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Who's in the Video
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of the award-winning book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black[…]

Lacewell talks about the study of race and genetics and the threat of biology-based racism.

Question: Is race blood?

Harris-Lacewell: The thing about Skip, when I think about Skip Gates . . .  And I like Skip _________.  I’m working with him on a new project that he’s doing.  But what Skip Gates is brilliant at is Skip Gates is the Booker T. Washington of his time.  And I mean that in the most positive way that I can, which is to say that he knows how to choose a set of intellectual and policy questions that are out there on the planet, attach himself and the study of African-Americans to those central projects, and bring in tremendous resources from the study of them.  So when the world started moving towards genes as a way of understanding everything from breast cancer, to fertility treatments, to you know . . .  I mean genes are the most in vogue thing going on.  Skip said alright, let’s get African-American studies onto that bandwagon, right?  I’m not suggesting that he’s completely an intellectual prostitute.  I suspect he has actual interest in these areas, but that fundamentally what Skip does is pick the big ideas and then attach African-American studies to them.  Now usually that is sort of a value-free kind of thing, right?  We are as well studied in English as in sociology, as in history.  I mean there are many things we could study Black folks on.  But I am very nervous about the introduction of the study of race in genetics because this is the history of 20th century racism – has been genetics-based, or biology-based arguments around race.  I mean if we can go back to the 18th century even and see Thomas Jefferson, our great, you know, life, liberty and pursuit of happiness guy framing in notes on the state of Virginia a biological explanation for the enslavement of Black people, right; that there are these sort of biological differences which constitute different races.  Now I suspect what Skip is up to from the work I’ve seen him doing in trying to undermine that by showing just how much most of our genetic patterns and biological heredity is more mixed than singular, right?  So he keeps finding that you’re as likely to have blood from Iceland, and from Africa, and from . . .  But, right, anytime we start making claims on our ability to understand who we are in the present based on genetic encoding and biological encoding from the past that is related to racialized ideas, I think we open up very quickly several centuries that have always been used against the interest of African-Americans.  I’m simply not convinced that he can . . .  Or that this work, not just him . . . but that this work can provide a space that actually intervenes on behalf of African-American interests.  My feeling is that it will continue to re-inscribe the idea that race is real and different in a biological and genetic way that makes it okay to circumscribe some communities to lower life opportunities overall, because it is the extent of what they are genetically capable of doing.  And so it makes me . . .  It makes me very, very nervous.