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Years after transatlantic slavery, DNA tests give clarity

DNA ancestry tests in the last decade have helped some African-Americans reconcile with aspects of their identities that might have been obscured during the transatlantic slave trade. Alondra Nelson chronicles this journey in her book, "The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation After the Genome." Nelson joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

      In the past decade, companies like 23andMe and ancestry.com, which offer DNA testing to help people learn more about their biological traits, have boomed.  African-Americans are increasingly using these tests to explore their genealogy and answer questions about their family histories lost during the transatlantic slave trade.

  • Alondra Nelson, dean of social science and professor of sociology at Columbia University, looks at the intersection of DNA and history in her book “The Social Life of DNA:

    Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.”

    “NewsHour Weekend’s” Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke with Nelson.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND:

    HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND:  First of all, why are people doing it?  Is it for a story about themselves?

  • ALONDRA NELSON, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY:

      Those things are related, identities and stories, you know?  And I think that people want identities that they can use to tell a rich story, a richer story about theirs lives.  And in the case of African-Americans, part of that story has been lost.

    And so, what the attempt to use genetic ancestry testing, to find a nation state, an ethnic group, information you department have access to before, before we had new technologies that helped to us make some best guesses about where people who are of African descent in the U.S. might be from and then allow you to complete a story.  So, the identity piece and story people are actually very much connected.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

      There is also a notion of ownership —

  • ALONDRA NELSON:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Because for a second, this is that I am opting into it.

  • ALONDRA NELSON:

    Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And I own this.  And I will take this piece of information that I and know I have this to myself.

  • ALONDRA NELSON:

    That’s the critical piece because we know for communities of color, that genetics has not always been a rosy space of research, and that there have been historical tragedies in the past that would lead, particularly African-Americans, to be suspicious of genetic testing.  And so, the ability to opt in, the ability to now in the 21st century to use genetics to do something powerful, to tell a powerful story about your identity and your life and to choose how you want to take that story up.

    So, sometimes people get information that they find useful or interesting, and sometimes they don’t.  But because you have opted in as a consumer, you get to choose, you get to adjudicate whether or not you think that information is useful for your story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How does this change our sense of community on who I identify with?  Because this moment, I might be African-American or Indian-American, but if I really go back through my genetic roots, wait a minute, I’m from this country, also?

  • ALONDRA NELSON:

    We use African-American synonymously with things like Irish-American or Scottish-American, but those are countries, and Africa —

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Africa is a continent.

  • ALONDRA NELSON:

    Africa is a continent, and there’s 54 countries on the continent of Africa.  And so, to be able to say I’m Guinean-American, I’m Nigerian-American, is actually a significant difference.  And that ethnic story, being a hyphenated American is really part of the American story.  It’s how politics happened.  It’s how we do forms of social and community organizing.

    So, it adds a level of specificity for African-Americans that might not have been there before.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Regardless of which community has decided to do this for themselves, one of the things that always concerns me is where does this information reside?

  • NELSON:

      Yes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    After they do the test, after they get my genetic cheek swab, and after the lab figures out what is it is about my story to tell me, they still have a copy of my DNA sitting in a lab somewhere, and I probably pressed “I agree” without reading the fine print.

  • ALONDRA NELSON:

    Different companies do different things.  So, we now know that 23andMe has, you know, committed to doing pharmaceutical research and aggregating their data for, you know, potentially drug patents and these sorts of things.  So, in their fine print, it tells you that.

    Companies like African Ancestry, which is the one I spent a lot of time writing about, says that they throw out the sample.  But, you know, there’s a way in which data lives forever.  So, even if you throw out the actual tissue, the saliva, the data can still inform.

    And all of the companies, I think, if they’re smart, are using the data that comes in from customers to make their databases more robust.  So, you can get more robust findings if you have more expansive databases.  It’s on the company-to-company basis that we know what happens to the DNA.  But we can suspect that it’s being kept around, similar to when one goes to the hospital and has to give — you know, is having an operation or has to give a tissue sample that’s around.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right.  The book is called “The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation After the Genome” — Alondra Nelson, thanks for joining us.

  • ALONDRA NELSON:

    Thank you very much.

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