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excerpted from: Patricia J. Williams, Race, the New Black: on Fashioning Genetic Brand, 43 American Journal of Law & Medicine 183 (2017) (38 Footnotes) (Full Document)


Patricia WilliamsThis conference has asked us to take a critical look at the concept of race and its diverse applications in health sciences, medical research, empirical and data analytics, as well as social sciences. For all the apparent breadth of that mandate, there are three themes that have united our concerns.

First is the question of privatization--or claiming, naming, and ownership. Any monetization of life forms, body parts, or the chemistry of our DNA always raises ethical concerns. Particularly as filtered through the lens of race, our unprecedented technological revolution in concert with the explosive industrialization of life sciences begs for careful attention to matters of relativized value, branding as exclusion, profit as extractive, data-mining as invasive, commodification as objectifying.

Second is the issue of what Dorothy Roberts referred to as punitive governance and what Alexandra Stern called out as a problem of triumphalist master narratives. This discussion imbricates forensic handling and uses of genetic material; and also how socially-constructed hierarchies become superimposed upon ostensibly neutral biological terrain. Hubristic assumptions about intelligence, disability, contamination, and eugenics can have serious legal consequence if they underwrite rules about criminal propensity, educational opportunity, or civil segregation.

Third is the complex unwieldiness of “race” itself: so reductively productive, contagious yet inert, intersectional yet exclusionary, plastic yet intractable, narrowly construed yet capaciously inscribed, magically invoked yet technologically layered, so unnaturally natural, so hypervisible, hidden and haunting.

. . .

In the United States, we think of ourselves as “inalienably righted.” Yet when race, gender, disability, criminality, and class are exploited for the lowest common denominator, and played against one another with the speed and sophistication as they have been in our cyber-culture, the supposedly neutral citadels of science, and ultimately public health writ large, are surely not immune. Furthermore, there is a pronounced tension between contract's sloshy alienations and the Constitutional right to have rights. A rather siloed, consumerist set of mind is pervasive in our culture. But such a mindset is an inadequate and ultimately hubristic stance when sitting on the brink of a technological revolution permitting ever-greater “efficiencies” of transformative body alteration, “designer babies,” and germ line (or heritable) modification. This points to our work going forward: we must begin to excavate the ethical, legal, and social implications of our incautious yet far-reaching proprietary exploitations--of traits, of reproduction, of identity, and of citizenship. We must begin to have some thoughtful normative account of whether and to what degree incoherent pockets of private profitability and fears of biologized securitization will continue to map the collective face of our nation, or even the fate of our species.