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t was a strange moment of triumph against racism: The gun-slinging white supremacist Craig Cobb, dressed up for daytime TV in a dark suit and red tie, hearing that his DNA testing revealed his ancestry to be only “86 percent European, and … 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.” The studio audience whooped and laughed and cheered. And Cobb — who was, in 2013, charged with terrorizing people while trying to create an all-white enclave in North Dakota — reacted like a sore loser in the schoolyard.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, just wait a minute,” he said, trying to put on an all-knowing smile. “This is called statistical noise.”

Then, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he took to the white nationalist website Stormfront to dispute those results. That’s not uncommon: With the rise of spit-in-a-cup genetic testing, there’s a trend of white nationalists using these services to prove their racial identity, and then using online forums to discuss the results.

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But like Cobb, many are disappointed to find out that their ancestry is not as “white” as they’d hoped. In a new study, sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan examined years’ worth of posts on Stormfront to see how members dealt with the news.

It’s striking, they say, that white nationalists would post these results online at all. After all, as Panofsky put it, “they will basically say if you want to be a member of Stormfront you have to be 100 percent white European, not Jewish.”

But instead of rejecting members who get contrary results, Donovan said, the conversations are “overwhelmingly” focused on helping the person to rethink the validity of the genetic test. And some of those critiques — while emerging from deep-seated racism — are close to scientists’ own qualms about commercial genetic ancestry testing.

Panofsky and Donovan presented their findings at a sociology conference in Montreal on Monday. The timing of the talk — some 48 hours after the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — was coincidental. But the analysis provides a useful, if frightening, window into how these extremist groups think about their genes.

Reckoning with results

Stormfront was launched in the mid-1990s by Don Black, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His skills in computer programming were directly related to his criminal activities: He learned them while in prison for trying to invade the Caribbean island nation of Dominica in 1981, and then worked as a web developer after he got out. That means this website dates back to the early years of the internet, forming a kind of deep archive of online hate.

To find relevant comments in the 12 million posts written by over 300,000 members, the authors enlisted a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, to search for terms like “DNA test,” “haplotype,” “23andMe,” and “National Geographic.” Then the researchers combed through the posts they found, not to mention many others as background. Donovan, who has moved from UCLA to the Data & Society Research Institute, estimated that she spent some four hours a day reading Stormfront in 2016. The team winnowed their results down to 70 discussion threads in which 153 users posted their genetic ancestry test results, with over 3,000 individual posts.

About a third of the people posting their results were pleased with what they found. “Pretty damn pure blood,” said a user with the username Sloth. But the majority didn’t find themselves in that situation. Instead, the community often helped them reject the test, or argue with its results.

Some rejected the tests entirely, saying that an individual’s knowledge about his or her own genealogy is better than whatever a genetic test can reveal. “They will talk about the mirror test,” said Panofsky, who is a sociologist of science at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. “They will say things like, ‘If you see a Jew in the mirror looking back at you, that’s a problem; if you don’t, you’re fine.'” Others, he said, responded to unwanted genetic results by saying that those kinds of tests don’t matter if you are truly committed to being a white nationalist. Yet others tried to discredit the genetic tests as a Jewish conspiracy “that is trying to confuse true white Americans about their ancestry,” Panofsky said.

But some took a more scientific angle in their critiques, calling into doubt the method by which these companies determine ancestry — specifically how companies pick those people whose genetic material will be considered the reference for a particular geographical group.

And that criticism, though motivated by very different ideas, is one that some researchers have made as well, even as other scientists have used similar data to better understand how populations move and change.

“There is a mainstream critical literature on genetic ancestry tests — geneticists and anthropologists and sociologists who have said precisely those things: that these tests give an illusion of certainty, but once you know how the sausage is made, you should be much more cautious about these results,” said Panofsky.

A community’s genetic rules

Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe are meticulous in how they analyze your genetic material. As points of comparison, they use both preexisting datasets as well as some reference populations that they have recruited themselves. The protocol includes genetic material from thousands of individuals, and looks at thousands of genetic variations.

“When a 23andMe research participant tells us that they have four grandparents all born in the same country — and the country isn’t a colonial nation like the U.S., Canada, or Australia — that person becomes a candidate for inclusion in the reference data,” explained Jhulianna Cintron, a product specialist at 23andMe. Then, she went on, the company excludes close relatives, as that could distort the data, and removes outliers whose genetic data don’t seem to match with what they wrote on their survey.

But specialists both inside and outside these companies recognize that the geopolitical boundaries we use now are pretty new, and so consumers may be using imprecise categories when thinking about their own genetic ancestry within the sweeping history of human migration. And users’ ancestry results can change depending on the dataset to which their genetic material is being compared — a fact which some Stormfront users said they took advantage of, uploading their data to various sites to get a more “white” result.

J. Scott Roberts, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, who has studied consumer use of genetic tests and was not involved with the study, said the companies tend to be reliable at identifying genetic variants. Interpreting them in terms of health risk or ancestry, though, is another story. “The science is often murky in those areas and gives ambiguous information,” he said. “They try to give specific percentages from this region, or x percent disease risk, and my sense is that that is an artificially precise estimate.”

For the study authors, what was most interesting was to watch this online community negotiating its own boundaries, rethinking who counts as “white.” That involved plenty of contradictions. They saw people excluded for their genetic test results, often in very nasty (and unquotable) ways, but that tended to happen for newer members of the anonymous online community, Panofsky said, and not so much for longtime, trusted members. Others were told that they could remain part of white nationalist groups, in spite of the ancestry they revealed, as long as they didn’t “mate,” or only had children with certain ethnic groups. Still others used these test results to put forth a twisted notion of diversity, one “that allows them to say, ‘No, we’re really diverse and we don’t need non-white people to have a diverse society,'” said Panofsky.

That’s a far cry from the message of reconciliation that genetic ancestry testing companies hope to promote.

“Sweetheart, you have a little black in you,” the talk show host Trisha Goddard told Craig Cobb on that day in 2013. But that didn’t stop him from redoing the test with a different company, trying to alter or parse the data until it matched his racist worldview.

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  • One of the most basic, perhaps even primal, narratives templated on the human psyche is the pedigree mythos. People have long feared opprobrium, banishment, or attack by their community, so the narrative—however concocted—strives to rationalize inclusion, whether by simple bloodline ancestry or a legendary alliance and subsequent intermarriage of mutually shared interests, replete with heroic deeds and magical conceptions. Even more weighty and likely to have been recorded in historical document was (~/is?) the leader’s pedigree which legitimized his (sometimes her) status in historical, quasi-legal, and magical religious terms. European heraldry illustrates the overweening importance political intervenors and medieval societies put on aristocratic pedigree. It was recognized that such stability as Europe ever had amongst warrior principalities depended on generally accepted—if not entirely believed—pedigree narratives.

    For narratives these pedigrees were: nothing, not even terror, instills acquienscence among peasants, soldiers and nobles alike than a good story. History documents how illiterate conquering Germanic kinglets paid subjected Romano-British Christians to inscribe pedigrees on their behalf, sometimes replete with tales of valour, that connected them in direct line to their Norse gods. Nobody appears to have talen exception to the unabashed revisions, usually with appropriately adjusted tales of valour, required to affect direct bloodlines to Jesus for the newly converted Anglo-Saxon princes, changing in effect the names, places and faces, usually within a 20-generation context, but attempting the same purpose to legitimize the prince and explain in story his inherited magical powers.

    The veracity of the pedigree story isn’t important, nor even its ability to sincerely gull, but rather it’s power to recruit a standard to which uniform loyalty can be devoted serves both leader and followers, all afraid of being cut out of the circle.

    It’s not surprising in this age of political absurdity that veracity is once again so cavalierly ignored. When political cogency is in question, equivocation is resorted to, just as the dark-DNA white-supremacists now have to do in light of modern genetic mapping, just as the scoundrel has always done with patriotism.

    The juxtaposition between racist propaganda and science is not only interesting with respect the current alt-right Trumpoid tumult—for example, racists hypocritically condemning genetic science in a general way that meshes with other controversies like climate change denial, but at the same time citing concerns about popular ancestry-testing services precisely because scientists themselves have expressed similar concerns—it’s also fascinating to observe how little obfuscation is required to have the makings of a great dog-ate-my-homework narrative, the king of convenient facileness. Yet excuses (for not being pure white enough) need no further scrutiny when loyalty is the commodity sought after. It’s truly fascinating that white supremacist brain trusts will readily accommodate a part-white under-class into the gang on condition it refrains from perpetuating its tainted pedigree by “mating”—not just with non-whites, but with whites either. It’s the loyalty that matters, not so much the much vaunted purity.

    White supremacists may be maudlin, intolerant and intolerable, hypocritical and demagogical, they astutely analyze and deploy human prejudices so ingrained even the scientists they arbitrarily cite or condemn are afflicted—and conveniently susceptible. Despite the sheer revelatory massiveness of scientific achievement upon which increasingly sophisticated techniques continually add even more, certain prejudices against new discoveries do crop up among scientists. Perfectly replicable and methodological research that identified Neanderthal ancestry in the genetic constitutions of non-African sapiens today was initially rejected in suspiciously harsh terms by many in the scientific community; yet, once confirmed, the research was quickly expanded to find one, and possibly more, other species of humans who have interbred with ancient Homo sapiens, and thus probably with proto-sapiens too. While scientists cleared cobwebs from their conventional way of thinking, propagandists had already incorporated the findings into new narratives long on conjecture and foregone conclusions to foster an overarching—and probably rooted in the very ancient—narrative that superior whites are beset by non-whites in existential combat. It might once have been a story about peri-sapiens beset by non-sapiens. The question begged is always: how does one discern whiteness if it doesn’t really exist in any sort of pure form? How to enhance the basic “us-against-them” narrative without compromising the role of its obligatory antagonist, “The Other”?

    As kinglets, scientists, and racists have shown, purity only matters from a narratological point-of-view, that is, the extent it contributes to a rousing good story, plausible enough to recruit the loyalty of even the sub-pure. There being in fact no ideal races, the real gradient between anywhere and somewhere can be rationalized through narrative. Once it was sapiens against all other humans, the prize being the whole world (“…subdue the earth and master it,” being the god of Genesis’ first commandment to Adam), but the truly globalized setting today must allow for a fabulous redoubt of white racial purity commanding a loyal non-white subclass to help defend it against a hostile, transterminus world outside. At least that’s the story, one Romas of the Late Empire were familiar with. Many subscribe to it even knowing there’s really no such thing as pure races of any kind. Why? Most likely a primal fear of being ostracized outside the safety of the camp or village. Only necessity will allow the subclass, should one exist in any identifiable way (women have been perennially cast in this role contingent, as the case might be in a primitive society, to a dearth of identifiable ethnic minorities) any status above subservience. Surely federated Germanic princes and Roman elites each had their own versions of explaining tolerance of one another without diminishing their respective racial condescension of each other. Some of their terms and memes survive and are roughly applied to today’s truly globalized situation (Rome, like ancient Egypt or China, was only ideally “globalized”).

    It never had to make more sense than that. BYU in the Mormon capital have assembled the biggest pile of genealogical data in the world which, in addition to the religious purposes it’s actively used for, is available to real scientists who have found, using modern DNA technology, that genealogical veracity is, as told in the family pedigrees of most people fortunate enough to have inherited one, almost completely lost within six generations. It didn’t take scientific advancement to know this: the scribe recommissioned to redact the kinglet’s ancestry probably suspected as much. And narratives to explain it away, such as a kinglet whose legitimacy or claimed magical powers are questioned or a community member whose loyalty is doubted might deploy, have been around in uncountable, particular, but probably few generic forms for a long, long while.

    Genealogical flights of fancy are easy to make up and to believe. Rationalizing the loyalty to any group, or for what purpose or good, not so much. The revolution of DNA testing has provided a global panoply from which propagandists can cherry pick and submit excuses of “statistical noise.” But, outside all the verbiage, lexical and semantical memology, the real nub is the question: why do some people believe white supremacy needs to exist? Why do they feel their ideal is realistically achievable and/or sustainable?

  • “Science,” eh? Can’t argue with “Science!” “Science” is GOD! Well, that’s as ridiculous as most of the other crap I’m reading here in the comments. These DNA tests are wildly inaccurate, particularly the one Craig Cobb was subjected to. For proof, Let’s look at the Dahm Triplets. Identical triplets, so they all have the same DNA, right? They all came from the same egg and the same sperm cell, but one of these “scientific” DNA tests claim different amounts of different ethnicities:

    http://ninjajournalist.com/entertainment/identical-triplets-dna-test/

    What science does reveal to me after reading these comments is how brainwashed most of you are. Most of you are white, and deeply ashamed to be, because this is what the endless stream of propaganda has taught you. You’re weak-minded, foolish parrots, repeating the chorus of your own planned doom. It’s nauseating.

  • “No, we’re really diverse and don’t need non-white people to have a diverse society.”
    That’s because, by your own standards, you ARE non-white, idiot. As is everyone in the worl

  • When ever I have had to answer the question : “What race are you ?” I have always replied “Human” and if the question was asked in person (rather than on a form) I have then asked ” What are you ?” … That usually shuts them up.

  • In the last years of Apartheid in South Africa, the ruling Boers (descendants of the original white German-Dutch immigrants who first colonized South Africa in the 1600’s) commissioned a wide-ranging study of their genetics hoping to bolster their claim to being a distinct race of pure European ancestry to justify their vile race laws that classified people of mixed ancestry as 2nd class citizens they referred to as “Coloured”. They were shocked to find that it was found that 100% of the Boer descendants were of “mixed race” and that there was likely wide scale inter-marriage (or at least inter-breeding) between the original white colonists and the Black population that continued for several hundred years until the late 1800’s. It proved to be the final nail in the coffin for their “justification” of the racist legal and philosophical underpinnings of the Apartheid regime and led to its subsequent rapid fall.

    • This is ridiculous, these are dangerous and hurtful myths, quite insulting too. Very few Boers have African blood. Likewise, very few white Americans possess some minor black ancestry. A lot seem to think they have some native american in them too though, but they’re equally wrong.

  • Breeds not race. There is one RACE. I prefer to use Breeds rather than ethnic groups as i think it is more fitting. My opinion is racism should be considered ignorant and hate crime. We should also reeducate these people and fine them if they initiate hate in anyway that includes online or off.

    • So because other people have a different idea of how to organise society you want to lock them up and brainwash them? That’s interesting. Typical centrist cuck behaviour. Tell me more of how tolerant you are. Also, science time: no, obviously there’s not a single race, but there’s a human species. I know that doesn’t fit in well with society’s dominant narrative, which you blindly parrot like so many others, but it is what it is.

    • Your ideas happen to be the ideas which are used to justify the ongoing genocidal repopulation of the West by Africans/Asians/Latin American – which is a crime against all white people going by the U.N.’s standard. Are whites still allowed to even exist? This has to stop.

  • it has already been proven scientifically that the origin of ALL human life on earth eminated from within a 200 meter circumference of a location in Africa. to dwell on “anything” racial is nothing but a complete waste of time and energy.

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