In today’s Globe, Alex Beam uncovers a terrific nugget about Skip Gates. [Emphasis added.]
The other Gates Foundation
In 2005, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., known to all as “Skip,” set up the nonprofit Inkwell Foundation, named after a famous beach/gathering place for African-Americans on Martha’s Vineyard. Skip talked about the foundation in a recent interview with Martha’s Vineyard magazine and touted it when he launched his for-profit business, AfricanDNA.com, last year. “The precedent-setting site is the only company in the field of genetic genealogy that will provide African Americans with family tree research in addition to DNA testing,” its initial press release declared, adding that “a percentage of all profits will be donated to the Inkwell Foundation, dedicated to reforming the teaching of science and history in inner city schools using genetic and genealogical ancestry tracing.”
Public records indicate that the charity, domiciled in Gates’s Cambridge home, has been dormant since its inception. Jill Butterworth, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, says Inkwell has never filed the required, annual form PC, for public charities. “They are currently not in compliance,” Butterworth said. “It’s possible they are inactive or have dissolved. We are checking into it.” Gates declined to comment.
Great stuff—but a little context makes the story even more disturbing. When Gates started this partnership with AfricanDNA.com, everyone put out press releases talking about the monies that would go to Inkwell, which was described as above.
The charity sounded dubious enough, frankly—a little bit like Microsoft giving computers to public schools so that it could add to its installed Windows user-base.
Equally disturbing, as far as I could tell at the time, nowhere did any of the materials Gates and AfricanDNA.com released mention that Inkwell was actually Gates’ foundation, set up for the purpose of being announced along with this business partnership.
And no one in the press bothered to ask what the heck this “Inkwell Foundation” was.
The end result was exactly what Gates and AfricanDNA.com desired: to put a charitable gloss on a business partnership that, in my opinion, has less to do with rediscovering lost African-American history than with cashing in on a fad of dubious usefulness for most black Americans.
There’s so much more to this story, it’s crying out for a great magazine piece. (James Burnett, are you reading this?)
(Gates has put a number of friends and colleagues, including Harvard prof Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, on its board.)
It takes a little digging, but not much, to discover that the addresses of the two companies are the same, and that if you call the support line for AfricanDNA.com, you get Family Tree DNA.
Why the shell game? One reason might be that, in the field of DNA testing, black Americans are considered a huge potential market—especially if you can get someone like Skip Gates to promote it at Harvard, on PBS, in public schools, and so on—but FamilyTreeDNA doesn’t actually have any black employees.
(Not, at least, that it cares to post on its website.)
So it’s a you-scratch-my-back operation. Gates gets what is probably a very lucrative contract (does Harvard know the details? It should.).
And Houston, Texas-based Family Tree DNA gets one of the country’s most respected and high-profile African-Americans as its spokeperson, lending this DNA testing company the credibility and prestige not just of Gates, but of Harvard itself.
(Watch Gates’ recent “African-American Lives” special, which opens with him walking through Harvard Yard, identifying himself as a Harvard professor, and talking about how he uses genetic history in teaching Harvard students. Is this public television, or an infomercial in which Harvard is not just the stage, but the endorser? It becomes even murkier when Gates sits down to “interview” someone from Family Tree DNA…..)
All this in service of DNA testing, which Gates says is a powerful tool for African-Americans, but about which there is immense debate…..
And DNA testing, by the way, ain’t cheap: The services on AfricanDNA.com range from $189 to $1277.
So lots of folks are making money—Gates, the scholars he put on the board of AfricanDNA, the scientists behind Family Tree DNA—except the foundation Skip Gates announced, got publicity from, and then abandoned without, so far as one can tell, having put a single dollar into its coffers…..