It 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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  • Any society which has a form of apartheid, a caste system or one group being owned by another views the lowest class / caste etc. as inferior and rationalizes that the people of those groups are therefore to be the chattels of the dominant group/s. They are to be used as forced labor, for amusement or pleasure such as sex, as “wives”, servants and housekeepers regardless of gender, age etc. Every one of these societies, and they comprise the majority, are found to have at least 10% of its population descended from mixed relations of some kind. So Craig Cobb with your 14 % you are obviously one of the 10%. It is likely that your white grandfather or great grandfather had sex with or raped a woman of color. If you grew up in the south is is even more likely that you will be one of the 10%. How do you think we got what we call “black” people who have much lighter skin than others or who even pass as “white”? Welcome to the club!

  • Brent Holman:

    “Accident Of History Is Why White Europeans Ended Up On Top Anyway.”

    Scientific American said it was no accident. Homo Sapiens developed communication skills among themselves that allowed them to develop other skills, that allowed them to wipe out other homonoids.

    • Dana, Europeans aren’t the only Homo Sapiens. All humans alive today, white, black, yellow, African, Asian, Arab, Europeans etcetera are all Homo Sapiens. Your statement may explain why Homo Sapiens ended up “on top” but not why Europeans “ended up on top”.

      Whilst it is debateable whether Europeans really are “on top” – the Chinese would disagree – human races are in a state of perpetual flux, different regions achieving dominance at different times of history.

      What usually enables one region to achieve dominance is an exchange of ideas by migration and the decline of other regions through natural disasters. The Middle East has thrived in the past as it is the nexus between Europe, Asia and Africa; the US thrived as it is a melting pot; Europe thived when it opened up to ideas from around the world. Nothing is static.

    • Earth Citizen: Mass migration and diversity have been one of the most common factors behind the collapse of civilizations. Such as Rome and Egypt for instance. So no, a society/empire does not achieve dominance through committing ethnic suicide, duh – how can that even be? People in this comment section need to read more history and less leftist propaganda.

  • I haven’t had a DNA test, never was really interested. I know my family mostly comes from Scotland and Germany, but I have wondered if one German great-
    grandfather might have been Jewish because he refused to talk about his family. which seemed strange to me. Not that I ever cared, but this article makes me wonder how being Jewish would appear in the DNA test. After the diaspora Jews lived for generations all over the place. How would a Polish Jew still show Jewish as one from, say, France or Argentina? I’ve always thought Jewishness was a religion not a physical thing.

    • It does show up on 23andMe. From my own personal report, this is what it had to say for my ancestral composition for Ashkenazi Jew:

      “Ashkenazi Jews are thought to have settled in Central and Eastern Europe about 1,000 years ago. DNA shows clearly the connections among those who consider themselves to be Ashkenazi Jewish: two Ashkenazi Jewish people are very likely to be “genetic cousins”, sharing long stretches of identical DNA.”

      More detailed information is here: https://www.23andme.com/ancestry-composition-guide/

  • I have taken a few DNA tests of my own and I found it very curious that only 23andme identified any Jewish blood for me. It is the widely-spread pattern of self-misidentification by false Jews that has influenced the company’s results. The other tests that I have done with other companies, curiously appear not to be prone to this bias. Perhaps it is a little paranoid to declare that this a purposeful plot to promote diversity – but in our modern politically correct toxic culture, I could not honestly say that that would come as a surprise.

    • Well, there are lots of non-Ashkenazi Jews. The Sephardim, for starters. But my family is Ashkenazi, and we’re all blonde and blue-eyed and fair skinned with non-Jewish noses. That’s what happens when you’re being oppressed by a blond-haired, blue eyed people.

    • @Bogdan Are you talking about the data sets they use? They don’t go only on self identification, it’s backed up by genetic testing. For Ashkenazi jews, there is high genetic distinction since they were highly isolated. Their haplotype is easily identifiable.

    • JEWS and NOT JEWS *****ALL** WE COME FROM THERESA and his HUSBAND where they GREW UP in CENTRAL AFRICA about 2.000.000 years ago and THEY walk **in cuatro patas** (on four foots) . THE actuals HUMANS BEENS are as RIDICULOS as STUPID that will send THEMS to the AUTODESTRUCTION .

  • Typical of the Alt-right to reject scientific evidence when they don’t like the conclusion to which it points.

    “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

  • Semi related, Trump asks a reporter if we should take down statues of Jefferson because he was a huge slave owner?

    I say yes. Founding father or not, owning human beings as property is morally and spirtually wrong and celebrating a person who practiced those ideals IS immoral, regardless if in his time it was “normalized”. What if we found out Jefferson also molested and trafficked children as sex slaves? How would we view and celebrate him then?

    Symbols like statues that represent oppression of others have no business sitting next to public buildings like courthouses that are supposed to represent all of it’s citizens, according to the ideals of the United States. Put them in a museum if they must serve as a reminder of how not to be a decent human being.

    • I do not agree. You cannot judge and condemn historical figures by the morality standards of today.

      Yes, we can say and point out, that they were wrong by our standards of today. But you cannot judge them as terrible human beings for doing what was morally acceptable in the time they lived in.

      You don’t need to celebrate them either of course, and parking those statues in museums might be the best option I suppose.

      But you cannot try to wipe away history. No matter how many statues you take down, the historical events still happened.

      And whether you consider Jefferson a terrible human being for owning slaves, remember that those that revere him do so for other reasons, not because he was a slave owner. You cannot just point to the bad someone has done and ignore the good, because it fits with you ideals.

    • @Jingizu, American History books already do what you suggest cannot be done, “But you cannot try to wipe away history”. For generations, schools have used history books that leave out very real and important history because it did fit the “ideals” of America or the events that revealed atrocities. Even if some unsavory historial events are mentioned, they are presented with extreme bias and spin.

      Our own Thanksgiving holiday is tauted for many if the amazing things we hope for, gratefulness for bounty when the historical reality is that it was more a rob and pillage your neighbor…and so many other historical examples. Sadly, people can attempt and successfully alter history.

    • @Jingizu, I think you are correct in that we can remove flags and statues all day and the problem will continue because it is the hate in people’s hearts that needs removing.

    • Sure, history books (and the media) leave out important facts. Have you ever heard of the 100.000s of Europeans who disppeared in the North African “barbary” slave trade after being kidnapped? I guess not. Heck, this still goes on in Eastern Europe today, thanks to the human trafficking mob. Thousands of Slavic girls are kidnapped and sold on the underground Middle Eastern slave market every year.

  • What many don’t realize is that the science on genetics and population shifts is not conclusive by any means. Science is still, in 2017 trying to understand the extent of cross-breading with an entirely seperate hominoid species, we know as the Neanderthals, (there are about 16 other humanoid species discovered besides Homosapien I believe, maybe more or more to be discovered) and we have missing links between the evolution chain of ape to human, let alone the invasion and cross breeding of racial groups, societies and tribes that happened countless times throughout history.

    The point is the science is not fully baked. And does that stop any of us from living a good and positive life right now? The only way one could be limited is mentally.

    Does it really matter where any of us come from that determines any kind of limitations one can’t overcome, besides perhaps geo political?

    People commonly confuse nationalism and geographical customs with genetics. By this period in our history, hardly anyone alive is genetically “pure”, unless one desries to be a Chimpanzee.

    In fact, we need to remove the word “pure” from our mental vocabulary. Genetics are about DNA and it’s variance is where the science becomes particulary interesting.

    Religion has done a lot of damage to cement ideas and concepts of “us against them”. The quicker we as a global society can remove ideas of “good vs. evil”, the quicker we can treat one another as relative to ourselves, and the quicker we will realize our full potential and strength as a species, and may have a shot at saving it.

    These white supremacist are practicing a ritual that was created before we had concrete science. Customs and ideas like this have no intelligent place in society in 2017. It’s akin to still believing the Earth is flat. It’s time to graduate.

    • Everyone has 3-5% Neanderthal DNA, Except Some Africans Living In Africa That Have None, Which Makes Them The Purest Form Of Homo-Sapiens
      On The Planet. Kinda Knocks The White Supremacists’ Ideology Out.
      Accident Of History Is Why White Europeans Ended Up On Top Anyway.
      The Fine Print Says Ancestry.com OWNS The DNA People Send In Forever, By The Way

    • No there aren’t any “missing links”, please stop repeating this unscientific nonsense. That term is something evolution deniers made up, it’s not real, evolution doesn’t work that way, there are no missing links to find.

    • No missing links, and no ancestry from apes. That is a load bullshyte the evolution-deniers are spreading around.

      We did not evolve from apes. We and the apes shared a common ancestor, millions of years ago.

      @ Brent Holman – yes, the tribes in Southern Africa that never migrated are the only homo sapiens that do not have a trace of Neanderthal DNA. All other homo sapiens have Neanderthal DNA, as you say.

    • Matthew, you’re the one who seems to be confused. The word ‘nationalism’ literally points to having common blood ties. Whether you like it or not, blood ties are what make a nation and have always been and always will be politically relevant. Plus, science knows race is real – and it’s quite obvious too. If anyone, it’s the race denialists who are the flat earthers who need to graduate.

  • I used ancestry.com and discovered that I am 100% European. I wasn’t surprised about that, but I did discover that I had ancestors from Poland and Finland (which I knew), England, Russia, Ireland and Scandinavia. Very interesting.

  • These pathetic losers have nothing going for them except, hey, they were clever enough to get born. They are the schoolyard bullies, who are so insecure that they have to find something, anything, to distinguish themselves and to antagonize others. The hatred that arises from their insecurity actually reflects their recognition that others are brighter, better athletes or simply better human beings than they are.

    • @Charles Ludmer:

      I agree about subconscious insecurities, but not all white supremacists fit that persona, and I think we should be careful in attaching a board prescription like this upon them all.

      At our core, we are all insecure or afraid of something, and we need to draw upon these commonalities to help these people get past their destructive and ignorant viewpoints. A lot of them have been indoctrinated form birth, but that does not mean they’re throw away trash. It means they need help from those of us that see what they are unable or unwilling to see. Wishing harm, hate or even death upon them closes your own spiritual path towards liberation from suffering.

      The first victim of the car that plowed into the crowd that killed a beautiful young woman is actually the driver. His karmic record is dark, and he will suffer the most, and endlessly until he choices to become more educated and more compassionate of others. It’s this type of big picture view that is needed to bring this issue this country faces to healing.

      I know this is a hard line to tow in a country that is steep in self interest, but it is the ONLY way out.

  • Setting aside the undeniable scadenfreude at the racists’ results, mistakes do happen. An African-American friend of my was identified as being exclusively Chinese and Hawaiian! No idea how that happened, but I do wonder if someone is sitting on the Big Island scratching their head in utter bafflement.

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