The issue is place, not race

I recently published The Ghost in the Cell, a long story about trauma, violence and the biology of stress. The piece focused on a woman named Yokia Mason, who grew up in family where children from multiple generations had been exposed to violence and abuse. Yokia is African American, a fact that one reviewer, the writer Annalee Newitz, has used as the basis for an attack on my story. Newitz claims that I parachuted into a violent community, picked a random African American woman with a troubled past and used her to "put a face" on a complex subject.

I'm glad Newitz raised the issue of race, because my editors and I talked about it a great deal. However, her allegation that I took a "voyeuristic look inside Mason's life" is offensive. As Newitz would have known if she had looked up my bio, it is also incorrect. For the past two and a half years, I have been writing about violence, trauma and health in Yokia's home city of Oakland. My work is funded by a fellowship from the California Endowment. I did not come to the subject, the community or any of the people involved without careful consideration.

On a per capita basis, Oakland is by far the most violent and crime-ridden city in California. Last year it had America's 10th highest homicide rate. Much of that violence is transgenerational. It was a determination to understand these facts — not the race of the people who live there — that spurred me to investigate why violence persists in places like Oakland.

This inquiry led me to experts on violence prevention — people like John Rich and Gary Slutkin, who work closely with communities that are affected by violence. It was from these experts that I learned about epigenetics. Both Rich and Slutkin are interested in this new science for the reasons I lay out in the story: it may help explain why, in some communities, violence affects generation after generation. They and others with whom I spoke told me that epigenetics was opening exciting new doors in their work, and that it might have to be incorporated into future policy decisions.

Race is not the subject of The Ghost in the Cell, but it is true that African Americans and Latinos are victims of transgenerational and community violence at far greater rates than other ethnic groups. Should we ignore the statistic that black men are roughly 16 times more likely to be killed by gun violence than whites? Slutkin and others do not shy away from facts like this in their work. Instead they seek to understand why such things happen. And they know that at least part of the answers lie in understanding not race, but place. Ignoring violence where it is most acute is not going to help the problem.

Is epiegentics the only thing that shapes violence in Oakland? Absolutely not, as I said repeatedly in the article. For scientists, epigenetics is just one part of an arsenal of techniques being used to understand violent communities. Nowhere do I say that it can explain everything in Yokia's life, as Newitz seems to think I do.

More worryingly, Newitz seems to confuse epigenetics with genetics at a number of points in her review. This is wrong on so many levels, and I'd urge readers to look at my story so that they can see for themselves. Epigenetics is a different branch of biology from genetics, with very different consequences for the way we think about violence.

As for Yokia herself, she does not feel “objectified”, as Newitz alleges. In fact, Yokia felt keenly that the piece allowed people to make a connection between science and her own life. I suppose I could have "stayed in my lane" and only written about the subjects of scientific studies, but that wouldn't have done much to dampen any charge of objectification. It's also not what good journalism is about. I am proud of the nuance and detail I pulled out in telling Yokia's story.