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Eugenics and the racial genome: politics at the molecular level

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Snyder and Mitchell's essay charts parallels between the historical marginalization of disabled populations and that of racialized populations, including the overlap in experiences of disability. It then assesses ways in which the history of the US eugenics movement can serve as a predictor of outcomes for projects like the Genomic Research of the African Diaspora biobank (GRAD) at Howard University, which attempt to trace genetic markers for disability prevalent in African-American communities. Diagnostic practices at the population level have previously threatened to entrench forms of pathology at the biological level without delivering promised relief through the discovery of cures. Specifically, the eugenics movement undertook restrictive measures to manage those deemed genetically inferior’. While it promised that widespread diagnostic labels would lead to the end of severe disabilities-particularly mental subnormality’-the movement failed to lessen levels of disability at the same time as it deflected needed social support away from disabled people. As a result, disabled peoples’ historical devaluation resulted in the loss of key citizenship privileges, such as freedom to move about the country, reproductive participation and the right to live in the community. While diagnostic initiatives might begin with a seemingly benign intention to alleviate disability as suffering’, medical labels often result in a further level of social disenfranchisement for members of the target population. Despite historical differences between genetics and eugenics, Snyder and Mitchell argue that similar outcomes are likely to result from racialized genomic research undertaken in minority communities in the United States.

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Keywords: biological stigma; cure; diagnostic regimes; disability studies; eugenics; feeblemindedness; genetic inferiority; medical marginalization; population control; racial genomics

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2006-09-01

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