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Ch. 14: Troy Duster, “The Combustible Intersection: Genomics, Forensics, and Race.”


Chapter 14. Troy Duster, “The Combustible Intersection: Genomics, Forensics, and Race.” Race After the Internet. Ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White. New York: Routledge, 2012. 310-327. Print.


Part of the Crowdsourced Book Review of Race After the Internet, Ed. Lisa Nakamura and Peter Chow-White. Review by Regina Yung Lee.


In “The Combustible Intersection: Genomics, Forensics, and Race,” Troy Duster argues for the disruption of forensic evidence’s publicly perceived infallibility, by examining the formation and deployment of DNA evidence in several court cases, and by pointing out the danger of genetic reinscriptions of race through both biomedical research and the development of national DNA databases. Throughout its accounts of the Puckett cold hit case and the medical and legal ramifications of DNA evidence in courtrooms nationwide, Duster never loses sight of his primary thread: this contemporary grouping of events threatens to allow a form of eugenics back into mainstream social arenas through legal and quasi-scientific channels. Duster’s analysis juxtaposes a set of circumstances which not only suggest but require further study across the disciplines, not for its own sake, but in order to explicitly confound these dangerous convergences.


In Duster’s analysis, the rise of genomic evidence in the court has two wide-reaching ramifications: race becomes reformulated through the discourses of authenticity at the genetic level, and the political reimagination of the human genome as a way to regulate human health through assessment of its various levels. In this, the specifics of legal ramifications of genomic evidence also participate in the normalization of medical research to a body it deems neutral: that is, all clinical results exist in comparison to a “base model” of bodily function, which happens to be both white and male. Duster mentions this discussion, which has taken place to some extent within US-based communities of medical research only in the last decade, as a prelude to bringing up the medically-based injustices of eugenics research and its direct relevance to the current discussion of DNA evidence in legal contexts. As well, the article discusses at length several ways in which DNA databases in the US reflect larger racialized biases in law enforcement and social discourse.


The article provides information on specifics and methodologies suitable for a general audience, but gives enough detail to propel further research by interested readers. Duster’s judicious use of popular culture’s fascination with the mysteries of seemingly inarguable DNA evidence underscores its presentation as infallibly conclusive evidence before television audiences and juries alike. The article represents this seeming infallibility as a carefully maintained set of public impressions, meant to be deployed against juries and defendants in order to elicit acceptable behaviors (desirable convictions and plea bargains, respectively), setting precedent for the genetic reification of racial bias into law.


Despite its specifics on the statistical analyses of DNA match technologies and different match tests used in forensics, the chapter passes relatively lightly over the technical details governing the creation and deployment of forensic evidence. An exception occurs during the discussion of the difference between forensics and the scientific method, in which Duster outlines the major methodological difference between forensic analysis and the scientific method: the lack of reproducible results, which Duster takes as grounds to debar the work of forensics from the work of science itself. This is a strong claim, bolstered through a series of concrete examples extending from the lack of formal certification and accreditation of forensics labs and an expert-led disavowal of current statistical analyses used to interpret DNA match results to the manipulation of those results through deliberate withholding of information both during and after legal process.


Duster calls for social scientists to interrupt the unquestioning reification of what he calls “lay categories” (323) through the work of genetics research. This is a strong call for revelation biomedical research’s implications in legal desires and societal predispositions, as well as its own previous histories of biased availability. However, it stays well within accepted boundaries for what constitute the scientific method itself, without criticizing the larger constraints imposed by that method. The certainty underwriting the power of DNA evidence in legal arenas and the public imaginaries has a history based in the creation of the scientific observer, whose unlimited access to nature-based knowledge is granted through his perfect deployment of the scientific method. Taken slightly beyond its current borders, Duster’s call mirrors the interruption of objectivity in scientific inquiry by science scholars like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway. Both scholars begin their deconstructions of the objective witness through the term natureculture, an acknowledgment of each experimental procedure and hypothesis’ imbrication within extant discourses, whether physical or sociological.


The chapter ends with another deconstruction of the results of genomic research, pointing out that the supposed pur laine Quebecois “founder effect” documented by geneticists in 2007, does not exist. An examination of church records demonstrates a substantive First Nations presence which, while historically accurate and deserving of note, does not support the pre-experimental given of a homogenous European population, or confer some racialized “authenticity” upon the province’s founding populations. The researchers’ assumptions confounded their results, the chapter attests. Yet even if the experimental design were carefully reworked, and the results externally validated, the article suggests that their applications would still drive discussion away from clinics and labs, toward the highly contested grounds of legal precedent and popular opinion.



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