I

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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  • Meh…an exaggeration. How many neo nazis have you talked to? How many of these ‘flocked’ to genetic testing! How many told you the results? How many then disputed the results?

    My extended family dealt with real Nazis in the real world. No need to make a mountain out of a molehill. The real mountain was higher than anything imaginable.

    • Did you read the article at all? It’s largely based on Stormfront posts. Stormfront is undeniably a neo-Nazi website. They describe themselves as white nationalists, and blame the Jews for most/all of the evils of the world, while deliberately using iconography derived from the original Nazis.

      And if your argument is that neo-Nazis aren’t “real” Nazis… why does it matter? They are still literally pushing for driving anyone who isn’t 100% white and non-Jewish out of “white” countries. Them doing so in the modern day doesn’t exactly make it better.

    • Well Amy, white people were chased out of Africa and Asia too after 1945, but curiously, this process was called ‘decolonization’. Food for thought. Personally I see nothing wrong with a nation having its own ethnostate, it’s americanism (another word for globalism and the diversity cult) which has always struck me as weird, unreal and artificial – and completely contradictory to reality. Hence it can’t and won’t last.

  • Dear Sir,

    You and your fellow ” journalists” should be ashamed of yourselves. Why are you focusing on one ignorant group of people instead of reporting the facts. I’m sure you are aware of the violence and hatred on both sides. If you aren’t then you really have no business writing about anything. This country is in serious trouble and people like you are major contributors. It is sad that these words probably fall on deaf ears. Its disheartening when I think of the world we are leaving our children. The hate needs to stop on both sides now!
    Thank you

    • The ignorance is yours if you really believe that the hate is equal on “both sides”. You have been hoodwinked by these neoNazis and Trump’s bile on the matter.

      It is people like you that muddy the water and have their heads buried under the sand that allow the neoNazis to grow and fester like a cancer on society.

      It’s time to come off the fence.

    • Earth Citizen: you’re right about one thing. The “hate” is not equal on all sides, it’s mostly and continuously directed at Anglo-Americans – with the media’s blessing and the approval of the state – and it’s physically violent too. It’s You’re wrong about everything else though.

  • Haven’t taken the test simply because I can’t afford it. Personally I don’t care where your ancestors came from. All I care about is if you are a citizen or a LEGAL resident. America is a melting pot. If you go back far enough, we all come from Africa. Lets be Americans and out aside petty differences and work on solutions to put the record numbers of Americans who are not in the work force back to work.

    • I had my ancestry done free as part of research on a disease I have, by 23andMe. They are trying to locate any genetic causes of the disease. What’s neat about this company is they go back to your % of Neanderthal, which we all are in the final analysis. I am almost 6% Neanderthal. And I couldn’t care less how so-called white I am. What a sad and narrow worldview.

    • Michele, we are not “all Neanderthal”, any more than we are all “bananas”. Yes, we have genes in common with the fruit banana!

      Humans alive today are Homo Sapiens. Neanderthals were a separate species, just like chimpanzee and gorrillas are separate species. There is speculation that Neanderthals may have mated with Homo Sapiens, but is just that: speculation. The Neanderthals went extinct. Let’s leave them there.

    • Rich Vale: because of your reasoning, America is rapidly becoming a third world country. Do you really think that America will remain a first word country when its population is largely non-white, if America turns into Mexico? News flash: it obviously won’t.

  • That’s not unusual for a result. Especially in this country where we’ve become a mixed mongrel bunch of people. The whole idea of Aryan theory in Nazi Germany was to get back to “pure” white people. Hitler basically stated this many times. That what a lot of the experimenting was all about in the camps and so on.

  • If people don’t get off the road the USA is on now, the country will be able to celebrate its “diversity” the same way Yugoslavia did in the 1990s when the country broke up along ethnic lines in a bloody civil way that may killed up 300,000 people. It required US/NATO intervention under Bill Clinton to end the war.

  • Back in the ’70s I actually thought that by the time I got to MY 70s nobody would care one way or another what ancestral mix was in someone’s genetics. My disappointment in today’s race obsessed culture is impossible to express.

  • I would never use the Southern Poverty Law Center as a source, hardly unimpeachable. However, as to the DNA test, LOL that’s where funny spells irony.

  • I am proud to be whom I am no matter of my ancestry. I am a proud native´and white and french person.I love everyone regardless of color. We are all brothers and sisters under the skin.

    • We all bleed red,if we all had the same opinion we would be living in Stepford,Love all humans,so what they don’t go to the same church or not at all,so what who they love,the heart dictates who you love,so what if they have a better tan then you..PPL get over yourselves,diversity is a good thing,there’s good and bad in all cultures,even yours.The hate has to stop,or our children will reap the downfall of it.Remember the only true American is the Native American,our ancestors all came way of Ellis Island,mine from Norway and Turkey..So please find the love in your hearts that I know is there deep down,turn a new leave and say hello to those that are different then you and you will see , that they aren’t so different after all..

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