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Can DNA testing be used for reparations?

As commercial DNA tests produce ever-more granular databases, descendants of slaves are being introduced to descendants of slaveholders. The implications for the reparation debate are vast. 

June 09 2023, 07.22am

Earlier this year, I found myself being offered unsolicited advice about how best to find my enslaved ancestors. I was on a transatlantic Zoom call with a 50-year-old marketing director called Andre Kearns from Washington D.C. He’s also an adept researcher who uses DNA testing technologies to trace his family history. He wants to help other descendants of enslaved Black Africans do the same thing, tracing as far back to the families who once owned them.

“DNA testing could be insightful for you,” Kearns said – encouraging me to rebuild my lost family history via an ancestry test. “It's your family history etched in your own DNA.”  I found Kearns’ work while I was looking into my own family’s lost history – a consequence of the purposeful destruction of enslaved peoples’ family ties and documentation. DNA testing helped Kearns find answers. Could it do the same for me? 

Armed with the specificity achieved by genomic testing, Kearns has already rebuilt his own family history. “I have committed to documenting my entire family tree as exhaustively as I can. The good, the bad, and the ugly,” he says. Kearns used DNA testing to prove a biological relation to the white descendants of “Master Smyre,” a white man who enslaved his family two hundred years ago in North Carolina, and sired Kearns’ third great grandfather, Henry Johnson, who was enslaved. Kearns’ presented his research at RootsTech, a global genealogical conference based in Utah run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their last conference had an audience of over three million attendees from over 230 countries. Mormons have faith-based reasons for investing in genealogy and genetic research and have their own tarnished history around slavery and slave-ownership.

Kearns managed to rebuild his family history – a radical feat in itself – but now what? Kearns hasn’t filed for monetary reparations from the Smyres, but this doesn’t mean that others – with their DNA evidence in tow – won’t. Kearns’ described his experience of reaching out to his Smyre relatives as “overwhelmingly positive – once you get past the awkward piece”. The Smyre descendants “downplayed” their family’s role as enslavers, says Kearns. “My Smyre cousin talked about their property in North Carolina being a farm, and in my family it was always passed down as a plantation,” he says.

The almost two hundred year-long tussle on how or whether to redress slavery is undergoing a resurgence. Here in the UK, The Guardian’s Cotton Capital series spotlighted the organisation’s grim foundations in the slave trade and outlined its restorative actions. Meanwhile, the Trevelyans, a British former slave-owning family, have promised £100,000 to Grenada, where their family owned plantations. Labour MPs are putting renewed pressure on the UK government to begin slavery compensation with the Caribbean. In the current age of the genome and the boom in genetic testing, DNA could become a viable weapon in the arsenal of those determined to achieve punitive damages from slavery. 

“If you can be super specific and say, ‘my family was owned by this family and here’s the proof,’ then that’s a solid basis for claiming from that family.”

In the early 2000s, Deadria Farmer-Paellman, an American lawyer, used DNA evidence to claim reparations at an institutional level. Farmer-Paellman took Lloyds of London and two other companies to court. Lloyds provided cover to merchants whose slave-trading ships were lost at sea. Aetna, a multibillion dollar health insurance company and another of those she sued, used to insure enslavers, covering their losses if their slaves died. The company had a policy on Farmer-Paellman’s great-grandfather, Albert Hines, who was enslaved. To strengthen their case, Farmer-Paellman, along with ten other plaintiffs, used DNA testing to prove direct ancestry to specific people ravaged by the slave trade in Africa. The group’s earlier claims were rejected because they couldn’t provide indisputable proof as to who had enslaved their ancestors. Despite the DNA evidence, the case was lost in 2005.

However, just ten years later, Georgetown University agreed to pay reparations to the descendants of the 272 slaves whose sale in 1838 profited the university’s founder: the contemporary descendants were found via DNA testing. Only last month, California advanced plans to provide monetary settlements to Black Californians who can prove they are descended from slaves. Potential recipients, who could stand to receive thousands of dollars, have used DNA testing as a means to prove their eligibility.

“DNA provides a level of specificity that gives you the basis to be able to claim reparations,”  says Kearns. “If you can be super specific and say, ‘my family was owned by this family and here’s the proof,’ then that’s a solid basis for claiming from that family.” DNA testing helps Kearns achieve what he calls a “reparation of the narrative” - a national reckoning with America’s history. “I feel like my ancestors call me to discover their stories of how they built America, and to share them so that we can tell a more whole and accurate history of America,” says Kearns. “American history is told in a way that erases the contributions of marginalised people,” he says. 

For Kearns, DNA testing is one key route to reinsert them into the story: “testing allows us to tap into [your personal] historical record.” Kearns’ research also brings to light  the systemic sexual violence and rape enslaved Black women were forced to endure. The impact of testing goes beyond an individual family tree, providing a more accurate re-telling of America’s history.

“DNA testing is seen as irrefutable, it’s seen as actual evidence, but if you can’t marshal the data, then what?”

Dr Paige Patchin, an academic researching biological and genetic sciences at University College London, is sceptical. The merging of DNA testing with a recoupment agenda could exclude people, she warns. 

“DNA testing is seen as irrefutable, it’s seen as actual evidence, but if you can’t marshal the data, then what?” she says.“That doesn’t mean you aren’t affected by racial inequalities.” “Entire societies have been organised around slavery. Maybe that isn’t only a question of familial or biological ties,” says Patchin.  The impacts of slavery and racial inequity are wide-reaching – does the addition of DNA testing to reparations conversations reduce a society-wide issue down to individual biology?

These problems have already emerged in California. Some officials have called to expand the descent-based reparations criteria, arguing that the legacies of slavery and racism affect all Black people.

That DNA testing has found its way into the complexities of restitution and slavery is no surprise. Ancestry DNA testing is a billion-dollar industry. 23andMe, a leading provider of at-home DNA testing kits, has sold over 12 million tests since its inception in 2006, and is hot on the heels of its biggest competitor, The Independent recently titled 23andMe as the provider of the “best overall” at-home DNA test .

“The boom in ancestry DNA testing is part of a recent historical transformation,” says Patchin. “Now, we’re seeing a drive to understand oneself in forever narrower ways of thinking about identity.”

Patchin thinks the popularity of these tests is a symptom of something wider. “I think you can see the fragmentation of all sorts of identities, not just racial identities,” she says. “People are describing themselves in narrower and more specific ways. A kind of ‘stay in your lane mentality.’” 

"Geneticists are on demonstrably thin ice telling people that they do or don’t have ancestors from a particular population.” 

The paradox – that genetic testing technologies intensify rather than diminish human differences – can’t go unnoticed. In 2000, US President Bill Clinton, referencing the just-published findings of the Human Genome Project (HGP), proclaimed that “human beings…are more than 99.9 percent the same.” 

Since then, genetic testing companies have profited from the 0.01% difference. “The HGP brought a lot of optimism, people were like ‘this is going to be the end of race, right?’ And yet, it’s going the other way,” says Patchin.

The science that looks for barely-there differences in the face of similarity is likely to have some flaws. In 2015, American sociologist Troy Duster argued that genetic testing technologies have “re-inscribed race as a biological category” – picking apart the science behind ancestry DNA tests. 

The problem, Duster says, is this: because humans’ DNA is so similar rather than different, users will share DNA with millions of other people. As a result, “geneticists,” he says, “are on demonstrably thin ice telling people that they do or don’t have ancestors from a particular population.” 

Yet customers want precision, or at least the illusion of it. Enter the reference sample; “the measuring stick,” Duster says, that’s used to articulate people’s ancestry. Reference populations consist of the genetic data of a relatively small number of people whose ancestry is thought to be traceable to one, bounded place: relying on the equally mythical ideas of ancestral ‘purity’ and a non-existent world where migration never existed. If a customer’s DNA matches with the frequency of markers allotted as ‘African’ in the reference sample, then this is what their stats will tell them they are.

Duster argues that ‘population’ is a slippery replacement for race. According to Duster, the reparatory answers DNA testing might hold for descendants of slaves could come at a hefty cost – inadvertently solidifying race as a biological fact: are reparations acquired via DNA testing causing more harm than good? 

“[DNA tests] have the potential of re-solidifying a biological idea of race instead of doing away with the concept entirely,” says Patchin. “Criticisms from a lot of Black scholars point out that we need to be careful about looking to the gene as a source of truth about identity, given the really nefarious histories of that.” Post-WWII race science went underground; the horrors of the Holocaust led to a moral uncoupling of genetics and race. “But what we have in the last twenty years is a re-introduction of race as a biological reality,” Patchin explains.

DNA testing, when added to an already hot argument over recompense and slavery, ignites an enigma; its potential as a justice-seeking reparatory tool is haunted by its hardening of ‘race.’ Perhaps the ‘hard truth’ of genetic science – despite its flaws – is the only route descendants of the enslaved have to turn to in a climate hostile to paying damages for historical ills.

 In 2014, Britain, France, Spain and other former colonial states rejected reparations plans. In Britain, politicians express “sorrow” for the slave trade – but never enough to formally start the process of restorative justice. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, recently renewed Britain’s refusal to apologise or begin a compensation process for the country’s role in the slave trade. The individual family histories DNA testing rebuilds are part of a national history too: a national history we are still, even in the technological advances characteristic of our genomic age, yet to reckon with. 

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