By Sujatha Jesudason, Generations Ahead
In a meeting on forensic DNA databanks and race organized by the Council for Responsible Genetics, I found out that the US has the largest DNA databank in the world. Given the particularly American approach to crime and punishment, the 6 million profiles in the federal databank were not surprising. After all, the US does lead the world in rates of incarceration and criminalization. Since the racial bias in rates of criminalization is also not new, I justifiably expect people of color to be over-represented in these DNA databanks.
However, what did surprise me was the massive expansion of these databanks currently underway. In the beginning, state DNA collection was limited to sexual offenders. Now, DNA is being collected from felons in 45 states, from juvenile offenders in 32 states, for misdemeanors in 34 states, and upon arrest in 12 states. The federal government is encouraging states to collect and retain DNA of people upon arrest, from people who should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This expansion will include a disproportionate racial bias since the racial bias in arrests is often more significant than the bias in conviction. Harry Levine of the City University of New York reports a racial bias in drug arrests in New York City at a rate of 8 blacks to one white, even though research shows higher rates of drug use among whites.
In addition, many states are starting to troll these their databanks for “partial matches” and “familial searches,” essentially looking for the DNA profiles of relatives to trace a suspect. With the use of familial searches, any databank more or less expands to include the relatives of all people already in the databank. Once again, disproportionately families of color.
Before this meeting, like most, I assumed that using DNA to identify suspects was virtually infallible. This presumed infallibility and cases where wrongfully convicted people were exonerated based on DNA evidence is what supports its increasing use. After all, according to the rhetoric, if you are innocent, you have nothing to fear because this is “scientific.” But according to William C. Thompson of the University of California at Irvine, false incrimination can and does occur in forensic DNA testing, and this risk is borne by those individuals and their families that are in the databanks. This means, disproportionately by people of color and their families. Part of what allows this myth of infallibility to continue is the secrecy surrounding the content and operations of these databases. The government does not allow independent study, assessment or verification of the databanks.
And the meeting kept on getting even more disturbing. There were reports of DNA dragnets where police ask groups of people to “voluntarily” give their DNA samples to be tested for innocence (profiles which will then permanently remain in the databanks), the surreptitious and involuntary collecting of DNA left behind on cigarette butts and spit, and companies like DNAWitness who promise to construct probabilistic phenotypic profiles of perpetrators from crime site DNA samples based on problematic assumptions about genes, race and phenotype.
What does this mean for communities of color, the surveillance of people of color, and for our understandings of race and DNA?
Only a handful of social and racial justice organizations were in the room on June 19. As activists, advocates and justice organizations fighting for the human rights of communities of color, we need to understand this technology, how it is being used, its impact our communities, and what we want to do about it. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you interested in participating in this conversation.