D.N.A. and the Future of Affirmative Action

NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE | August 28, 2005
Roberts v. the Future
By JEFFREY ROSEN

Affirmative-action programs may also be challenged by people other than disappointed white applicants. As America becomes increasingly multiracial, there may be debates over who, precisely, gets to qualify for racial preferences. Akhil Reed Amar, a colleague of Schuck’s at Yale Law School, told me that people might eventually resort to genetic tests to prove their racial heritage. ”I can imagine a predominantly white person who has been rejected because of an affirmative-action program saying, ‘I should benefit from it because I am of mixed race, and I can prove it with sophisticated DNA analysis showing the percentage of my genes that came from Africa,’ ” he said. ”The university might respond: ‘It’s not a genetic test but a social understanding test, and since people don’t perceive you as black, you haven’t been subject to discrimination.’ ”

In response to disputes like this, Amar suggested, state legislatures might conclude that ”the social-understanding test is unacceptably fuzzy, and at least science can give us some rules. So the government might require a genetic test because it’s easy to administer.” If, however, a state legislature were to declare that anyone with a drop of African-American blood is entitled to be considered black, the policy might provoke a bitter Supreme Court challenge. ”It would recall the shameful history in times of slavery and Jim Crow,” Schuck told me, ”in which one drop of blood was sufficient to render an individual black for the laws of slavery. And it would be extremely distasteful for blacks and whites.” Still, Schuck acknowledged, the problem of deciding who is eligible for affirmative action will grow only more urgent in an era of shrinking public resources. ”I think as pressure on affirmative-action programs increases,” he said, ”affirmative-action programs will have to make refined judgments about eligibility.”

There is great danger in the government using the new science of genetic testing to racially classify its citizens.

2 comments

  1. “There is great danger in the government using the new science of genetic testing to racially classify its citizens.”

    Especially since there are too many variables.

  2. There is an inherent problem with the notion of genetic testing around race. Race is an abritrary social construct, not a biological one. Therefore, a social construct could not be tested for. And if you look at the genetic makeup of individuals, a “white” person could have DNA that more closely resembles that of a “black” person when looked at in total.

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