DNA and Genealogy: A Worrisome Mix

Commentator Karla Holloway urges caution in rushing to embrace DNA technology when looking for ancestors.

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Yesterday we heard from Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates about researching your family tree and how DNA can help in that search, but commentator Karla Holloway thinks we should be cautious in our rush to embrace DNA technology to look for our ancestors.

KARLA HOLLOWAY (Author, Passed On: African American Mourning Stories): It's Black History Month; do you know where your people are? Or more to the point, do you know where your people are from? With the romance of DNA data banks linking black folk to various African countries, the rain forests of Liberia or the musical regions of the Cameroon, for well-known celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones, knowing your people has taken on a new meaning.

But, quiet as it's kept, your cheek swab sent to DNA capitalists actually only gives information regarding two out of 64 potential ancestral contributors to our genetic make up, about 13 percent of our ancestors. Sociologist Troy Duster has been rigorous about reminding us about how these numbers actually work.

How 13 percent migrates to your being 50 white, or other, is a fuzzy math that indicates counting is not the objective of those who swab and send with such confidence. Past the romance of this month, DNA and black folk won't mean an African fantasy reunion. It will return to the complicated terrain of race and genetics that ought to concern more of us these days. The headlines are telling:

Study shows that blacks are 55 percent more likely to succumb to lung cancer. Studies show that a new drug combination works better on blacks with heart failure.

Well, which black folk might these be? The ones who discovered they were 50 percent white? The one who found their long lost Native American ancestry? Or the ones who look like my great Aunt Sis, who comes from, shall I say, the lighter, near whiter side of the family? When stress and general welfare have racial ties, when studies reveal that physicians prescribe more aggressively for whites than blacks, why are we so willing to let the romance from genomic science erase the social causes of health disparities?

But, remember this is fuzzy math. The kind of math that after Black History Month will make the association between DNA and race not a subject about the roots of the race, but about pharmaceuticals targeted at the black folk and DNA stored in criminal data banks and guess whose DNA matters then? The last people who should uncritically buy init genetic samplings and racial classifications are sending their swab through the mail.

I suggest that we pause over this romance with DNA. That we be weary of how medicine has latched onto black drugs, when being black is not just a thing of beauty, but when it becomes a focus of genetic detective work and when medical practitioners have issues of bias yet to be adequately addressed. As 21st Century as this all might be it also sounds a lot like the 1800s when unquestioned notions about race and biology did a great deal of damage.

Just because this is the 21st Century and Black History Month, does not mean we should lose our weariness about issues like these. As a matter of fact, let's have Black History Month remind us of the histories of race and science and prepare us to be more perceptive and cautious about the associations we make as the two join forces once again.

Even if the objective seems to be to tell us who our people are, once it's in the mail, do you know where your DNA is now?

GORDON: Duke University Professor Karla Holloway is the author of Passed On: African American Mourning Stories. This is NPR News.

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