Saturday, May 3, 2008


When a culture has as bedrock a belief system which renders whites more valuable than non-whites, men more valuable than non-men (women, gays, lesbians, trans), and upper class people more valuable than those of the lower classes, every single institution in that culture is going to refect these values and, if that institution has been empowered with enforcement, such enforcement will inevitably be racist, sexist and classist. This is the case in America.

Until this reality is altered, one truth which will follow is that any advance in technology employed by our institutions in this country will add to the burden of unequal enforcement against our less valued citizens. Technology is not going to be the means by which we alter oppression. It will, instead, be used to exacerbate oppression. Giving up the myth, the faith that we can "science" our way to equality, is an important milestone when joining the reality-based community.

We need to keep this in mind when reading a recent article in the Washington Post about the nonconcensual use of DNA of innocent family members to locate criminals, From DNA of Family, a Tool to Make Arrests. This article leads with sensational details from the BTK Killer case, patently intended to dissuade our recognition of injustice when we learn that the killer was tracked down via a DNA database which contained the DNA of his daughter obtained, without her knowledge or consent, from a routine Pap smear given five years earlier at a university medical clinic in Kansas. This blatant theft of her most private and unique information as an individual -- her DNA -- is portrayed as justified because of the result.

The article does acknowledge that "the technique is arousing fierce objections from privacy advocates, who maintain that it turns family members into genetic informants without their knowledge or consent. They complain that it takes material collected for one purpose and uses it for another." The FBI, "which maintains the world's largest forensic DNA database with almost 6 million profiles" is quoted as claiming "it has so far refrained from adopting the technique because of concerns about constitutional challenges." (No kidding.)

"Nonetheless, California, which maintains the world's third-largest criminal DNA database with more than 1 million samples, will soon become the first state to adopt a protocol to allow for familial searches. Last week, Colorado performed a test run of familial search software on its criminal database. In Massachusetts, officials say they plan to develop a policy to allow familial searches."

The article continues on through several sections covering examples (statistically very rare) of instances where trolling through DNA databases has solved crimes, occasionally admitting to the objections against this practice. It is not until the very end, if you're kept reading that long, that the real damage is revealed: The endemic racism built into the criminal justice system would make DNA storage and "trolling" into an unprecedented tool of racial profiling:

'Familial searching of offender databases would be of no use "if close relatives didn't commit crimes," said Frederick Bieber, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

'For reasons we don't understand, there is often a familial clustering in crime," he said. "This could relate to organized crime families, to street gangs, or it could be dysfunctional family units." He pointed to a 1999 Department of Justice study that found 46 percent of prison inmates had at least one close relative who had been incarcerated. [My note: Or could it be racial profiling on the part of the police?]

'Behind that statistic is another troubling set of numbers, highlighting an issue at the heart of the debate over familial searching: racial justice. The national database, which is made up mostly of state contributions, has a disproportionate number of DNA profiles from non-whites.

'Stanford University law professor Henry T. Greely estimates that at least 40 percent of the FBI database is African American, though they make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population. That is because in an average year, more than 40 percent of people convicted of felonies in the United States are African American, he said.

'If the national database were used for familial searching, he said, and assuming that on average each person whose profile in the database has five first-degree relatives, authorities would be "putting under surveillance" roughly a third of the African American population, compared with about 7.5 percent of the European American population, he said.

'I don't think anybody's going to be falsely convicted," he said. "It's the time, hassle and indignity of being interviewed by the police. How much is that worth? How much does that cost a person? I don't know, but it's not zero.'

A THIRD of the United States African American population versus 7.5 percent of the European American population. This is naked racism.

And the law professor's Pollyanna quote of "I don't think anybody's going to be falsely convicted" is given the lie every single day in this country. People are being incarcerated and put to death in horrific numbers for crimes they turned out not to have committed, and they are disproportionately people of color. One study by Ohio State University estimates the number of people in the United States wrongfully convicted each year of serious crimes at 10,000.

Another study, reported by the New York Times, found that "black men made up a disproportionate number of exonerated rape defendants" (65%, although the incidence of black men raping white women is in reality quite low). This study also found "Death row inmates represent a quarter of 1 percent of the prison population but 22 percent of the exonerated." In Florida, "75 percent of the death-penalty cases brought before the appeals court were overturned."

But the already institutionalized racism of our criminal justice system reveals that in 2006, 42% of death row inmates were black and 13% were identified as Hispanic when there was a known ethnicity. This skew exists because crimes committed by people of color are investigated, tried and punished with a different vigor than crimes committed by white people, according to our basic cultural values which are built on racism. There is no rational reason to believe DNA technology would interrupt this trend; rather, from the admission above, it will exacerbate injustice.

At this point, it is helpful to point out that the first organized police departments in this country (as opposed to idiosyncratic constables and community watches of the colonial era) were created in the early to mid 1800s primarily for control of slaves in the South. The principles and practices of this early policing was adopted by the North for urban control of working class populations, while in the West, vigilantism was the main form of community policing until recently. Objectivity and racial equality in policing does not exist and has never existed in America. Let's begin with that realization and follow the path which then emerges, away from increased invasion of privacy in the name of "crime prevention" and toward societal responsibility for the actual preventable causes of crime and human misery.

Hat tip to Jesse Wendel of Group News Blog, who sent me this article along with the comment Res ipsa loquitur.

Recommended reading: The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove: An Analysis of the U. S. Police, written by: Lynn Cooper, Elliott Currie, Jon Frappier, Tony Platt, Betty Ryan, Richard Schauffler, Joy Scruggs, and Larry Trujillo, with Contributions by: Bill Bigelow, Michael Klare, Nancy Stein, and Millie Thayer. Edited by Tony Platt and Paul Takagi (2nd printing, 1982).

1 comment:

kat said...

Jeezuz H Christ.....this is going to happen in my state? Ugh....fuck you state government!