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Dorothy Roberts: Race and the New Biocitizen - Tarrytown 2010

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Published on May 7, 2012

Dorothy Roberts, Professor at Northwestern University, discusses how emerging biotechnologies are reconfiguring, reforming and revising notions of race in potentially dangerous ways at the 2010 Tarrytown Meeting.

The Tarrytown Meetings bring together people working to ensure that human biotechnologies and related emerging technologies support rather than undermine social justice, equality, human rights, ecological integrity and the common good.

Find out more about the Tarrytown Meetings here:
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Presentation Excerpt:
The expansion of genetic research and technologies has helped us cross a threshold into a new type of biopolitics concerned with our capacity to control and manipulate human life. As British sociologist Nicholas Rose has shown, so-called biological citizenship is grounded in the unprecedented authority wielded by individuals over their well-being at the molecular level. According to Rose, "our very biological life itself has entered the domain of decision and choice." Biological citizenship entails both individuals' autonomy over personal welfare and a biosociality that links people together around their common genetic traits. Genetic information enables individuals not only to manage their own health, but also to unite with others around their common health conditions, as revealed by DNA testing. Rose and others celebrate biocitizenship because it enhances human agency, as patients increase their consumption of biotechnological products including pharmaceuticals, reproductive technologies, and genetic tests, and as they are empowered to form alliances with physicians, scientists, and clinicians to advocate for their interests.

The relationship between citizenship and biology entails far more than organizing around shared health concerns. Genetics becomes the basis for political relationships that extend beyond the family and that include a broad range of ties among citizens and with the state. Genetics provides novel means for reinterpreting existing political identities and creating new ones, for forming communities, for participating in civic life, and for imposing civic duties.

We could describe the emerging category of biological citizenship without regard to race. Indeed, biological citizenship is supposed to transcend race. But I have been struck by the way race is fundamental to the new biocitizen. Race is treated as a key—even essential—classification in the genetic research and testing that informs biocitizens. Race is at the cutting edge of technologies that empower biocitizens. Race is integral to the public discourse about genetics that promotes biocitizenship. Why? Why is race, a category invented in premodern times, so central to the most modern scientific advances? What is the use of race in constructing the biocitizen and in promoting biocitizenship as the prevailing relationship among individuals, the market, and the state?

I want to take up Rose's admonition to "locate the current debates over race and genomics firmly within the transformed biopolitics of the 21st century." But just as we cannot apply the same old sociocritiques or paste the same label of eugenics on contemporary biopolitics, nor can we uncritically assume that the new biocitizenship necessarily fosters individual life and choice and necessarily intervenes on the consequences of inequality, rather than legitimizing inequality.

By placing race at the foundation of biocitizenship, race appears more significant at the molecular level, precisely as it appears less significant in society. On one hand, scientists have recently claimed genetic confirmation of classical racial categories; pharmacogenomic researchers use of race as a proxy for genetic difference in studies of disparities in health and drug response; and biotech companies market a variety of products that treat race as a biological grouping. On the other hand, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed a color-blind approach to social policy that rejects race consciousness as a tool for addressing inequality, while many pundits have declared the Obama presidency to be evidence of a postracial America. Scientists, politicians, and corporations are constructing biocitizenship in a way that not only obscures the continuing social significance of race, but helps to promote post--civil rights mechanisms for preserving the racial inequality.

*From Dorothy Roberts, "Race and The New Biocitizen," in Ian Whitmarsh & David Jones, eds., What's the Use of Race (MIT Press, 2010), pp. 259-276.

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