The Politics of Genetics, Race, & Class

“I know genetics is hugely controversial because in a democratic society we believe we can influence outcomes.  Honestly, I always wanted to believe this, but I’ve seen families where with modest interventions their children have been exceptionally successful, and others where their children have to work extremely hard to keep up.”

I have a habit of storing tidbits of information, links, and quotes on sticky notes. I recently came across this quote, which I had not bothered to attribute an author to. It reminded me of the perception that the ‘genetics debate’ is stratified along political lines. While I haven’t found definitive evidence to suggest this is in fact the case (please share any studies that say it does), I’ve been interested in this persistent belief that a view of genetics as important parallels support for conservative views.

img_4190.pngGenetics is hugely controversial, in part because it is seen as so deterministic. I had a participant say “your genes are what they are, there’s not way around it,” highlighting the essentialism and determinism often linked to the idea of genes.

The idea that genetics are highly influential in human behavior and the idea that certain genes are linked to certain racial groups have historically gone hand in hand. This relationship between genetics, human behavior, class and race continues today, albeit in more implicit or subtle ways. But here is why I think it continues:

On the one hand, for example, we have information like the following:

“Students from low-income families are much less likely to attend college or complete their degree than children from wealthy families (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011; Engle, 2011). In fact, high-achieving low-income students are equally likely to attend college as low-scoring high-income students (Bailey & Dynarski, 2011) – a massive misallocation  of talent. The underrepresentation of low-income and minority students at selective universities is particularly acute (Hill & Winston, 2011).” (take from here)

On the other we have:

“Cognitive abilities predict educational attainment, income, health, and longevity, and thus contribute importantly to the intellectual capital of knowledge-based societies (Deary, 2012)…Few discoveries would have greater impact than identifying some of the genes responsible for the heritability of cognitive abilities.” (find rest of article here)

Neither of these two statements deal directly with one another. The first makes not mention of biology, DNA, genes, etc. The second makes no mention of race and class. Yet, they coexist in an environment that has historically used quotes like the second to explain occurrences detailed in the first. Do we work against connecting these two quotes if we are not actively or directly addressing this real danger?

As I focus in particular on the US education system and the ways in which this area of behavior genetics research might impact it, I believe that genetics-infused education warrants concern, particularly in the context of the United States where there are marked racial disparities in academic achievement, test score outcomes, and educational attainment (Musu-Gillette et al., 2016) and even more pronounced socioeconomic gaps (Kena et al., 2016). Race, socioeconomic status, genetics, and cognitive ability (which is often used as a proxy for intelligence by both mainstream society and genetics researchers) are four historically burdened and politically charged concepts. As I have said time and time again, conceptualizations of intelligence have been used historically to assert and establish racial and class hierarchies, especially those between Blacks and Whites, and has long been linked to notions of biological difference. Take for example, Noble Laureate (in physics) William Shockley, who openly argued in 1971:

I sincerely and thoughtfully believe that attempts to demonstrate that American Negro shortcomings are preponderantly hereditary is the action most likely to reduce Negro agony in the future… I propose a serious scientific effort to establish by how much the distribution of hereditary potential for intelligence of our black citizens falls below whites…If those Negroes with the fewest Caucasian genes are in fact the most prolific and also the least intelligent, then genetic enslavement will be the destiny of their next generation. (Shockley, 1971: 244)

Or Noble Laureate (in Medicine) James Watson, who in 2007 said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” because “all our social policies [to Africa] are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours- whereas all the testing says not really…there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically”(Hunt-Grubbe, 2007).

As recently as 2015, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argued during the Supreme Court hearing for Fisher v University of Texas (which debated affirmative action), that:

“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well. One of the [legal] briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them” (Roberts, 2015).

These are not Alt-Right White Supremacists; they were highly respected individuals in positions of power, two of whom have direct connections to the hard sciences, a field that strives for objectivity, rationality, and the pursuit of ‘truth.’ Scientific research that has historically combined race, class, genetics and education, is situated within a field dominated by empiricism and objectivity but often seen by as ‘outside of politics.’ I am having a hard time seeing how such contested and charged research can be ‘outside of politics’ and welcome researchers in this area to help explain to me how it can be so. Is having a moral responsibility to try and prevent the perpetuation of racism and classism an imperative in scientific research often interpreted in essentialist and deterministic terms necessary? I would say it is, but wonder why others think it isn’t… 

Media would certainly suggest we place emphasis on genes, IQ, and human behavior–in many cases using the language of determinism… Do researchers have the obligation to combat flashy news articles (or even scholarly journal articles) with flashy titles like “genes determine…” or “the genetics of success”  or “predict from DNA alone” when in reality this serves as a kind of false advertising?


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