How Genetics Is Playing a Surprising Role in the Fight for Slavery Reparations

Could DNA analysis be the new language of social justice?

Photo Credit: Pavel Chagochkin/Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome by Alondra Nelson (Beacon, 2016):

Every generation of African Americans has its reparations struggle. Collective memory of chattel slavery grows dimmer as the years since Emancipation pass. But the drumbeat for restitution—to amend the intergenerational devastation wrought by racialized human bondage—persists, sounding with renewed intensity in each decade, despite historical amnesia. By the end of the twentieth century, the double helix had become a part of this call for reparations.

The genetics zeitgeist is sweeping. Our DNA hopes are more boundless than we often fully apprehend or dare to admit. In 2004, geneticist Rick Kittles, whose ambitions for ancestry testing have always included racial justice and social transformation, found his company’s techniques engaged in an effort to obtain slavery reparations. African Ancestry’s matrilineal and patrilineal genetic analyses were engaged as twenty-first-century tools that might offer new leverage in the long-waged battle over the repayment of a debt now four centuries overdue. This novel reparations strategy was born out of a collaboration between Kittles’s African Ancestry company and an African American lawyer named Deadria Farmer-Paellmann. The two met as graduate students at George Washington University in the late 1990s. Kittles was pursuing a doctoral degree in molecular biology; Farmer-Paellmann was working toward a master’s degree in political management and lobbying. Soon to be known as the “Rosa Parks of the reparations litigation movement,” Farmer-Paellmann would conceive a legal plan for restitution for slave descendants—a class action suit--that highlighted the connection between inheritance and genealogy and employed DNA to draw these links.

The introduction of plaintiffs’ genetic-ancestry-testing results as evidence in Farmer-Paellmann v. FleetBoston was a strategy that became necessary as the case wound its way from lower to higher courts. Yet this maneuver was also consistent with the growing utility of genetics across contemporary society—the social life of DNA. Indeed, the use of DNA evidence in this case had two prior, necessary touchstones: The first, discussed previously, was the use of genetics, at the end of the twentieth century, in an array of efforts to rectify past injury to social groups and communities. Forensic inquiries in post-junta Argentina, post-apartheid South Africa, and elsewhere married genetic technology and justice claims and were carried out under the banner of international human rights frameworks that would be adopted by reparations activists.

In the United States, there was also growing awareness of the successes of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal-advocacy organization established in 1992 that uses DNA evidence to liberate wrongfully convicted persons, including many African Americans. These high-profile exonerations played a role in alleviating blacks’ apprehension about genetic science. As Pat, the genealogist introduced in an earlier chapter, who had worked as an analyst in a crime lab, would say to me: “I’m not question[ing] about DNA. . . . Given my experiences, there is no reason to doubt the technology.” Pat articulated what many African Americans expressed to me about the promise of DNA to set black people free— literally and figuratively. Lending a heroic cast to genetics, the Innocence Project offered the double helix as a winding path toward justice and not merely an invidious “back door to eugenics” (to use sociologist Troy Duster’s phrase).

But concerns about abuses of the new technology are warranted. Discriminatory law enforcement practices in the United States have yielded the largest and most disproportionately black and brown prison population the world has ever known. DNA databases have swelled as a result of a wider range of contact with police, who can collect DNA when making an arrest, sometimes before charging a person with a crime. Law enforcement can also conduct “familial searches” that target not only criminals but their family members. Such practices potentially threaten the civil liberties of innocent people.

Second, the sociopolitical backdrop against which the decoding of the human genome unfolded also played a role in the use of genetics in reparations politics. As we have seen, the Human Genome Project (HGP), completed in 2003, was a technological watershed that ushered in DNA’s eventful social life. The project carried mixed ideological messages about the simultaneous irrelevance and salience of race. The human genome comprised the DNA contributions of women and men of different backgrounds, suggesting that our humanity is fundamentally shared and, indeed, interchangeable. Yet, on the other hand, the analogous Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) was premised on the belief that there were genetically isolated and distinct racial and ethnic groups to which researchers should urgently attend. Although these distinct projects, the HGP and the HGDP, were not formally linked, they embodied two trains of thought about human difference that would find their confluence in debates about the significance of race after the genome was decoded.

Irrelevant or salient? Scholars across the sciences and social sciences continue to debate the issue. What is certain is that while race may be spoken of in the language of biology, it is fundamentally a political category. It is a way to sort human communities in such a way as to justify social inequality; this sorting is neither natural nor inevitable. What this post-genomic moment did accomplish was the foregrounding of genetics as a lexicon for racial politics. DNA analysis was perceived as a new language of social justice, as the moral authority of “inadequate and besieged civil rights discourses” waned, to quote historian Martha Biondi. In a climate in which many wished to believe that racial inequality no longer existed, why not then try to use genetics to bolster justice claims?

What began in the late 1990s in Buenos Aires and Johannesburg as forensic projects of identity recovery for the cause of human rights was, by the early 2000s, an endeavor that put genetic identification into the service of a campaign for racial justice, of which reparations for slavery was a facet. The slavery-reparations legal case was, among other things, an attempt to articulate the depths and persistence of racial inequality at a moment when it was said to be nonexistent. Prospects for slavery reparations have always been tenuous, but this was perhaps never so true as at a historical juncture when bold proclamations were being made about race being a non-factor in American life. New strategies were needed.

Adapted from The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome by Alondra Nelson (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.