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Poverty, Genetics and the White American Psyche

The sequencing of the human genome and the science that made that feat possible have led to some fascinating new research into genetics. Among the most intriguing projects are those that link poverty to genetic changes in children and those that strongly imply that genetic changes caused by environmental factors, as well as those that result from random mutations, can be passed from one generation to the next.

This research can be interpreted from a social justice perspective as proof that poverty, particularly child poverty, is a human rights issue. It can be used to develop interventions to help kids compensate for the effects poverty may have on their brains and bodies. It can lead to legislation that lessens the gap between the wealthy and the poor and raises everyone to an acceptable standard of living.

Or not.

As a nation that was founded and built on the premise that some people (those of Northern European extraction) are inherently and irrevocably superior to other people (pretty much everyone else), we need to be very careful about how we understand and, as journalists, report this new research.

Our history of racism and our belief in “American [read White] exceptionalism” started when the first European settlers began slaughtering first nations peoples to take the land and resources they controlled. It extended right through the 20th century with the forced removal of indigenous people from their land and children from their families. In the 21st century, we still see this happening as fishing and hunting rights are contested, subsistence is threatened by international corporations, the extraction of natural resources on Indian lands is for the most part conducted by non-Indians for the benefit of non-Indians, education for most Indian children is disgraceful, and poverty and lack of opportunity lead to addiction and teen suicide.

Beginning in the 17th century and through the 19th century, we brought black people to our shores to create the economy of the south while denying them any semblance of human dignity, because they were not fully human, we said.

In the 19th century, Chinese immigrants built our railroads but had no civil rights. Eastern European immigrants, including children, worked in our mills and factories and lived in appalling conditions with insufficient space, food, health care and protections. Irish immigrants took care of our houses and kids, picked up our garbage and protected us from lawbreakers, all the while being paid wages they could not live on and segregated into ghettos.

In the early 20th century, taking our theory of the genetic inferiority of other races to its logical conclusion, we — that is, some of the most respected professors in our most highly regarded colleges and universities — were instrumental in developing the science of eugenics that Hitler would use during World War II and that we would use to sterilize, institutionalize and conduct medical experiments on tens of thousands of people.

So this is where we are: We have a history that exemplifies over and over again our contempt for other races and ethnicities based on the science of the day that interpreted them to be genetically inferior to whites. And we have new scientific research that shows poverty can lead to changes in genetic make up that appear to make the children of poverty less able to do the things that we have come to believe are most important, changes that they may transmit to their children.

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It is not an intellectual leap to conclude that children brought up in poverty are genetically inferior to children brought up in affluent conditions. And from there it is an easy step to substitute poverty for race and come to the conclusion that treating poor children differently from well-to-do children is perfectly justified. Since their deficits mean they will not contribute to our nation in the same ways that wealthy children will, it’s fine to provide poor education, or no education, inadequate living conditions, limited or no medical care, and the lists goes on.

And beginning this month and for at least two more years, we have a Congress that may be all too willing to give these children short shrift.

There are some very cogent reasons why we cannot allow this to happen, even aside from the reasons dictated by common decency.

First, it is early days yet. We may be attributing more importance to genetic differences than they merit simply because we do not yet have the technologies and paradigms to properly evaluate what we are seeing. We may be doing the equivalent of conducting delicate surgery with a hatchet.

Second, attributing deficits to specific genetic changes is, as is typical of Western science, reductionist. We don’t begin to have the whole picture yet and the whole is never just the sum of its parts. For example, it is often found that a genetic difference that creates a deficit in one area creates strength in another. And we have not begun to look at how kids might be compensating for the differences. We are simply accepting that a change in the structure of the amygdala, for example, means a child will have an unusually high incidence of emotional outbursts without analyzing all of the other factors that could come into play.

Finally, and this is where journalists come in, in order for the kind of horrific change in public perception described above to come about, people have to believe that poverty creates significant and irreversible genetic changes in kids.

But that is not what the researchers are saying. It is what the journalists are reporting. When you actually go back and read the reports the researchers publish in scientific journals, it is clear that correlations are not causes, and they go to great lengths to point out that their research is not the last thing that will be said on the subject. A lot more work needs to be done before we can come to accurate conclusions, let along base public opinion and public policy on the results of their studies.

But caveats and explanations of terms like “correlations” do not sell newspapers or get hits on websites. What get hits are sensational headlines and a brisk explanation of what the research may show, absent the boring caveats the researchers have put in their articles.

Journalists need to be extremely conscientious when they report this work because its implications in this political climate, given our national history, could be devastating to tens of millions of children.

Tanya H. Lee is a journalist who has been writing about issues of importance to the Native American community for almost 20 years. Having served as managing editor of the Navajo-Hopi Observer and Native American Journal, she now freelances for ICTMN and other publications. Lee lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.