May 18, 2024

Can genetics refute white supremacist theories?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be No

This week’s headlines were filled with news from Charlottesville, Virginia, after a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of people opposing a march of supremacists and noe-Nazis, killing one woman and injuring many others. Which leads one to ask: how white are American white supremacists?

For most of them, the most convincing way to prove their “whiteness” is DNA tests from companies like and To their consternation, the results are often not what they expected. White supremacist Craig Cobb was outed on daytime TV in 2013 as “86 percent European, and … 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.” 

What’s interesting is how the white supremacists respond to these disconcerting test results. Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, sociologists at UCLA, studied online discussions of genetic ancestry test results on the white nationalist website Stormfront. They found that the participants used fairly sophisticated reasoning to challenge the results and regain their “whiteness”.

Cobb, for instance, denounced his test as “statistical noise” and described it as a Jewish conspiracy to spread “junk science” whose “intent is to defame, confuse and deracinate young whites on a mass level—especially males”. Using a test from another company he was able to claim that he was European, apart from a “3% Iberian thing.”

Panofsky and Donovan conclude that genetics cannot refute racist views. Even though mankind probably came from Africa and even though the notion of “racial purity” is absurd, racists can manipulate and interpret data for their own purposes. They conclude:

clear communication, simple forms of education, and collective denunciations of scientific misuses, scientists’ preferred forms of anti-racist action, are insufficient for the task. Challenging racists’ public understanding of science is not simply a matter of more education or nuance, but may require scientists to rethink their research paradigms and reflexively interrogate their own knowledge production. 

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