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Blood and stories: how genomics is rewriting race, medicine and human history

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In 2003 Howard University announced its intention to create a databank of the DNA of African Americans, most of whom were patients in their medical centre. Proponents of the decision invoked the routine exclusion of African Americans from research that would give them access to the most up-to-date medical technologies and treatments. They argued that this databank would rectify such exclusions. Opponents argued that such a move tacitly affirmed the biological (genetic) basis of race that had long fuelled racism as well as that the potential costs were not worth the uncertain benefits. Howard University's controversial decision emerges from research in genomic medicine that has added new urgency to the question of the relationship between science and racism. This relationship is the topic of Wald's essay. Scientific disagreements over the relative usefulness of race’ as a classification in genomic medical research have been obscured by charges of racism and political correctness. The question takes us to the assumptions of population genomics that inform the medical research, and Wald turns to the Human Genome Diversity Project, the new Genographics Project and the 2003 film Journey of Man to consider how racism typically inheres not in the intentions of researchers, but in the language, images and stories through which scientists, journalists and the public inevitably interpret information. Wald demonstrates the importance of understanding those stories as inseparable from scientific and medical research. Her central argument is that if we understand the power of the stories we can better understand the debates surrounding race and genomic medicine, which, in turn, can help us make better ethical and policy decisions and be useful in the practices of science and medicine.

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Keywords: Journey of Man; Genographics Project; Human Genome Diversity Project; genetics; genomics; race; racism

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 September 2006

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