Why DNA tests like Elizabeth Warren's help racists out

When you look into the science behind DNA tests and realise that race is nothing more than a social construct, using these sorts of means to 'prove' anything becomes a problem

Mia Brett
Wednesday 17 October 2018 10:38 BST
Donald Trump denies saying he would donate $1m to charity if Elizabeth Warren did a DNA test

Last week I wrote an article discussing the privilege and peril of being a white Jewish woman in the US today. In it, I detailed how I never lived in fear of routine traffic stops or my male relatives being shot by law enforcement, and how my white skin had undoubtedly afforded me that privilege. But I also spoke about learning of the Holocaust very young, of never not knowing about Zyklon B, and about being chased by anti-Israel protesters at a demonstration in London.

After the article appeared, I was subject to days of harassment from white nationalists extremely upset that I, a Jewish woman, would co-opt their precious "white" identity. To them, race is an immutable fact and I was trying to claim “whiteness” in order infiltrate and hurt real white people.

One of the main pieces of evidence they used to harass me was that a DNA test would show I was an Ashkenazi Jew and not German, Russian, Polish or any other acceptable "white" nationality. While they're right that a DNA test would say I was an Ashkenazi Jew, they are seriously confusing nationality, group traits, and race.

It was this anti-Semitic invoking of DNA tests that was in my mind when Elizabeth Warren proudly showed her own DNA test results proving she had a Native American ancestor between six and 10 generations ago.

Race has no scientific basis or measurement in DNA tests. These tests are measuring ethnic proportions and geographic heritage through “ancestry informative markers.” While I might take one of these tests and get results that say I’m an Ashkenazi Jew, someone else could get results that say they are French and German. Last time I checked, French and German weren’t races. While many scientists still use racial terms in their genetic research, the general consensus is that race is a social construct and scientists are using racial terms as a poor proxy for genetic diversity.

When we say race is a social construct, we mean that our notions of essential racial differences are entirely a product of colonialism. “White” Europeans needed justifications for conquering and enslaving people. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, there has never even been a clear definition of race or method to determine it. US immigration law actually went through a period of court cases trying to determine which nationalities were “white” and which weren’t for the purposes of naturalisation. While these cases generally ruled that people from China and Japan weren’t white, they had mixed findings about South Asians and Syrians. The most common reason for the rulings in these cases was “common knowledge” and occasionally “scientific evidence”.

Elizabeth Warren brandishing her DNA test as proof of something might seem like an innocuous way to mock Trump has much larger implications for the way we treat race in our society. Warren is giving credence to those using DNA tests for racist means to prove scientific evidence of race. Since these DNA tests have a small sampling of native people, all Warren’s results tell us is that she has an ancestor from Southern, Central, or North America. They certainly don’t connect her to any particular tribe.

Warren’s claims are causing harm to native people at a time when they are fighting for their tribal sovereignty in the face of right-wing attacks. For instance, the Trump administration and the Goldwater Institute are presently trying to argue that native people are racially a homogenous group, and therefore laws that treat them differently are in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the constitution. This argument was recently used to strike down the Indian Child Welfare Act because it gave native people priority if a native child was put up for adoption.

Rebecca Nagle, citizen of the Cherokee Nation, puts it brilliantly: “Anything that feeds this argument that native identity is based on racial biology, rather than a political status as citizens of tribes, feeds this far-right attack on our tribes.” She emphasises that Native Americans aren’t a homogenous group but instead tribes are separate sovereign nations. According to Nagle, “Warren is paying lip service to tribal sovereignty but her actions are pouring gasoline on a fire attacking tribal sovereignty.”

While we fight for rights and protections of marginalised groups, we can’t give in to essentialist right-wing talking points about the immutability of race. Ancestry DNA tests might be fun, but they have no place in a political conversation where their results can be twisted to support white nationalist anti-Semitism and federal attacks on tribal sovereignty.

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