Advertisements for DNA ancestry tests are ubiquitous. Any U.S. consumer with a television has undoubtedly seen a commercial like the one featuring “Kyle.” In his AncestryDNA testimonial, Kyle states:
Growing up, we were German. We danced in a German dance group. I wore lederhosen. When I first got on Ancestry, I was really surprised that I wasn’t finding all of these Germans in my tree. I decided to have my DNA tested through AncestryDNA. The big surprise was, we are not German at all. Fifty-two percent of my DNA comes from Scotland and Ireland. So, I traded in my lederhosen for a kilt.
There are many people like Kyle. Almost thirty million individuals worldwide have taken DNA ancestry tests,
and analysts predict that by 2021 this number could exceed 100 million.
This growing popularity shows that human beings are very interested in our genetic makeups and in our genealogies. We are seeking a richer understanding of ourselves and of our identities, and perhaps a stronger sense of connectedness to our ancestors.
While some observers view DNA ancestry tests as purely “recreational,”
these tests can have a powerful effect on both the individuals who take them and on society as a whole. For some individuals, test results may affirm a sense of personal identity or open up new avenues for racial and ethnic exploration.
DNA ancestry testing is largely a positive experience for this group. For others, however, the tests may create an inner sense of conflict if the results deviate from how the individual views herself or how others perceive her identity. Whether positively or negatively received, the results of these tests could unfortunately reinforce the belief that race is biological.
In particular, challenges arise when one considers that DNA ancestry tests are touted as revealing a person’s “real” or “true” racial or ethnic identity. This conflation of race and genetics was apparent in the back-and-forth between President Donald Trump and Senator Elizabeth Warren over Warren’s claimed Native American ancestry.
In a July 2018 campaign rally, Trump threatened to expose Warren’s alleged racial fraud by demanding that she take a DNA test.
Trump’s argument, at least initially, was that the DNA ancestry test would reveal who Warren “really is.”
Similarly, Kyle’s testimonial reduces race or ethnicity to his genetic code. Kyle said that he grew up German. His family danced in a German dance group. He wore lederhosen. His family likely ate German-inspired food. Yet, Kyle seems to have largely abandoned his German cultural heritage for a new ethnicity based solely on biology—that is, based on his DNA ancestry test results.
While Kyle’s case seems to involve only a question of personal identity and Trump’s challenge to Warren was largely political gamesmanship, DNA ancestry tests raise other social and legal concerns. Consider the following: For most of his life, Ralph Taylor identified as white. In 2010, however, Taylor began identifying as Black
after a DNA ancestry test indicated that he was ninety percent Caucasian, six percent indigenous American, and four percent sub-Saharan African.
Based on these results, Taylor—who owns an insurance company—sought government certification as a minority-owned business to augment his chances of securing government contracts.
When the government refused the requested certification, Taylor sued alleging race discrimination.
Consider also Cleon Brown, a police officer in Hastings, Michigan. Like Taylor, Brown identified as white for most of his life.
When a DNA ancestry test indicated that eighteen percent of his DNA traced to sub-Saharan Africa, Brown shared this information with his colleagues.
Brown alleged that his fellow officers subsequently subjected him to a racially hostile environment.
Brown made several allegations. The police chief called him “Kunta,” after the main character, an enslaved African, in Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots.
Colleagues whispered “Black Lives Matter” when Brown passed them in the department’s corridors.
Someone put a Black Santa with eighteen percent written on it in Brown’s office Christmas stocking.
Hastings’s mayor, upon learning of Brown’s DNA ancestry test results, told Brown a racist joke repeatedly using the word “Negroid.”
Brown sued the City of Hastings for race discrimination under federal and state laws.
In the foregoing examples, DNA ancestry test results contributed to a change in identity. We call this construction of identity, based largely on DNA ancestry test results, “genetic ethnicity” or “genetic race.” While much of the analysis herein is readily applicable to ethnicity, this Essay focuses primarily on genetic race.
The above examples also illustrate some of the complex questions raised by genetic race and demonstrate the potential for genetic racism. First, what is race? And what happens when a person’s genetic ancestry conflicts with their previously self-identified race or the way in which others view their racial identity? For example, before receiving their ancestry test results, Ralph Taylor and Cleon Brown self-identified as white. Moreover, based upon their physical appearances, many—if not most—Americans would have classified Brown and Taylor as white. Yet, in their complaints, both men claimed to be Black or African American because their DNA ancestry tests revealed some percentage of sub-Saharan African ancestry. Are Taylor and Brown Black? Should courts allow their discrimination lawsuits to proceed?
Second, how should genetic notions of race affect assessments of racial composition and diversity in organizations? Should employers, colleges, and demographers rely on DNA ancestry test results when measuring diversity? Should Ralph Taylor, and others like him, now qualify for race-conscious affirmative action based on their ancestry test results?
This Essay explores the ways in which DNA ancestry tests both reflect and shape understandings of race in the United States and how these tests may complicate various social policies and legal doctrines. We acknowledge that people may incorporate their DNA ancestry test results into their own racial and ethnic identities and that these tests may shape individual conceptions of identity.
We caution, however, against conflating genetics with lived identities and sociopolitical categories, and ultimately reject the concept of genetic race for legal or other policy purposes.
The analysis proceeds as follows. Part I traces the development of the DNA ancestry testing industry, explains how ancestry tests work, and considers their inherent limitations as proxies for racial and ethnic identity. Part I also explores the various ways in which people respond to test results and explains how some responses reinforce biological understandings of race. Part II analyzes the historical development of biological race and explains how this concept has been used in the United States to create, justify, and sustain racial hierarchy. This Part also explains how biological race, and its recent equivalent—genetic race—conflict with modern understandings of race as a social construction. Part III shows how genetic race may lead to accusations of racial fraud or cultural appropriation. It also examines how the rule of hypodescent—also known as the “one-drop rule”—creates a racial asymmetry with regard to who may claim a new identity based upon DNA ancestry test results. Part IV considers three areas in which litigants and other actors may be tempted to rely on genetic race: (1) employment discrimination, (2) race-conscious initiatives, and (3) immigration. We conclude that relying on genetic race is problematic, given the shortcomings of DNA ancestry tests and the social repercussions of treating the results of these tests as proxies for racial and ethnic identity.