drugs and alcohol. If we are shocked by Qatar’s lack of due process, so should we worry about exactly the same lack for minorities and migrant workers in the United States, whom we too often and too carelessly presume are “terrorists” if not organ harvesters, “leeches” if not vampires.


I wish to thank my student Katri Stanley, who brought this case to my attention in a very fine seminar paper about adoption laws.

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I, Too…

‘I, Too, Am Harvard’ Rocks the Ivory Tower

Patricia J. Williams | March 12, 2014

More than forty years ago, during my first days at college, I was made instantly and acutely aware that a lot of people seemed never to have met a black person. For the most part they were not intentionally belligerent, but they were excruciatingly, unself-consciously, dopily innocent. (“Leontyne Price actually studied opera? I thought she was just naturally musical…”)

Plus ça change, I suppose, but it is a disheartening testament to the intractability of America’s housing and educational segregation that, so many decades after the civil rights movement, many white students still seem never to have truly engaged with a black person till they get to college. More discouraging still, they then seem to turn interrogation of that void upon their black classmates’ right to be there, rather than upon the constrained and blinkered circumstances of their own upbringing.

The toll of that social gap is the subject of a new play, I, Too, Am Harvard, written by sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence with a broad coalition of classmates, which premiered on March 7. The play is presented in two acts, the first of which looks at the wide diversity of Harvard’s black students: descendants of American slaves, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, students who could (and are told they should!) pass for white, recent immigrants, mathematicians, musicians, poets, linguists, engineering students, children of all sorts of “mixed” marriages, poor kids and the children of Ivy League grads.

The second act looks at what those varied individuals have in common: this batch of young people is indisputably brilliant, thoughtful, humane and funny. A more pressing commonality, however, is that they are all routinely greeted as… otherwise.

They are treated with open disdain, the champagne flutes snatched from their hands at cocktail parties as they are mistaken for waiters. They are figured as criminals when they walk across campus. Their sexual prowess is interrogated, their beauty denigrated. They hesitate before asking questions in class—for a dumb question from a white person isn’t heard as a reflection on all white people, but any question from a black person tends to be scrutinized for inherent inferiority, “proof” that the student’s lonely little voice is the evil marker of where a “more qualified white person” ought to be sitting.

Only about 10 percent of the students at Harvard are black: yet that small, diverse population is hyper-visible. One young man described sitting down for dinner in the cafeteria, joined by four black friends. Later that evening, he was accused, by some white dorm mates, of “self-segregating.” Yet every other table in the cafeteria was all-white. He wondered aloud if his dorm mates even realized that their world is much more segregated than his. They didn’t seem to see that “they’re living all the time in a white world” and that most other people on the planet “live in multiple worlds.”

As another young man put it: “We are always so concerned about making everyone comfortable with our presence when we are made uncomfortable every single day.”

In addition to the play, these students put together a gallery of photographs of themselves on Tumblr (#ITooAmHarvard [1]), holding signs with actual comments made by friends and classmates (“You’re really articulate for a black girl”; “Are you all so fast because you spend so much time running from the cops?”), as well as responses to those comments (“No, I will not teach you how to ‘twerk’”; “Please don’t pet my hair, I am not an animal”). They’re evocative images, filled with gravity and grace, humor and sadness.

This project lends voice to unusually gifted, hard-working young people—by any human standard—who nevertheless spend much of their lives hidden behind the projections of others. Along with the eloquent students at Northwestern University who are unionizing to press their case against financial exploitation of poor and often minority “amateur” athletes by the NCAA, #ITooAmHarvard is part of an emerging nationwide student movement led by—but not exclusive to—students of color of all sorts. Oh, and joined by feminists, poor whites, those identified as gay/lesbian/transgender, and anyone else who has a clue of what it’s like to be bullied. Together, they have begun a new kind of dialogue about belonging and worth. And they are turning a mirror on the very bad manners, shall we call it, of a society that buries them beneath the history-deprived in-your-face-ness of tone-deaf provocateurs who, much like Paula Deen, never really mean to hurt your feelings—and yet who feel “crucified” when someone points out that they have.

This mix of insult and innocence is what some social psychologists call “microaggression”—the small, often unintentional expressions of ignorance and offense. It is a blindness that is as much the product of segregation as disparate stop-and-frisk policies. It’s not always as deadly as George Zimmerman’s constructed fears. But it represents a significant part of the unexpressed and unaccounted-for tensions within our polity.

An actor’s clear young voice lingers long after the performance: “Blackness to me is faith…having faith in what you don’t see. We as a people often don’t see validation. So for me, it’s having faith that I am significant, valid, valuable, even though everything else is telling me I’m not.”

Most conversations about race in American higher education focus on the endless, unwinnable effort to defensively prove “merit.” With gentility, restraint and admirable integrity, #ITooAmHarvard shifts the frame of this contentious landscape and asks instead: What institutional Weltanschauung is it that indulges such brutal, breezy presumptions regarding those about whom we are basically so miserably ill-informed? Whence does the entitlement come that allows such profoundly ignorant encounters within any community, never mind Harvard’s? Harvard! That ultimate self-promoting paragon of what the “civilized” world exalts as our best and brightest hope for peaceful human co-existence—yet here so persistently revealed as… otherwise.

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