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Noteworthy Works on Genetics, Eugenics and Racial Identity

“The Social Life of DNA,” Alondra Nelson
In “The Social Life of DNA,” Alondra Nelson takes us on an unprecedented journey into how the double helix has wound its way into the heart of the most urgent contemporary social issues around race.
For over a decade, Nelson has deeply studied this phenomenon. Artfully weaving together keenly observed interactions with root-seekers alongside illuminating historical details and revealing personal narrative, she shows that genetic genealogy is a new tool for addressing old and enduring issues. In “The Social Life of DNA,” she explains how these cutting-edge DNA-based techniques are being used in myriad ways, including grappling with the unfinished business of slavery: to foster reconciliation, to establish ties with African ancestral homelands, to rethink and sometimes alter citizenship, and to make legal claims for slavery reparations specifically based on ancestry.

“Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age,” Barbara Koenig, Sandra Soo-Jin Lee and Sarah Richardson
How are we to understand race? The simplicity with which this question is posed belies the complexity and fraught character of the public, scholarly, and political debates over race today. “Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age” suggests that the answer hinges, in part, on a larger set of issues linked to the production and consumption of knowledge in Western societies today. For that matter, the intractable and apparently irresolvable debate over the “reality” of race also may be seen as stemming from yet another broad set of uncertainties about the respective roles of culture and biology in constituting social forms of identity. The idea that we will have a simple answer to these questions anytime soon is illusory; but the task of trying to generate that answer involves some of the most interesting and pressing issues now confronting anthropologists.

“Finding Your Roots: The Official Companion to the PBS Series,” Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Who are we, and where do we come from? The fundamental drive to answer these questions is at the heart of “Finding Your Roots,” the companion book to the hit PBS documentary series. As Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. shows us, the tools of cutting-edge genomics and deep genealogical research now allow us to learn more about our roots, looking further back in time than ever before. Gates provides practical information for amateur genealogists just beginning archival research on their own families’ roots, and he details the advances in genetic research now available to the public. The result is an illuminating exploration of who we are, how we lost track of our roots, and how we can find them again.

“A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era,” Paul A. Lombardo

In 1907, Indiana passed the world’s first involuntary sterilization law based on the theory of eugenics. In time, more than 30 states and a dozen foreign countries followed suit. Although the Indiana statute was later declared unconstitutional, other laws restricting immigration and regulating marriage on “eugenic” grounds were still in effect in the U.S. as late as the 1970s. “A Century of Eugenics in America” assesses the history of eugenics in the United States and its status in the age of the Human Genome Project. The essays explore the early support of compulsory sterilization by doctors and legislators; the implementation of eugenic schemes in Indiana, Georgia, California, Minnesota, North Carolina and Alabama; the legal and social challenges to sterilization; and the prospects for a eugenics movement basing its claims on modern genetic science.

“White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,” Nancy Isenberg

In this landmark book, Nancy Isenberg argues that the voters who boosted Trump all the way to the White House have been a permanent part of the American fabric and reveals how the wretched and landless poor have existed from the time of the earliest British colonial settlements to today’s hillbillies. Surveying political rhetoric and policy, popular literature and scientific theories over four hundred years, Isenberg upends assumptions about America’s supposedly class-free society – where liberty and hard work were meant to ensure real social mobility – and forces a nation to face the truth about enduring malevolent nature of class.

“In Search of Purity: Popular Eugenics & Racial Uplift among New Negroes,” Shantella Sherman

“In Search of Purity” examines the reinterpretation of eugenic theories by Black scholars, who helped integrate the science into a social movement for racial uplift. Areas of analyses include: The Talented Tenth, links between ideas about social degeneracy and physical hygiene, eugenics courses and professors at Howard University, hereditarian, and colorism. Terms like germ plasm (negative characteristics transmitted through genes through continual selection, unchanged, from one generation to the next), and racial hygiene (a public health platform designed to eliminate, among other ailments, venereal disease and promote healthy reproduction within a race) are analyzed in their relation to popular discourses about Black cleanliness that included “moral fitness” and intellectual ineptness.

“War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race,” Edwin Black

“War Against the Weak” is the gripping chronicle documenting how American corporate philanthropies launched a national campaign of ethnic cleansing in the United States, helped found and fund the Nazi eugenics of Hitler and Mengele — and then created the modern movement of “human genetics.” Some 60,000 Americans were sterilized under laws in 27 states. This expanded edition includes two new essays on state genocide. Black examines what the eugenics movement cost America and how the idea of fusing science with popular culture ensured eugenics would impact all segments of American society. Black follows the method in which American legislation for sterilization was adopted by several European countries, including Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, and Germany – which, under Adolf Hitler utilized the platform during the Holocaust.

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