Category Archives: race

Eugenics and Biosurveillance in the Golden State

In 1979, the California Eugenics Law was repealed, but it would take 24 years for the state to acknowledge this atrocious injustice aimed at poor, disabled, and predominantly women of color throughout the state. According to an interview with Professor Alex Stern for NPR, the “state law from 1909 authorized the surgery for people judged to have ‘mental disease,’ which may have been inherited.” To clarify, surgery meant sterilization. The reasoning for such legislation is deeply rooted in the work and research by eugenicist Francis Galton who believed certain genetic dispositions were superior or inferior. Although eugenics was debunked as a pseudoscience, it bred white supremacism, institutionalized racism, and misogyny with ripple effects throughout western history.

From 1909 to 1979 the California eugenics law was in effect and during that time, approximately 800 tubal ligation procedures, according to statistical research, were performed on women and men without their consent. According to Stern, despite the law being dissolved in the late 1970s, 146 female inmates were subjected to forced sterilization between 2006 and 2010. The law targeted black and brown women, predominantly Latina. While there have been stories and articles covering the practice of eugenics and disproving it as a science, it continues to contribute to contemporary practices of genetic surveillance and the constant battle to legislate women’s’ bodies. According to Stern, many of the women sterilized in the 1960s and 1970s were mostly women with Latin American last names, poor, and immigrants with very little to no support to help navigate the American healthcare system. bell hooks aptly described America as a country built on a structure of ‘white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy.’ I argue this structure, which continues to plague the United States today, extends to and encompasses our medico-legal system as well.

DNA collection and banking have been a deeply contested area of biosurveillance for years. Stern’s research on the California Eugenics Law begs the question: how many more states have buried histories of forced sterilization deep in their records? The prevalence of biometric data collection as a way of policing poor, disabled, and marginalized bodies has a direct correlation to eugenics practices. Aside from historical data, artists working in the realms of genetic determinism offer a unique methodology and approaches to exploring and critiquing science as a vehicle for systemic racism and sexism.

This particular research speaks to the way heteronormativity and white supremacy have gone hand in hand. The history of forced sterilization on women of color in California made it extremely difficult for communities of color to obtain immediate health care reform and reparations. While a registry has been created to capture what Stern, as estimated to be around 800 potential survivors of these procedures, the question that comes to mind, are potential cases around the US that may have similar suppressed or obscured records.

While science is often believed to be objective, much like data and statistics, it can be grossly manipulated to serve specific ideologies. Stepping away from historical frameworks, I have been deeply influenced by the cyberfeminist collective, subRosa. In the SubRosa anthology, Domain Errors!: Cyberfeminist Practices, Emily de Araujo and Lucia Somner created “A Summary History of Eugenic Theories and Practices in the United States,” which outlines the major events in the advancement of eugenics and racial profiling.

How can we ensure updated information is then communicated to the masses in such a way that enables the reader to see exactly how they fit into this larger rubric of theorization? How do we revise and graft onto these methods of resistance that the SubRosa collective have created for the community? Methods may include intervention at the clinical research level or occupying particular scientific and institutionalized spaces to promote inclusion of underrepresented and underserved bodies. What are the ways we can seize (medical and data) systems of oppression and turn genetic surveillance into genetic sousveillance? In Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s performance piece, DNA Spoofing, we see various fictitious methods preventing surveillance of the body. What might it mean for subjects to be given the opportunity to survey the surveyor and reflect back practices to a physician?  In which ways can we set up new ethical practices with lasting effects?

Bibliography:

The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Domain Errors: Cyberfeminist Practices by the SubRosa Collective

Research and Digital Resources, Alexdra Minna Stern, PhD

On a Eugenics Registry: A Record of California’s Thousands of Sterilization, NPR

A Summary History of Eugenics Theories and Practices in the United States compiled by Emily de Araujo and Lucia Sommer of the SubRosa Collective

Sci-Fi Crime Drama With A Strong Black Lead

Published 7/6/15 by The New Inquiry

The practice of rendering appearance from forensic samples is called “Forensic DNA Phenotyping” (FDP) or “molecular photofitting,” and there are a handful of scientists and companies around the world trying to make this not only scientifically possible, but also a useful law enforcement tool. FDP has already been used to create a new kind of police sketch.

While there are a few traits like eye and hair color that can be predicted from DNA with a high degree of certainty, the bulk of FDP relies on algorithmically derived statistical composites. We tend to look at technical systems as neutral black boxes, but if you open them up and look at the component parts, you find that they reflect the assumptions and motivations of their designers.

FDP begins with a dataset of 3D facial scans and DNA samples taken from research participants. These scans are processed to create what’s called “face space,” a probabilistic representation of all possible faces drawn from, and limited by, this set of 3D scans. Finally, the data is mined for correlations between DNA and facial shape by examining characteristics that are assumed to be opposite ends of a spectrum, like masculine and feminine or “European” and “African.”

The act of creating computational averages and looking for correlated features in large datasets has an air of authenticity and scientific validity, but what this actually does is create a system of types — you might call them stereotypes.

Continue Reading: Sci-Fi Crime Drama With A Strong Black Lead at The New Inquiry.

Forensic DNA Phenotyping in the news

From NYTimes. Original caption read: The police in Columbia, S.C.,  released this sketch of a possible suspect based on DNA left at the crime scene. Parabon NanoLabs, which made the image, has begun offering DNA phenotyping services to law enforcement agencies.

From NYTimes. Original caption read: The police in Columbia, S.C., released this sketch of a possible suspect based on DNA left at the crime scene. Parabon NanoLabs, which made the image, has begun offering DNA phenotyping services to law enforcement agencies.

Lots of media attention recently to a new company Parabon NanoLabs who is offering a forensic DNA phenotyping service (creating 3d virtual portraits from DNA) apparently to police nationwide. Popular Science broke the story as far as I can tell and I received a lot of email this week when the New York Times put their own story about the service on their homepage Monday. There are so many issues that went unaddressed in these articles which focus primarily on discussing this as a *technology*. I wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times addressing one aspect of this I felt went far under-discussed: the way in which it forms a supposedly scientific basis for a new form of racial profiling. Here is the letter I wrote, we’ll see if they respond or publish it.

Update 3/5/15 – The New York Times did not publish or respond to my letter.

TO THE EDITOR:

In “Building a Face, and a Case, on DNA” (NYT, Feb. 23, 2015) Andrew Pollack describes how police departments are mining DNA evidence to create police sketches. Since 2012 I have been creating life size full color 3D portraits from DNA in chewing gum, cigarettes and hair I found on New York’s streets for an art series called Stranger Visions that has shown in locally and internationally from the New York Public Library, to the Science Gallery in Dublin and Ars Electronica, Linz.

Through my own work in the molecular biology lab, I discovered that this science is still in its infancy. As noted in your article, there are few facial characteristics that can be known for certain, lending the practice a speculative nature. While eye and hair color can be guessed with a strong probability, skin color and race, hidden behind the term “ancestry,” are much more problematic.

Rather than producing a useable sketch, the technology allows police departments to hide the practice of racial profiling beneath a veneer of “legitimate” science. After years of controversy, racial profiling has been widely controversial and rejected by the public. But if you glance at the profile that is actually generated by Identitas and Parabon, you see a composite model based on very few genetic variables that relate to facial features. It’s a portrait of a generic African American male—a visualization of a stereotype.

The real question here is whether scientists and society in general is willing to accept a new form of racial profiling that masquerades as science?

Sincerely,
Heather Dewey-Hagborg
Assistant Professor of Art and Technology Studies, School of the Art Institute of Chicago