Not giving up: DNA, Rights and Justice

By Guest Columnist Sep 10, 2008

By Truc Thanh Nguyen from Generations Ahead This past weekend, during breakfast with some friends, the topic of genetics popped up in conversation. That happens a lot these days as people ask me what it is that I do. The short of it is that I get to think about and organize around racial justice implications of genetic technologies. Before I say more about the implications of the expansion of DNA databases for communities of color, my new acquaintance interjects a personal story. After her car was broken into, an acquaintance expressed anger and frustration that the police would not run DNA evidence left in her car (an unknown person’s hairs on a hair tie) through the her state’s DNA database. The (inaccurate) reason given to her was that the DNA database was too small. "Get all their DNA," she added, her white face becoming paler and eyes glazing over as she retold the story. The conversation immediately shut down, along with her ability to hear how checking DNA would not necessarily give her the justice she was seeking. I can relate to that feeling of privacy invasion, wrongness of things stolen from you and frustration with not being served by the criminal justice system. The difference is that I think about these things on both the individual level and larger societal level as a person of color. This is at the heart of the debate on the expansion of DNA databases. How do we, as people, work through our emotional response to the feeling of injustice that blinds us from wanting to understand the real implications of unregulated technology and policy that lacks a critical race analysis? We saw and felt this all before in the echo of 9/11, the brunt of which communities of color and immigrant communities have bore and continue to bear. In the same vein of fear, California will enact the last stage of Proposition 69 in January 2009 to expand state DNA data banks to include all felony arrestees (not convicted). In a state where 92% of black men arrested on drug charges (felony), were released due to lack of, or inadmissible, evidence, this expansion of DNA databases will exacerbate an already racially biased criminal justice system by applying the same scrutiny to the innocent as those convicted. Are we so ready again to give up on each other, give up our civil rights, give up fairness? We can achieve justice, just uses of genetic technology and just policies through more comprehensive public understanding and social justice organizing, so we are not duped by technology quick fixes. We as a community can address violence without solidifying additional structural inequality onto each other.