Genes for Racists?
From the Series: Evil Infrastructures
What happens when white supremacists take genetic ancestry tests (GAT)? One might think that they would avoid GAT, since genetics has decisively shown the common African ancestry of all people. Furthermore, emerging research on consumers of GAT suggests that white individuals seek them out to search for some kind of exotic, but unknown ethno-racial heritage to spice up their personal histories. However, Jo Phelan and colleagues (Phelan et al. 2014) have shown that GAT encourage people to understand race and racial differences as genetically determined. Thus, perhaps white nationalists would be interested in using GAT to police the boundaries of their community. As John Law, a member of the National Vanguard, said in a 2006 podcast: “Who’s White? . . . Non-Jewish people of wholly European descent. No exceptions.”
Established in 1996, Stormfront has been an online forum for users to ruminate about racial differences, welfare leeches, immigrant invasions, and reviving eugenic social policy. Stormfront posters often assert they are not racists, but are rather fighting to preserve a White Western culture being undermined by a globalized, multicultural society. Fine, but posts overflow with outrageously racist slurs. White nationalists use the site to seek community and counsel, complain about people of color, and even seek dating advice:
I’ve started dating a woman who’s really smart, pretty, funny, and cool . . . except that she mentioned that some great-great relative . . . was Native American. . . . It is bugging me . . . that there is that Native American DNA stuck in her gene pool now and that it may re-emerge from time to time. Am I being overly critical?
So how are GAT interpreted by people with a strong belief in race as a biological essence and the defining characteristic of individual worth and social relations? What kinds of insight could come from people who respond to queries about having a great-great nonwhite ancestor with adages like “if there was a turd in the punch bowl that had been strained out, would you take a drink?”
A team of researchers and I have followed Stormfront discussions where over six hundred individuals have posted their GAT results. Many of these come as good news for white nationalists, either confirming their white purity priors or offering a pleasant surprise: “I was surprised there wasn’t more German. Evidently, the Y DNA said ‘Nordic’ and traces back to the Cimbri tribe, which settled in Denmark.”
But some posters report news that they consider troubling: some fraction of ancestry from nonwhite or non-European populations, or a mitochondrial or Y-DNA haplogroup most commonly found outside Europe. For instance, one wrote: “Hello, got my DNA results and I learned today I am 61 percent European. I am very proud of my white race and my european roots.” Another poster replied: “I've prepared you a drink. It's 61 percent pure water. The rest is potassium cyanide. I assume you have no objections to drinking it. . . . Cyanide isn’t water, and YOU are not White.” Yet such exchanges are actually rare, and are mostly reserved for posters who are taken to be trolls provoking regular Stormfronters.
A more common response to what posters see as “bad news” is identity repair work. One woman discussed the GAT taken by her adopted sister, which “‘predicted’ my sister’s [mtDNA] haplogroup to be L3, which means she’d have to be of African origin. . . . Is it possible for a White person to have this haplogroup? She is tall, has straight blonde hair, dark green eyes, pale skin and NO traits of african ancestry whatsoever.”
Supportive posters warned about possible contamination of the sample and advised a corroborating test. Others talked about Caucasian ties to some of the subbranches of the L3 haplogroup. Still others comforted that even if the result was accurate, after generations of European mixture with that original ancestor, “her percentage of possible foreign ancestry/genetic makeup would then literally be nonexistent, at this point, yet that same mtDNA marker will have still remained.” Responses in this vein often denigrate GAT as a (Jewish) conspiracy “out to prove that race doesn’t exist and [that] we are never ‘full white,’ just because a half evolved ancestor of ours resided in a non-european area.”
One irony is that despite a genetic-determinist ideology of race, Stormfronters are willing to negotiate the meaning of GAT through the same sort of affiliative self-fashioning that Alondra Nelson (2016) identified in African American GAT users. They accept the information that fits with prior identities and deny what doesn’t. Some go even further, using GAT to build theories of race. For example, one poster argued that
non-European ancestry in one’s autosomal DNA isn’t good, but that non-White autosomal DNA can be cut in half every generation. . . . I am more strict with Y and mtDNA haplogroups because these haplogroups are passed from father to son, mother to daughter, and remain virtually unchanged indefinitely. . . . The biracial female with a White Mother or the biracial male with a White father are the lesser of two evils when it comes to potential assimilation.
This update to the one-drop rule leverages information from GAT about the distinction between nonrecombining Y and mtDNA, marking out lineages and autosomal DNA that disclose overall population contributions to one’s DNA inheritance.
White nationalist interpretations of GAT are important because they reflect more than simple ignorance or misunderstanding of the science. Most population geneticists would be appalled at the use of their variation-based research to build typological theories of human classification. But these scientists have produced tools open to such interpretations. GAT rests on an infrastructure presumed to be good and evil in conventional ways: that is, good for citizens to learn about themselves, bad because of privacy threats and undisclosed, open-ended data mining. But what GAT also does is set up a whole new infrastructure for racists to endow their groundless theories with a high-tech scientific imprimatur and to convince each other of the myths that mobilize them as a social group in the first place.
Nelson, Alondra. 2016. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Boston: Beacon Press.
Phelan, Jo C., Bruce G. Link, Sarah Zelner, and Lawrence H. Yang. 2014. “Direct-to-Consumer Racial Admixture Tests and Beliefs About Essential Racial Differences.” Social Psychology Quarterly 77, no. 3: 296–318.