Geneticists Criticize Use of Science by White Nationalists to Justify ‘Racial Purity’

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In an unusual statement on the role of science in the resurgence of white supremacy in America, the American Society of Human Genetics on Friday denounced “attempts to link genetics and racial supremacy.”

The statement, which appears in the November issue of the group’s scientific journal, The American Journal of Human Genetics, said the concept of “racial purity” was scientifically meaningless. The group has about 8,000 members and is the largest professional organization of scientists who study human genetics.

As newly visible and often-virulent groups of white nationalists have invoked genetic research to claim racial superiority, some geneticists have suggested that the field was not doing enough to counter the claims.

Some white nationalists have used research on the ability to digest lactose in milk as adults as a sign of racial identity. And some white nationalist messaging falsely suggests that the existence of genetic markers in people whose ancestors came from different continents mean there are genetic distinctions in behavioral traits like intelligence.

Though science is not much in evidence when white nationalists take to the streets chanting slogans like “You will not replace us,” scholars of racist ideology say contemporary white racism draws on the trope of “natural” racial hierarchy used to justify the enslavement of African-Americans, the American eugenics movement in the early 20th century and Nazi “racial hygiene” laws.

The topic has been much discussed on the side at the group’s annual meeting this week.

“As human geneticists, we cannot ‘just focus on our research,’” one geneticist, Melissa Wilson Sayres of Arizona State University, said Thursday night on social media. “We cannot pretend that our research isn’t being misused. Doing so is being actively complicit with white supremacy/nationalism.”

The statement by the genetics association came after an article in The New York Times examined how scientists who study human genetic diversity were struggling to respond to the racist misuse of science, even as their tools to discover how human populations vary genetically become more powerful.

In a widely read Op-Ed in The New York Times earlier this year, the Harvard geneticist David Reich wrote that “arguing that no substantial differences among human populations are possible will only invite the racist misuse of genetics that we wish to avoid.”

[Read: Why white supremacists are chugging milk, and why geneticists are alarmed.]

The genetics group’s statement is a step toward trying to equip the public with the tools to understand the evolutionary processes that give rise to patterns of human genetic diversity, geneticists said. It explains that genetic variation between human populations is linked to patterns of migration and the mixing of populations throughout history. Given how much mixing has occurred, it says, the white supremacist notion of racial purity is “scientifically meaningless.”

It also explains a distinction between race and ancestry that geneticists say has been muddled by the rise of commercial ancestry tests.

“Although a person’s genetics influences their phenotypic characteristics, and self-identified race might be influenced by physical appearance,” the statement said, “race itself is a social construct,” meaning it has no biological basis. “Black,” for instance, is a socially defined term that includes many Americans who have a majority of European ancestry.

The statement encourages human geneticists to begin engaging with the public on questions of race, ancestry and genetics.

“In public dialogue, our research community should be clear about genetic knowledge related to ancestry and genomic diversity,” it says. “There can be no genetics-based support of claiming one group as superior to another.”

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