The Right to Be Forgotten

Published on The Nation (
Patricia J. Williams | September 17, 2014

A debate erupted in the comment section of Dave Zirin’s Nation blog after he wrote that “showing and reshowing [the elevator video of then-fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer] just because we can is an act of harm.” He argued that “just as we would protect the name of an alleged rape victim, just as we would not show a video of Ray Rice committing a sexual assault, we should not be showing this video like it’s another episode of Rich People Behaving Badly.”

Yet it’s not necessarily against the law to publish the identities of rape victims. And there are thousands of online “we’s” who post everything from the rape of drunken classmates to the torture of kittens to human beheadings. But Zirin’s point is an important one, reminding us of the purpose behind America’s best traditions of journalistic integrity. Many millions of people have now seen Janay Palmer knocked to the floor, her limp body sprawled facedown, her dress crumpled above her waist, a portrait of one woman’s degradation. For those who believe that “we,” “the public,” “need” to see this, or even have some kind of “right” to see it—well, let’s think carefully about all which that implies.

Hearst and Murdoch notwithstanding, FCC oversight and clear ethical standards have made US journalism generally fairer and more accurate than elsewhere—Britain’s Fleet Street, for example. But the digital-age trend toward “it’s all out there anyway” punditry trades values of privacy, fairness and relevance for a standard of pure transparency, no matter who is exposed. Fox News has done much to break apart the old conventions. It is, after all, a subsidiary of Fox Entertainment; its only outer limit seems to be child pornography or physical threat. TMZ, too, deserves scrutiny, as publisher not merely of the Ray Rice footage but of much with which we’ve been obsessed recently: the hundreds of pictures of nude celebrities stolen from their cloud storage systems, as well as the film of Solange Knowles kicking Jay-Z, purchased from a hotel employee for $250,000. TMZ practices what is called “checkbook journalism,” encouraging legions of Little-if-not-Big Brothers eager to contribute to a culture of surveillance that has consequences for all of us.

A major tenet of the women’s movement over the past thirty years has been that rape trials, for example, frequently retraumatize victims by forcing them to relive the experience through the presentation of evidence in court. Now, with social media, that evidence can be posted anywhere or sold to anyone. As Julia Angwin notes in her book Dragnet Nation, the very attempt to shield yourself online, as with encrypted e-mails, is likely to place you “on some kind of red-flag list at the NSA.” In the United States, corporate and marketing lobbyists are quick to denounce any and all attempts to protect privacy as “censorship.” But there do exist basic legal as well as ethical limits we may wish to propose as starting points for a more robust discussion about our changing world.

A recent ruling by the European Court recognizes a “right to be forgotten.” This is derived from a right, originally accorded to criminals who had served their time, to have their records expunged so that they’re able to start life over. It is a right premised on the possibility of rehabilitation—not popular in America’s highly punitive culture. But in Europe, the right to be forgotten has become a cause that extends beyond criminal history to a more general concern that in cyberspace, we never grow past the moment of our greatest humiliation, and that in the long run this record will make us a less mobile society. We risk becoming serfs to our surfing history, as well as pawns to be experimented on by companies, like Facebook, whose business is data. The European Court found that search engines like Google must remove information that is “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” when a member of the public so requests. The ruling seems broad enough to apply to resolved debts, revenge porn, indeed any information that affects people’s honor, dignity or privacy.

In Europe, Google is currently fighting any such obligation. In the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled that free-speech concerns allow publication even of embarrassing material as long as it was legally obtained. Of course, in the face of near-zero regulation, little can be categorized as illegally obtained. But we could make tougher sanctions against government and private surveillance if we wanted to. We could create higher standards for encryption of our stored information. That would hobble the use of cookies by advertisers and other collectors of data, who make billions of dollars from our purchasing histories and viewing habits. This is a technological quandary to some degree, but the balancing of privacy, surveillance, freedom of information and censorship is not new or irremediable.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine that Ray Rice will ever work again. No matter how much therapy and soul-searching he undertakes, it’s going to be hard for him to find a job doing so much as raking leaves. Unless, of course, he sells his story to the perpetual shaming machine known as reality TV. It’s not hard to imagine him locked on an island with Dr. Phil and Richie Incognito and Adrian Peterson and Bristol Palin (who, according to reports about a recent melee at her father’s birthday party, “has a particularly strong right hook”). Rehab With Ray Rice, they’ll call it. Poor Janay Palmer Rice will be forced to make ends meet by spending her days in some spin-off of Mob Wives, titled something like Ex-Wives (one can hope!) of the NFL. An entertaining thought, no? Feels not just possible but likely? My commission, please, Fox Channel! Yet this is an outcome that degrades not only the Rices, but all of us as citizens and as vulnerable human beings. If we capitulate to the idea that pornographic reiteration is our only future, all sentences become life sentences.

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Obama’s message of hope and change is all but lost amid the chaos of Ferguson

The president is being pressed to take sides in a personal, political and structural tragedy in a divided nation
by Patricia J. Williams
an edited version of this essay was published at, Friday 22 August 2014 11.03 EDT

In 2008, the year that Barack Obama became president of the United States, the New York-based artist Carrie Mae Weems created a video installation in which Obama’s face melts from one thing to another: model citizen, communist infiltrator, immigrant, foreigner, friend, black Jesus, brown Hitler, American dream, chicken, monkey, zebra, joker, minstrel. As Weems’s voiceover describes it: “A reason to hope, a reason to change, a reason to reason …”

Of course, Obama has always been somewhat shape-shifting in his symbolism – it’s probably what got him elected to begin with. The “hope and change” that became his trademark was more than mere slogan; the very idea of a first black president became a mirror for whatever people wanted to see in him.

Now we come to a situation all too familiar in America with the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Obama is being pressed to take one of two sides in a layered personal, political, and structural tragedy for which carelessly drawn lines in the sand could not be more unhelpful. The last two weeks of anguish in Ferguson cap a difficult season for Obama. Already besieged by the situations in Ukraine, Iraq, Gaza, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, he has had to manoeuvre his way through attacks at home from every side. From Congressional Republicans threatening to sue him for trying to implement healthcare reform to the snarkily undermining comments of Hillary Clinton – this summer has been a season of confrontation. Is Obama too aggressive in his exercise of executive power? Or too chicken to invade? Is he passive on immigration? Too intemperate with Congress? Rarely has a president been so buffeted by such a variety of inconsistently projected personality traits.

According to a Pew Research Poll, 80% of African Americans think race is an important component of the discussion about Michael Brown’s shooting, while 47% of whites in America think race is getting too much attention. Two thirds of black Americans believe that the police response has been excessively forceful, but only a third of whites. And while 68% of Democrats believe race is an important consideration in this case, only 21% of Republicans do.

With a nation so divided, Obama wades into the debate not so much as president or as constitutional law professor or as chief executive of the Justice Department. In many people’s minds, he is fixed as exclusively African American rather than “really” American. That symbolism puts him in something of a no-win situation: anything he says or does will be heard as siding. While the crowds of protesters in Ferguson and other cities around the country are actually quite diverse, they have become singularly monolithic in many media representations. Except for the journalists who have been assaulted and a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor who was arrested, protesters have been portrayed as representing all African Americans everywhere – noisy “agitators” who make police and honest white citizens “fear for their lives” and who “reflect badly” on the greatness of our republic.

And as for Obama, his restraint becomes reconfigured as ineffectual, alien, and remote. The dilemma makes me think of a recent exhibit by another contemporary New York artist, Dread Scott—his pseudonym a play on the name of an 1857 landmark Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sanford, which ruled that blacks could not be citizens. His show Wanted “is a series of police wanted posters featuring a ‘police sketch’ of youth with a description listing a non-illegal activity for which they are ‘wanted’.” Public discussions accompany the exhibit, illuminating the pervasive fear and criminalization of young black men. A popular Twitter hashtag made the point even more poignantly: #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, where thousands of young men posted two very different possible photographic depictions of themselves: first, a carelessly taken selfie, perhaps frowning or showing a tattoo or wearing a hoodie, and then a second formal pose, as the upright citizen, the graduation picture in three-piece suit, the beloved mother’s child. Which image captures a life–by what is our existence honored or memorialized? The response captures the atmosphere of accusation and apprehension that surrounds every black person in the US, even the president.

Indeed, even the metaphors employed to prod Obama to “do something” resonate with oppositional connotations beyond his control. Consider just one expression, used to the point of cliche, that of “stepping up to the plate”: this is a sports metaphor used in team play. I suppose, by some measure, separate teams might be the nicest way of putting it.

Republican v Democratic, anti-abortion v choice, Tea Party v traditional conservative, climate change denial v ecological activism, immigration reform v walls on the border, gun nuts v the world. American discourse is inflamed well before one gets around to racialising it all. The message of hope and change, which originated as a means of contrasting the Bush administration’s handling of nearly everything – Katrina, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Iraq! – is so out of context as to be quite long-forgotten.

Against the backdrop of Ferguson’s tumult, pundits of all political stripes have been urging the president to “get angry” and be “forceful”. No less than Sean “P Diddy” Combs was quoted as saying: “Obama, for real, get on a plane. It’s serious.” And Duke University professor Michael Eric Dyson urged him to use his “bully pulpit” to render justice. But how the president can use his “pulpit” without being seen as “bully” is precisely the challenge.

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Summer of Hate

The Nation
Published on The Nation (

Patricia J. Williams | August 13, 2014

This summer, the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, has been a very bad season for any instantiation, anywhere, of Martin Luther King’s “beloved community.” From our immobilized Congress to explosions in Pakistan, from corruption in Afghanistan to war in Ukraine, from the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India to the ungoverned spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, from the breakdown of negotiations in Gaza to deadly confrontations between police and unarmed citizens from Philadelphia to Albuquerque, a restless undoing boils across the globe.

As I write, I listen to a radio remembrance of the useless toll of World War I, with its millions of honorable dead. Following that, a spoken essay about the birth of the atomic age at Hiroshima. Rumination about the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is mixed with speculation about whether we are playing with fire on the dry-kindled brink of something like World War III.

“Chickens coming home to roost” is what a voice says about some catastrophe. It’s the aphorism—of which my grandmother was quite fond—that catches my attention. She always used it to describe the legacy of slavery: the way in which children are born full of light and joy, but later, when they’re old enough to work the fields, return at the end of the day with cruelty lurking behind their eyes.

My thoughts shift to the Blackwater guards who gunned down seventeen innocent civilians in Baghdad in 2007. Weeks before that incident, which proved a tragic turning point in the supposed quest to win Iraqi “hearts and minds,” the State Department had launched an investigation into the criminality and chaos for which Blackwater was already responsible. That investigation was blocked outright: Blackwater’s spokesman in Iraq told the State Department’s lead investigator that he should watch himself, because the Blackwater executive could kill him “at this very moment and no one could or would do anything about it.” The investigator was later ordered home for “disrupting” the American Embassy’s relationship with Blackwater.

I think, too, of the violent breach of medical and military ethics in our government’s attempted deployment of doctors to monitor the administration of torture at Guantánamo Bay. My scattered thoughts roll on to the general public-health emergency posed by our failed health system—including the fact that 40 to 60 percent of those who land in jails or prisons are suffering from untreated mental illness.

This in turn floats me to Rikers Island, the jail where so many of those arrested under the New York Police Department’s “broken windows” policy (which targets those who commit “quality of life” crimes and other very minor infractions) end up. Rikers is a holding facility, not a prison, meaning that the vast majority of inmates are not convicts but are awaiting arraignment or trial. Yet Rikers inmates suffer staggering rates of abuse requiring hospitalization. The use of force has more than doubled in the last five years, even as the jail population has declined. The impunity with which those beatings take place is beyond doubt, because many of the assaults have been captured in surveillance videos. Sometimes guards evade even this monitoring by beating inmates in the medical unit—often in the presence of distressed medical staff. According to a four-month investigation by The New York Times, it has been “common practice—‘normalized brutality’—for beatings to go on at the clinic, because there were no cameras there.” Despite thorough documentation by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, by the Board of Correction, by the Department of Correction, by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, there have been no prosecutions of guards to date. Said the Bronx district attorney’s office: “Some of these cases, from Rikers Island in particular, some of the witnesses get scattered.”

There were witnesses to the July death of Eric Garner, however. Garner was the New Yorker who died after police throttled him as they arrested him for selling individual loose cigarettes without a license. A cellphone video of the confrontation, taken by a passer-by, has gone viral. While police maintain that they were simply “bringing a person to the ground the way we’re trained to do,” the medical examiner’s office concluded that Garner’s death was a homicide, the result of the long-banned choke hold. While the sad politics-as-usual around that incident rage on, I am most struck by the behavior of the emergency medical technicians, who stood alongside the police and did nothing, idly peering down at Garner as he lay unconscious, watching him die, administering neither CPR nor defibrillation, even as gathered onlookers shouted at them to do so.

According to the National Comorbidity Study and the National Institutes of Health, approximately 3.5 percent of the American population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. About 14 percent of New York City firefighters have PTSD, as well as 20 percent of Iraq War veterans, 31 percent of prison guards, more than half of all prison inmates and, according to a study by the Safer Foundation, up to 68 percent of incarcerated women.

On the radio, someone is calling President Barack Obama “chicken” for not having “gotten more involved” by sending more soldiers to Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq.

The witnesses scatter. The chickens come home to roost. I remain curious about the explosive histories that sent those chickens flying into distant disorder, but which we consign to oblivion as they glide back to earth, drifting like embers and ashes, the regrouping phoenixes of reiterated traumas. I turn off the radio, left with an ominous vision of flocks of mean-spirited birds, broken-winged and brooding, gathering in unnatural silence, as though before a storm.

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Williams Interview with Newsweek:

What Michael Brown’s Death Says About America
By Pema Levy
Filed: 8/15/14 at 4:01 PM | Updated: 8/15/14 at 10:11 PM
Police officers briefly detain a person in Ferguson, Missouri August 13, 2014. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Filed Under: U.S., Ferguson
For many, the scenes of conflict from Ferguson, Missouri this week were a reminder of an era of racial conflict many Americans had hoped was far behind them — particularly in the era of the first black president.

A peaceful night of demonstrations on Thursday was preceded by four nights of unrest in which the people of Ferguson attempted to protest the slaying of an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager, Michael Brown, and were met by battle-clad local police armed with military equipment.

The police had sniper rifles pointed at peaceful protesters, used tear gas and rubber bullets, detained journalists and dismantled a filming crew’s camera equipment. The St. Louis suburb had become a war zone.

“It is unbelievable, it’s unreal to see what the police are doing there,” civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, said after the shocking events of Wednesday night. “People have a right to protest, they have a right to dissent, they have a right to march in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, and the press has a right to cover it. It takes me back to the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s.”

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s remarks in response to the unrest have been measured, calling for calm from both the protesters and police. This was not the first time the president responded to a racially-charged tragedy. When Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, was killed in Florida in 2012—his killer, George Zimmerman, has since been released—Obama’s comments were a reminder of the role race played in the crime. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said.

To try to understand the dynamics of the protest—and the president’s ability to address them—Newsweek turned to Columbia Law School professor Patricia J. Williams. As a lawyer and author, Williams is known for her thoughtful explorations of racism in America. Her books include The Alchemy of Race and Rights and Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race. The following is Williams’s emailed responses to Newsweek’s questions.

Newsweek: In many ways, the images of Ferguson, Missouri this week remind people of race riots from past decades like the 1960s or even the Watts riots in Los Angeles the early 1990s. Americans probably like to think they’ve moved beyond that now, and that includes the election of the first black president. But have we really moved forward?

Patricia Williams: Working through a past as scarring as the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is a very long-term moral commitment. That trauma and dehumanization has been powerful, repercussive through time—unconscious to some, invisible to others, and persistently lopsided in its burdens.

We Americans like to think of time as something which inevitably “moves forward,” healing all wounds, washing away the sins of the past. But this particular social sore is complex, has deep persistent roots. We rightly cherish the ideal of “post-raciality” but we are naïve if we think that wishing it makes it so.

We are naïve if we imagine that a singular election, however groundbreaking, would be met without a measure of backlash; or that lone individuals, whether Martin Luther King or Barack Obama, could make the deep structural obstacles of systemic segregation disappear overnight.

NW: There have been several incidents and high profile events during Obama’s presidency that turned on race, from Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’s arrest in 2009, to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson (and many more in between that for whatever reason drew less media attention). Is there any way Obama can respond without fanning the flames of conflict?

PW: To some extent President Obama is in a no-win situation, one that reflects a very old racial dilemma. As a cultural matter, whites tend to be perceived as “without race” and therefore “more neutral” when it comes to these sorts of confrontations. People of color, blacks in particular, tend to be perceived as “self-interested.”

Both of these perceptions are projections, stereotypes rooted in the privilege of whiteness and the credibility-burden of black status. But it is, and has always been, important that any president—think Truman, Kennedy, Johnson—use the power of that office to address civil rights for all. Nevertheless, Obama inevitably faces suspicion from some quarters that anything he does toward equality for all is done solely because he’s black.

NW: It feels like these incidents have become more common. Is that just because we have short memories or is something else going on here?

It is certainly true that local police forces have become much more militarized in the last decade; and that the war on drugs of the last two decades has licensed a rate of incarceration that exceeds every nation on earth. Policing has definitely become more aggressive for low-level infractions like riding bikes on sidewalks, and it is largely communities of color that are the exclusive objects of stop-and-frisk policies which many experience as little more than harassment.

Fold in, too, the stresses of significant job loss in middle and working class sectors, high rates of PTSD [post traumatic distress order] among police and corrections officers, along with massive disinvestment in education and basic human services. It’s not a happy picture. And yes: we also have short memories.

NW: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford are all unarmed black men who were recently killed by police. What is the best way to understand the relationship between black communities and the police who are supposed to protect them?

PW: I think that too often local police departments suffer from a combination of the extraordinary stresses of the job, and a skewed sense of the communities to whom they are in service. Regarding the stresses: we tend to arm police with extraordinary levels of firepower, ramped up in recent years in the name of the war on terror.

We have not invested to the same degree in basic human skills: how to ramp down rather than incite tense situations, or training for anger management or psychological counseling. Most worryingly we do not supply police with the skills or assistance of trained personnel needed to cope with mentally ill citizens, who account for an obscenely tragic number of those who are criminalized rather than hospitalized.

Regarding service to community: police are public servants to civil society. When police are reconfigured as soldiers in war zones whose job it is to protect presumptively “good” communities from presumptively “bad” ones, then we start to construct walls. We lose the sense of particularity that underwrites our jurisprudential presumption of innocence. We revert to or perpetuate a segregationist form of policing in which more privileged communities deploy police to keep the less privileged collectively in check or at bay. This holds entire geographies — particularly racialized and impoverished geographies in a kind of fealty to the imagined fears of those who hold greatest power.

That’s the backdrop for understanding the huge emotional response to these killings: in too many places, we have instituted policies where every black person walking down the street is made criminally suspect. And if police can randomly—rather than reasonably—stop, search, interrogate, arrest if you’re lucky, kill if you’re not—then people don’t trust the police to assist in real emergencies.

A black man does not call the police when his car is stolen. A Latina woman does not call when her husband abuses her. A Muslim family does not call when their schizophrenic son goes wandering from home. A homeless family postpones calling about a missing child for fear of losing custody of the rest.

So these are policies that have not only eroded the relation between police and black communities but which tear at the fabric of public accommodation and the very notion of collective citizenship.

NW: What should readers know about what is happening this week in Ferguson that they likely aren’t getting or thinking about?

PW: As of this writing, I don’t know anything about what’s going on in Ferguson that we haven’t all read. But it’s precisely what we don’t know that I find most troubling. That this investigation could be as murky and secretive as has been thus far is extremely troubling.

Public accountability for the acts of public servants must be a paramount value in any democratic system. I very much hope that there will be, sooner than later, a thorough, thoughtful and public review of the circumstances and practices surrounding this tragedy.

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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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Filed under 23andMe, ancestry tracking, epigenetics

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