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Advanced Evidence Spring 2023 (4 credit)

Fingerprints and Race

This video is part of a series of lectures on the history of fingerprinting, focusing on the social, political, scientific and technological developments that have made fingerprinting such an important part of forensic science today.

As the project's website explains:

"Ever since the time of its invention in the 19th century, modern fingerprint identification was envisioned as a tool for controlling colonial subjects and immigrant populations. Whether in colonial India, Argentina, or the U.S. West Coast – a site of strong anti-Chinese racism – fingerprint identification seemed to hold the promise of giving the state stronger control over particular groups that were viewed in some way as “untrustworthy,” a racist idea that equated group affiliation with criminality and propensity to lie about one’s identity.

Another way that the history of fingerprinting has overlapped with ideas about race, identity, and difference has been in scientific research. Starting in the late 19th century, those with an academic interest in fingerprints have tried to investigate whether certain kinds of fingerprint patterns could be associated with particular “races” (they cannot). Those who carried out this research soon came to realize what a futile endeavor it was. Nonetheless, the search for evidence of “racial” identity and difference in fingerprints would continue in another form: studies of the frequency with which different fingerprint characteristics appear in different racially-defined groups.

. . . .

In the early 20th century, . . . an assumption that many people held – [was] that science could authoritatively explain the differences between “races.”This assumption motivated decades of research in dermatoglyphics, the scientific study of fingerprints and other ridged skin. "