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Whether you’re a white supremacist, a white nationalist or a member of the “alt-right,” much of your ideology centers around a simple principle: “being white.” The creation of a white ethnostate, populated and controlled by “pure” descendants of white Europeans, ranks high on your priority list.
Yet, when confronted with genetic evidence suggesting someone isn’t “pure blood,” as white supremacists put it, they do not cast the person out of online communities. They bargain.
A new study from UCLA found when genetic ancestry tests like 23andMe spot mixed ancestry among white supremacists, most respond in three ways to discount the results and keep members with “impure” genealogy in their clan. Their reactions range from challenging the basic math behind the tests to accusing Jewish conspirators of sabotage.
But the real takeaway centers on a new, nuanced pattern within white supremacist groups to redefine and solidify their ranks through genetic ancestry testing, said Aaron Panofsky, a UCLA sociologist who co-led the study presented Monday at the American Sociological Association’s 112th annual meeting in Montreal.
“Once they start to see that a lot of members of their community are not going to fit the ‘all-white’ criteria, they start to say, “Well, do we have to think about what percentage [of white European genealogy] could define membership?” said Aaron Panofsky, a UCLA sociologist who co-led the study presented Monday at the American Sociological Association’s 112th annual meeting in Montreal.
And this co-opting of science raises an important reminder: The best way to counter white supremacists may not be to fight their alternative facts with logical ones, according to people who rehabilitate far-right extremists.
To catalog white supremacists’ reactions to genetic ancestry results, this study logged onto the website Stormfront. Launched in 1995, Stormfront was an original forum of white supremacy views on the internet. The website resembles a Reddit-style social network, filled with chat forums and users posting under anonymous nicknames. By housing “nearly one million archived threads and over twelve million posts by 325,000 or more members,” Stormfront serves as a living history of the white nationalist movement.
Over the course of two years, Panofsky and fellow UCLA sociologist Joan Donovan combed through this online community and found 153 posts where users volunteered the results of genetic ancestry tests. They then read through the subsequent discussion threads — 2,341 posts wherein the community faced their collective identities.
No surprise, but white supremacists celebrate the test results that suggest full European ancestry. One example:
67% British isles
100% white! HURRAY!
On the flip side, Panofsky and Donovan found that “bad news” was rarely met with expulsion from the group.
“So sometimes, someone says, ‘Yeah, this makes you not white. Go kill yourself,'” Panofsky said. “Much more of the responses are what we call repair responses — where they’re saying, ‘OK, this is bad news. Let’s think about how you should interpret this news to make it to make it right.'”
These “repair responses” fell into two categories.
Reject! One coping mechanism involved the outright rejection of genetic tests’ validity. Some argued their family history was all the proof they needed. Or they looked in the mirror and clung to the notion that race and ethnicity are directly visible, which is false, University of Chicago population geneticist John Novembre told NewsHour.
Though the genetics of “whiteness” are not completely understood, the gene variants known to influence skin color are more diluted across the globe than any random spot in the human genome. “That is to say, humans appear, based on our skin pigmentation, to be much more different from each other than we actually are on a genomic level,” Novembre said.
Others accused the ancestry companies of being run and manipulated by Jews, in an attempt to thwart white nationalism, but even other Stormfront users pointed out the inaccuracy of this idea.
Reinterpret: The biggest proportion of responses — 1,260 posts — tried to rationalize the result by offering an “educational or scientific explanation” for the genetic ancestry results. Many in the online community played a numbers game. If a genetic ancestry test stated someone was 95 percent white European, they would merely count the remaining 5 percent as a statistical error.
Many adapted this line of thinking to make exceptions for those with mixed ancestry. Nearly 500 posts made appeals by misapplying theories of genetics or by saying whiteness is a culture, not just biology — an apparent contradiction to the mission of forming a “pure” ethnostate. This trend led some white supremacists to debate the boundaries of their ethnostate, Panofsky said.
“They start to think about the genetic signs and markers of white nationalism that might be useful for our community,” Panofsky said. “[They say] maybe there are going to be lots of different white nations, each with slightly different rules for nationalism? Or an overlapping set of nations, that are genetically defined in their own ways?”
But these arguments are moot, because these genetic ancestry boundaries are inherently built on shaky ground.
If it seems white supremacists are making arbitrary decisions about their ancestry tests, it’s hard to blame them. Direct-to-consumer ancestry testing is a slippery, secretive industry, built largely upon arbitrary scientific definitions.
“It’s black box because it’s corporate,“ said Jonathan Marks, biological anthropologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “The way these answers are generated depends strongly on the sampling, the laboratory work that you do and the algorithm that you use to analyze the information. All of this stuff is intellectual property. We can’t really evaluate it.”
White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. August 11, 2017. Picture taken August 11, 2017. Photo by Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via REUTERS
Genetic ancestry companies assess a person’s geographic heritage by analyzing DNA markers in their autosomal DNA (for individual variation), mitochondrial DNA (for maternal history) or their Y chromosome (for paternal history). The latter two sources of DNA remain unchanged from parent to child to grandchild, aside from a relatively small number of mutations that occur naturally during life. These mutations can serve as branch points in the trees of human ancestry, Panofsky and Donovan wrote, and as DNA markers specific to different regions around the world.
When genetic anthropologists examine the full scope of humans, they find that historical patterns in DNA markers make the case that everyone in the world came from a common ancestor who was born in East Africa within the last 100,000 to 200,000 years. Plus, groups intermingled so much over the course of history that genetic diversity is a continuum both within American and Europe, through to Asia and Africa, Novembre of the University of Chicago said.
WATCH: Years after transatlantic slavery, DNA tests give clarity
“Genetically, the idea of white European as a single homogenous group does not hold up. The classic geographic boundaries of the Mediterranean, Caucasus, and Urals that have shaped human movement and contact are all permeable barriers,” said Novembre. “Most of the genetic variants you or I carry, we share with other people all across the globe…If you are in some ethnic group, there are not single genetic variants that you definitely have and everyone outside the group does not.”
Commercial ancestry companies know these truths, but bend them to draw arbitrary conclusions about people’s ancestry, researchers say. They compare DNA from a customer to the genomes of people — or reference groups — whose ancestries they claim to already know.
23andMe, for instance, uses reference dataset that “include genomes from 10,418 people who were carefully chosen to reflect populations that existed before transcontinental travel and migration were common (at least 500 years ago).” To build these geographic groups, they select individuals who say all four of their grandparents were born in the same country, and then remove “outliers” whose DNA markers do not match well within the group.
These choices willfully bias the genetic definitions for both geography and time. They claim that a relatively small group of modern people can reveal the past makeup of Europe, Africa and Asia and the ancestral histories for millions of customers. But their reference groups skew toward the present and overpromise on the details of where people came from.
“A study by 23andMe reported that with their definition of European ancestry, there is an average of 98.6 percent European ancestry among self-reported European-Americans. But given all I’ve said, we should digest this with caution,” Novembre said. “An individual with 100 percent European ancestry tests is simply someone who looks very much like the European reference samples being used.”
Though ancestry companies cite research that claims genetic tests can pinpoint someone within 100 miles of their European ancestral home, that’s not always the case. Marks offered the recent example of three blond triplets who took an ancestry test for the TV show The Doctors. The test said the triplets were 99 percent European. But one sister had more English and Irish ancestry, while another had more French and German. Did we mention they are identical triplets?
“That shows you just how much slop there is in these kinds of of ancestry estimates,” Marks said.
Marks described commercial ancestry testing as “recreational science” because its proprietary nature lacks public, academic oversight, but uses scientific practices to validate stereotypical notions of race and ethnicity.
While 23andMe denounces the use of their services to justify hateful ideologies, they do not actively ban known white supremacists from their DNA testing, BuzzFeed reported.
My ancestory (according to #23andMe). pic.twitter.com/DyrNOCbz97
— Richard ⛷️ Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) January 4, 2017
My ancestory (according to #23andMe). pic.twitter.com/DyrNOCbz97
— Richard ⛷️ Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) January 4, 2017
But white supremacists aren’t the only ones to buy into these wayward notions when genetic ancestry tests support their self-prescribed identities or reject the science when things don’t pan out as expected. African-Americans do it too, as Columbia University sociologist Alondra Nelson found in 2008.
“Consumers have what I call genealogical aspiration,” Nelson told NewsHour. “They often make choices among dozens of companies based on the kind of information they’re seeking. If you’re interested in finding whether or not you’re a member of the small group that has, for example, some trace of Neanderthal DNA, then you’re going to go to a company that focuses on that.”
She said Panofsky and Donovan’s study shows that white nationalists will engage in “a process of psychic and symbolic negotiation” when genetic ancestry results fail to satisfy their “impossible idea for racial purity.”
But Panofsky, who doesn’t support or sympathize with white nationalists, believes these negotiations are not a reason to “dismiss white nationalists as ignorant and stupid.”
“I think that is actually a dangerous view,” Panofsky said. “Our study reveals that these white nationalists are often engaging with genetic information in extraordinarily sophisticated ways.”
White supremacists are trying to deal with the issue of identity as an intellectual problem, said Tony McAleer, the co-founder and board chair of Life After Hate, a counseling organization that rehabs white supremacists. But he said the rehab of white nationalist views doesn’t start with challenging their mental gymnastics with data.
“We need to deal with the emotional drivers first,” McAleer said. “University of Maryland did a study of violent extremists and what they found was the number one correlated factor with someone joining a violent extremist group was childhood trauma.”
But McAleer continued that the emotional trauma fueling white supremacy extends past physical and sexual abuse. Many white supremacists are dealing with toxic shame, a perpetual subconscious belief system where their sense of identity is negative.
“The person feels at a subconscious level they’re not good enough,” McAleer said. “One way to react to that is to perpetually spend all of your efforts to prove to the world that you are a winner.”
So, Life After Hate’s antidote to this shame is “compassion and empathy,” he said. Rather than toss statistics about how Muslims aren’t flooding the country and do not lead to spikes in crime, they will take a white supremacist to an Islamic center and have them sit down and spend time there.
“A personal connection is a much more powerful way to change the dynamics within a person, than it is to re-educate the dataset that’s in their head,” McAleer said.
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Nsikan Akpan is the digital science producer for PBS NewsHour and co-creator of the award-winning, NewsHour digital series ScienceScope.
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