White Supremacists Are Using Genetic Ancestry Tests For A Creepy Purpose

DNA companies promote their tests as the end of discrimination. That's not what's happening.

It’s a marketing trope often repeated in viral, feel-good commercials for genetic ancestry tests: If we only knew just how related we all were, even distantly, then prejudice and racism would cease to exist.

But new research at the University of California, Los Angeles, finds the opposite: White supremacists do not especially care what their genetic ancestry tests show, if they reveal anything that doesn’t conform with their claimed white heritage. At the same time, these genetic tests may actually be exciting to white supremacists because it gives them a scientific argument for the diversity of the European “race,” which helps them appropriate the language of diversity and multiculturalism for hateful purposes.

The findings, presented at the American Sociological Association this week and to be published in a forthcoming journal article, are a sober reminder that it takes a lot more than genetic proof of multiethnic ancestry to dissuade hard-core racists from their hateful ideology. In fact, the tests may bolster some of their beliefs.

“We can’t rely on genetic information to turn white nationalists away from their views,” researcher Aaron Panofsky wrote in an email to HuffPost. “I saw a tweet that said we should crowdfund [genetic ancestry tests] for these guys and that would end the movement. I think that is completely wrong and the genetics can’t save us.”

In a video posted on the Ancestry.com YouTube page, one participant says, “There would be no such thing as, like, extremism in the world if people knew their heritage like that.”

Genetic ancestry tests require people to spit into tubes and send the saliva samples to a lab for analysis. A few weeks later, they are directed to a website that reveals their genetic heritage. All genetic ancestry companies compare a person’s genome with a proprietary database of reference populations, and show percentages of DNA defined racially, ethnically, continentally, or by modern nation-states. So, a person may be 87 percent East Asian in one company’s test, but 67 percent Chinese in another company’s test.The services also analyze mitochondrial DNA passed down from the mother, and Y-chromosome DNA passed down from the father to sons, to assess how ancestors may have migrated over time.

For genealogy hobbyists, it’s a good way to search for long-lost relatives to complete the family tree. Recent news articles, however, have highlighted a dark side of these tests, as they can also reveal long-hidden genetic secrets, like true paternity or the fact that babies may have been switched at birth.

While genetic ancestry tests have the veneer of scientific accuracy, they have come under attack by scientists. As Panofsky and Donovan put it in their forthcoming paper, the tests “trade on the authority of science but do not adhere to scientific standards of openness and accountability.” Further, there are no industry standards or uniformity. Each company has their own trademarked panel of population samples, algorithms and DNA markers, and consumers may get different ― or even conflicting results ― from company to company. And this confusion doesn’t even get into the messiness of the history of human civilization: What would 75 percent “Spanish” mean with the nation-state of Spain’s history of invasions, wars and immigration patterns?

To examine how white supremacists use these tests, Panofsky and co-author Joan Donovan scoured the discussion boards of Stormfront, the oldest online forum for white supremacists, and identified 153 people who had posted the results of their genetic ancestry tests for comment.

Fifty-three of the people who posted were happy about “good news” that confirmed their European heritage, 49 posted their results because they were confused or disappointed, and 51 posted results without comment, although other forum members were free to discuss them.

Panofsky’s first observation was that, despite the promises of those sappy viral videos, not a single person renounced their hateful beliefs in reaction to their test results. He also was surprised that Stormfront members were willing to post their “bad news” results, even though the rules of membership are that people must have all-white, non-Jewish ancestry.

For some white supremacists who found links to Jewish or other non-European people groups, feedback from the forum ranged from “never breed,” to more gentle assurances that as long as they didn’t “see Jew” when they looked in the mirror, they could claim whiteness.

Finally, Panofsky observed that members were having in-depth discussions in an attempt to explain away undesirable ancestry by suggesting the test itself was either invalid (a Jewish conspiracy to confuse white people, for example) or the test’s methodology and statistical analysis were flawed.

“They have very sophisticated interpretations that are based on statistical, genetic, and historical reasoning,” Panofsky said. “The conclusions and interpretations they make are often not the ones professional geneticists, biological anthropologists, and historians would make, but these interpretations are not ignorant or uneducated.”

Perhaps most disturbing, some white supremacists are taking news of their heritage from multiple European countries and using it to create a pallete of diversity that doesn’t include people of color.

“A person’s test might come back 30 percent English, 20 percent Danish, 40 percent German, etc., and this looks like great diversity within Europeans without people of color being involved,” Panofsky explained. “Already some white nationalists portray white people as the ‘true’ people of color (red hair, blond, brown, and black hair; blue, green, and brown eyes; pale to olive skin etc.), while seeing non-whites as all the same.”

Regardless of how white supremacists see it, the historical definition of “whiteness” is a socially constructed, ever-shifting categorization. In the 19th century, superior whites were of “Saxon” stock, and didn’t include the Irish, Italian or Eastern European Jews. Over time, some of these groups gained entry into “whiteness,” while others didn’t.

Now, it appears that genetic ancestry tests complicate whiteness even further ― and not in the way that genetic ancestry testing companies anticipated.

America does not do a good job of tracking incidents of hate and bias. We need your help to create a database of such incidents across the country, so we all know what’s going on. Tell us your story.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly described genetic ancestry techniques to trace human migration patterns. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mothers to children, while Y-Chromosome DNA is passed down from fathers to sons.

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