Dr. Alondra Nelson is a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and awarding winning author who has published numerous books such as “The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.” Through her work, Dr. Nelson looks at the ways ancestry, race, and DNA come together in American society. She is currently the Dean of Social Science at Columbia. Here she talks about how she became interested in genealogy and using genetic testing as a tool to trace one’s roots.
Q: Would you say knowledge about genetic ancestry connects to current social issues in the US— like police brutality and mass incarceration?If so, why?
A: Why it’s so hard to get a handle on police brutality and to end it is because it is the extension of a long process of valuing of black people’s lives differently from white lives. It goes back 100 years. It goes back 200 years.
Looking at your family tree, helps you connects the dots between the present and the past. Looking at a family tree not only connects the dots, it compresses time. By looking at the family tree of someone who is African American for instance one can again say, “It wasn’t so so long ago that people were being lynched—black women, men, and children. It wasn’t so so long ago that people of African descent really didn’t own their own bodies. It wasn’t so so long ago that there were Jim Crow policies that prevented people from even just walking in the streets. If we don’t understand that history, it is much harder to understand how people in our current society could be stopped, abducted, arrested or in some cases killed just for walking down the street or driving in their cars.
Q: What sort of role does genetics play in the criminal justice system?
A: Genetics is being increasingly used in the criminal justice system. There’s been an increase in policing practices that bring more and more people, particularly people of color, under the surveillance and scrutiny of law enforcement. Genetics is a part of that to the extent that we are increasingly moving in a dangerous direction, from people who are arrested having their DNA placed in federal databases to people who are just accused and stopped. We are putting personal information dangerously under surveillance and the control of state authorities just because they are stopped or arrested. We already know from academic studies that people of color are more likely to be stopped and arrested than white people . That means that there is an undue burden on communities of color who are placed into these DNA databases. It’s depressing.