Buried Alive: The Concept of Race in the Biological Sciences and Clinical Medicine - With some Social and Political Consequences of its Surprising, even Vigorous Revitalization
September 23, 2010, 4pm Smith-Buannano 106

TROY DUSTER Sociology and the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge, New York University and the University of California-Berkeley

A recent Scientific American profile of Troy Duster told of a 1997 meeting at the National Human Genome Research Institute. The eminent geneticists agreed on a mantra: “Race doesn’t exist.” They insisted that because the DNA of people with different skin colors and hair textures is 99.9 percent alike, the notion of race had no meaning in science:

Then sociologist Troy Duster pulled a forensics paper out of his briefcase. It claimed that criminologists could find out whether a suspect was Caucasian, Afro-Caribbean or Asian Indian merely by analyzing three sections of DNA. “It was chilling,” recalls Francis S. Collins, director of the Institute. He had not been aware of DNA sequences that could identify race, and it shocked him that the information can be used to investigate crimes. “It stopped the conversation in its tracks” (Lehrman, 2003).
Years before the Human Genome Project had begun, Duster had already been patiently explaining that while genetic research cannot find race as a biological reality, race remains very much a social reality—with important biological outcomes, such as sharply higher rates of hypertension and prostate cancer in racialized populations. When the revolution in molecular biology arrived, Duster warned that DNA markers linked to ancestral origins would be used to attempt genetic explanations of these conditions—a dangerous pathway to the reinscription of the biology of race. “In large part, thanks to Duster,” the Scientific American article said, “Collins and other geneticists have begun grappling with forensic, epidemiological and pharmacogenomic data that raise the question of race at the DNA level.” As a result, says Collins, “Duster is a person that rather regularly gets tapped on the shoulder and asked for help.”

Troy Duster has been doing this kind of thing for many years on many issues—using solid data and telling examples to shift scientific conversations, and sometimes, political debates as well. He is, to use Michael Burawoy’s four-fold schema, a professional sociologist, a policy sociologist, a critical sociologist, and a public sociologist.

Distinguished Scholarship

Duster’s research and writing have ranged widely across the sociology of law, science, deviance, inequality, race, and education. In addition to numerous book chapters, he has published in an extraordinary array of scholarly journals including Nature, Social Problems, Science, Ethnicities, Representations, the Bulletin de Methodologie Sociologique, The American Sociologist, Philosophy and Social Action, Politics and the Life Sciences, Crime and Delinquency, Society, Social Psychiatry, The Black Scholar, Les Temps Modernes, and The Japanese Journal of Science. His research has been translated into French, German, Italian and Japanese.

His first book, The Legislation of Morality: Drugs, Crime, and Law (1970), a classic in the drug field, showed that when the demographics of opiate addiction shifted, so did its definition and the law. When addicts were predominantly white, middle-class, middle-aged women, addiction was a health problem dealt with privately by physicians. But when addiction spread among more “disreputable” groups like poor young men, it was redefined as a crime problem dealt with publicly by imprisonment.

Duster’s other books include the seminal Backdoor to Eugenics (1990), which The Nation called a “lucid landmark.” In his introduction to the second edition (2003), Pierre Bourdieu applauds Duster for showing the dangerous slide toward a “covert eugenics” that has emerged as “old mythologies” about intelligence and crime are “dressed in the biological sciences.”

Duster’s most recent book is Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (2003; co-authored with Brown, Carnoy, Currie, Oppenheimer, Shultz, and Wellman). It received extraordinary critical acclaim, won the Benjamin Hooks Award, and was a finalist in 2004 for the C. Wright Mills Award. “Framed as a response to conservative analysts who claim that racial problems are essentially solved,” wrote Andrew Hacker, Whitewashing Race is “a brilliant, seamless book on America’s deepest divide.”

Duster has been an editor for Theory and Society, Sociological Inquiry, Contemporary Sociology, The American Sociologist, and the ASA’s Rose Monograph Series. He is currently a member of the Social Science Research Council, and has served on committees for the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of Law Schools, the National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and he was Chair of the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues Committee of the Human Genome Project.

Among other awards, Duster has received a Guggenheim Fellowship at the London School of Economics, an honorary Doctor of Letters from Williams College, and the DuBois-Johnson-Frazier Award from the American Sociological Association. He’s currently Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at New York University, as well as Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1970.

by Harry G. Levine, City University of New York-Queens College, and Craig Reinarman, University of California-Santa Cruz)
for more on Troy Duster, see http://www.asanet.org/footnotes/septoct04/indexone.html