Columbia law professor speaks at Hamline Univ. about race and eugenics


Old philosophy of breeding out the ‘undesirable’ lives on in modern world of DNA testing

Fifty years after American public schools were legally integrated, and in the wake of the Jena Six controversy, race relations in America are back under the kind of scrutiny reminiscent of the 1960s. The reemergence of this issue has instigated a nationwide dialogue that Hamline University recently contributed to when renowned author and Columbia University Law Professor Patricia J. Williams appeared there to speak on September 27 about America‘s obsession with race.

Patricia Williams also sits on the Federal Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Her published works include her regular column in The Nation and many books examining race in America: The Alchemy of Race & Rights, The Rooster’s Egg, Seeing a Colorblind Future: The Paradox of Race, Open House: Family Friends, Piano Lessons, and The Search for a Room of My Own.

Williams, admitting that America is a “deeply diverse country divided deeply be racial lines,” examined the role race plays in our society and explored its implications and contradictions. America‘s “deeply violent racist history,” she said, has constructed our contemporary views on race roles, lending significantly to our ideals of beauty and intelligence.

Williams described a re-emerging phenomenon she has noticed at Columbia University that puts a price tag on aesthetics. “A new eugenics market is on the rise,” Williams said. Eugenics is a philosophy that was popular from the mid 19th-to-mid-20th century that advocated for eliminating “undesirable” physical characteristics, disabilities, and ethnic groups through selective breeding. According to Williams, eugenics lives on through students who are increasingly vying for the “Ivy league egg,” the genetic material of Ivy League graduates. Additionally, technologies like cloning are improving the future for engineering offspring. Once conceptualized, there exists the real potential to further increase race and class divides within the United States.

To Williams, this technology inherently institutes a system of values dictated by the wealthy class, the “haves.” In an example Williams gave, she told the story of a couple in New York whose dream to have the “perfect” baby was disrupted.

This young couple, of European and Hispanic decent, used in-vitro fertilization to conceive their second child, born in 2004. To the parents’ dismay, when their little girl Jessica was born, she was “dark skinned.” According to DNA tests ordered by the parents, Jessica is the biological offspring of her Hispanic mother, but not her European American father. The couple is now suing the clinic that did the in-vitro fertilization.

While genetics does not always accurately predict race, in this case it did predict status. Physically displaying “Negro characteristics,” Williams said, lessened little Jessica’s value to her parents.

Williams argues that this will be the fate of all children, especially those in poor and minority families that neither cannot afford the price tag of a manufactured child nor have the advantage of a lengthy European pedigree. In America, where skin color, hair texture, eye color — so-called “racial” features — are factors, Williams argues that neo-eugenics will only enable neo-racism.

“It’s odd that there’s no such thing as race,” Williams said; biologically it doesn’t exist. Yet the power it holds socially and economically has devastated the American psyche nonetheless. America still needs to deal with core racial issues: “We haven’t entirely grieved,” Williams said.

She admits that we’ve come a long way, but with the impending technology of a new eugenics movement gaining support, an honest conversation about race seems to have eluded yet another generation. How will the test-tube babies of the next generation handle this issue? Time (and science) will tell.

Caroline Joseph is a Hamline University student and a journalism intern at the Spokesman-Recorder. She welcomes reader responses to