Jedidiah Carlson was googling a genetics research paper when he stumbled upon the white nationalist forum Stormfront. Carlson is a graduate student at the University of Michigan, and he is—to be clear—absolutely not a white nationalist. But one link led to another and he ended up reading page after page of Stormfront discussions on the reliability of 23andMe ancestry results and whether Neanderthal interbreeding is the reason for the genetic superiority of whites. Obsession with racial purity is easily channeled, apparently, into an obsession with genetics.
Stormfront has been around since the ’90s, which means it’s been around for the entirety of the genomic revolution. The major milestones in human genetics—sequencing of the first human genome, genetic confirmation that humans came out of Africa, the first mail-in DNA ancestry tests—they’re all there, refracted through the lens of white nationalism. Sure, the commentators sometimes disagreed with scientific findings or mischaracterized them, but they could also be serious about understanding genetics. “The threads would turn into an informal tutoring session and journal club,” observes Carlson. “Some of the posters have a really profound understanding of everyday concepts in population genetics.”
Carlson had stumbled upon Stormfront months ago. As Donald Trump’s election went from unlikely hypothetical to reality, he began tweeting out the disturbing discussions he found—as a call to action for fellow geneticists. “In light of the current political climate,” he says, “I think there’s a much more present danger for our scientific work to become weaponized to enact these ethno-nationalist policies.”
Of course, that is hardly a novel danger. In the early 20th century, Americans used eugenics to justify restrictions on immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Then the world changed. The Nazis lost World War II and the racial policies they promulgated became abhorrent. Eugenics turned into a cautionary tale.
Modern geneticists now take pains to distance their work from the racist assumptions of eugenics. Yet since the dawn of the genomic revolution, sociologists and historians have warned that even seemingly benign genetics research can reinforce a belief that different races are essentially different—an argument made most famously by Troy Duster in his book Backdoor to Eugenics. If a genetic test can identify you as 78 percent Norwegian, 12 percent Scottish, and 10 percent Italian, then it’s easy to assume there is such thing as white DNA. If scientists find that a new drug works works better in African Americans because of a certain mutation common among them, then it’s easy to believe that races are genetically meaningful categories.
The problem is not with the science per se, but with the set of underlying assumptions about race that we always imprint on the latest science. True, genetics has led to real breakthroughs in medicine, but it is also the latest in a centuries-long effort to understand biological differences. “In a sense, genetics is a modern version of what early scientists were doing in terms of their studies of skulls or blood type,” says Ann Morning, a sociologist at New York University. “We have a long history of turning to whatever we think is the most authoritative sense of knowledge and expecting to find race proved or demonstrated there.” And like its predecessors, genetics is vulnerable to misuse by those with racist agendas.
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In the genomic age, it is now easy to compare the DNA of people from around the world. And it has indeed revealed that our racial categories are fuzzy proxies for genetic difference—an African man may be more closely related to an Asian than to another African. And to put it in perspective, all of the genetic diversity in humans comprises just 0.1 percent of the human genome.
This has inspired the line that race isn’t real—it’s a pure social construction and biologically meaningless. “Yet the lay person will ridicule that position as nonsense,” write geneticists Sarah Tishkoff and Kenneth Kidd in the journal Nature Genetics, “because people from different parts of the world look different, whereas people from the same part of the world tend to look similar.”
The trouble with the way we talk about race is that our biological differences are by degree rather by category. The borders of a country or continent are not magical lines that demarcate one genetically distinct population from another. “There are no firm and clear boundaries if you sample every grid on Earth,” Tishkoff told me. But because we lack a common vocabulary to talk about these differences between people by degree, we draw boundaries with our words and categorize them: Korean, Mongol, Asian.
Those boundaries will depend who is drawing them and where and when. What race, for example, are Mexicans? In the 1930 U.S. census, Mexicans were their own racial category. In 1940, a court ruled that Mexicans were not eligible for citizenship because they were not white (under a law at the time), so President Roosevelt decided to count Mexicans as white in that year’s census order to shore up Mexican relations. In 1980, the census began distinguishing between race and ethnicity, allowing respondents to choose among several races and answer yes or no on Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.*
Even though geneticists know how messy these racial categories are, the categories are still deeply rooted in biomedical research. The U.S. National Institute of Health, the country’s largest funder of biomedical research, requires researchers to collect data on the race and ethnicity of clinical research participants. So when scientists go to analyze their data, one of the things they can always do is look for differences between the races. The very act of collecting data defines the questions scientists do ask. “There’s this idea there that data collection is somehow a neutral activity,” says Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, a medical anthropologist and bioethicist at Stanford. “We should disabuse ourselves of it.”
Implicit in the requirement to collect race data is a belief that race must be biologically meaningful in health. And this ends up producing research that reinforces this belief. The emphasis on race, says Duster who is now at Berkeley, “is so deeply in the structure of genetic medicine now, you cannot disentangle.” A study might find, for example, African Americans have higher rates of diabetes, prompting headlines about racial disparities and even more research into the genetics of African Americans with diabetes. But the focus on genes in African Americans elides the fact that such differences might predominantly come from a disproportionate number of them living in poverty.
Genetics has allowed scientists to start probing exactly how much innate genetic differences between races do matter in health, but this has unintended consequences, too. Jo Phelan, a sociologist recently retired from Columbia, has devised studies seeing how simply reading a news article about racial differences in genetic risk for heart attacks reinforces the belief that whites and African Americans are essentially different. The problem is that these differences are statistical—a mutation may be more prevalent in African Americans but that doesn’t mean every African American has it. There is no gene or set of genes that consistently codes for black, white, or any other race.
“There’s nothing wrong with looking at genetics differences and health outcomes, but why does there have to be so much emphasis on race?” says Phelan. “Why not other physical distinctions?”
Now the falling cost of technology has made the results of DNA sequencing available to anyone willing to shell out a couple hundred bucks to companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Phelan has done similar studies on how such mail-in DNA tests reinforce a belief in racial differences. In a survey of over 500 participants, she found that reading about DNA ancestry tests increased one’s belief in essential differences between racial groups. And one group intensely interested in getting DNA ancestry tests? White nationalists, which Elspeth Reeve chronicled in an excellent piece in Vice earlier this year.
DNA ancestry tests can be flawed in a number of ways, and one of the flaws is how much they actually reflect the past. The percentages they report—like 62 percent Scandinavian, 13 percent British and Irish, 5 percent Finnish, and so on—are based on a statistical analysis of people currently living in those areas. For example, says Morning, “They may say you are descended from the Igbo people of Nigeria based on the database of people collected living in Nigeria today and from your DNA today. But we don’t know if those people were there in that place then, or when they got there. Were they moved around by the British? Who was where at what time?”
Yet this temporal disjunction is papered over, almost deliberately, in the interpretation of ancestry DNA tests. After all, they promise to tell us where our ancestors lived in their time. DNA ancestry tests go back to a specific historic moment—a time when people were easier to categorize, a time before immigration but after migration. Go back too far, of course, and everyone is African. Go back not far enough and populations are already too scrambled by immigration and colonization. It only makes sense to talk about ancestry tests that spit out country of origin by percentage if you privilege a specific slice of time about 500 years ago. White nationalists like those on Stormfront, which claims to support a “homeland for all peoples” as long as people go back to their “original” homelands, explicitly appeal to a return to that past.
“White supremacists are kind of the tip of the iceberg when it comes to beliefs about race,” says Morning. Their rhetoric is extreme, of course, but the idea that race represents real biological differences is pervasive. Genetics are just the latest frontier.
* This article originally misstated that the census began distinguishing between race and ethnicity in 2000. We regret the error.