Wednesday, October 24, 2007

DNA – A Double-Edged Sword

I was reading an interesting article on AlterNet discussing the ramifications of DNA and race. You would think that in 2007, we would have gotten past the point where “scientists” would still be trying to use science to devalue people by race. But I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. Prejudice and racial intolerance seems to be ingrained in many people’s psyche and no amount of scientific study or facts will change their beliefs. It is a shame that millenniums together have done nothing to increase the amount of knowledge concerning race and humanity. Ignorance is still the order of the day even among so-called “men of science”.

The science of DNA has been used recently to exonerate many wrongly accused men who were serving time and some that were even on death row from crimes they had not committed. The Innocence Project alone has freed 208 unjustly incarcerated men; fifteen were on death row awaiting the final outcome of their convictions. While we should celebrate and continue to pursue the release of all innocent men falsely imprisoned, there is another darker side to this technology we must also be aware of. If you look at the faces of those exonerated through DNA evidence, there is a chilling fact that is unmistakable. The majority of faces are dark skinned. So while we cheer the release of innocent minority men, it also highlights the inherent bias of our criminal justice system. If this many black men have been incarcerated falsely, how many more are rotting in prisons for crimes they did not commit?

As if this wasn’t bad enough, a more pressing and potentially dangerous issue is looming on the horizon. Now DNA is being collected by law enforcement agencies all over the country from people for even minor offenses. Which means that millions of black men and women’s DNA is being pooled together all over the country in this database, for use by the same law enforcement agencies that have been shown to incarcerate minorities falsely. The naive may say that this is a good thing to help reduce the amount of false imprisonments, but this is not true.

Critics fear that such questionable science in criminal justice will inevitably lead to searches for gene markers for criminal behavior. If criminologists start with a database that is disproportionately Black and Latino because of police practices that target those communities, any computer-generated findings will be skewed. "What you're dealing with is a population in the database which is distorted," says Troy Duster, a sociologist and chancellor's professor at UC Berkeley. "So if someone wants to do this kind of research, they'll look for genetic markers. What they'll find, of course, are certain markers. Tell the program to find markers and you can find markers in DNA that may be more or less likely to appear in populations A, B or C. But it will be a huge mistake to conclude that because you have those markers you've explained crime."[1]

What it will do is create a database that is tilted towards minorities causing any results to be questionable. The reason being is that the majority of people arrested today are minorities, so therefore the majority of specimens are going to be of minorities. Given that information any studies done on this DNA data will overwhelmingly point towards minority markers for criminal predisposition. This of course could lead to high tech racial profiling by law enforcement and the government.

Of further concern is the new practice of using DNA to predict the racial profile of suspects in criminal cases. One case of note occurred in Baton Rouge, La; where the police were originally given the description of a white suspect in a series of serial murders. A company DNAPrint Genomics offered to analyze the sample from one of the crime scenes. The company’s test concluded that the suspect was not white, but that he was 85% Sub-Saharan African. So the police began to seek a black man and discovered that the sample appeared to match Derrick Todd Lee, who had voluntarily provided it to them. Mr. Lee was convicted and sentenced to die based in part on the DNA evidence provided by DNAPrint. DNA will no longer be used just to eliminate a suspect with clear-cut certainty, but will also be used to predict a suspect which is a far different criterion.

DNA has proven to be a Godsend for many unjustly held men, but in the wrong hands can be used to incarcerate countless others. We must not allow ourselves to be cared away with this scientific tool and its possible misuse. There will be those who will try to use it for nefarious and profit-seeking motives, irrespective of its limitations and our ignorance of its full applications. We need to get better controls in place to protect this dynamic information and safeguard its usage. We must remember that this information is the most personal we possess and not only does it give our information, but our families as well. We need to have laws in place as to who can have access to this information and for what exact purpose. We need to ensure that the DNA material is destroyed as the local laws prescribe and enact laws that will set limits on the time someone is in the database.

Follow-up: James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who helped discover the structure of DNA in 1953, recently pronounced the entire population of Africa genetically inferior when it comes to intelligence. And while he hopes that everyone is equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."[2]

The onslaught begins. Winning the Nobel Prize is obviously not a cure for racism. What this does is give credence to the idiots and bigots who can now quote a scientist.


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