'People know race is a construct, but not what that means'

Study highlights dangers of DNA tests used to back up preexisting ideas of race

Two-year study by Prof. Wendy Roth shows the less people know about genetics, the more likely they are to associate genes with behavior; product marketing feeds the misconception

Illustrative: An employe of a genetic institute works with a DNA sample. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Illustrative: An employe of a genetic institute works with a DNA sample. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

NEW YORK — Spit, send, and wait. In 2018, over 26 million people mailed their DNA to companies for genetic ancestry testing, mostly in the hopes of teasing out more genealogical information. But a potential dark side to this lighthearted endeavor got University of Pennsylvania sociologist Wendy Roth thinking about whether these do-it-yourself tests also fueled the idea that genes dictate race.

After spending two years compiling data from more than 800 people, she found her answer: It depends.

According to Roth’s new study, those with low genetic literacy had more entrenched views of racial essentialism, or the idea that different races have fixed attributes. However, those with more genetic knowledge were less likely to hold essentialist views of race. In short, reading simple color-coded charts is easy; properly interpreting results is harder.

“People who take ancestry tests without that knowledge take the results at face value and perhaps misinterpret them, attributing more meaning to them than the tests actually have,” Roth said in a telephone interview with The Times of Israel. “People who have a clear understanding of genetics are better able to put the results into context. They understand it doesn’t reflect the societal categories we use as race or ethnicity.”

Prof. Wendy Roth speaks at Columbia University about her study on DNA testing. (Courtesy)

The tests measure DNA across ones genome and apply that data to identify where one’s ancestors might have lived. They might also provide respondents with the names of individuals who are potential DNA matches and therefore possibly relatives.

The idea of racial essentialism, that genes dictate race, which in turn dictates a person’s intelligence, physical attributes, and skill sets, has an insidious history. It fueled the Holocaust, South African apartheid, the Rwandan genocide, and Jim Crow laws.

Illustrative: Visitors look at an on medical quackery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Tuesday, March 22, 2005. ‘With the Aid of Phrenology,’ dated 1913 by an unknown American artist, is seen on left. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

New York University sociologist Dr. Ann Morning, who is familiar with Roth’s work in this field, agreed the danger with these tests is that a lot of people interpret the findings as objective truth.

“I think these tests are the latest iteration of using science to back up our pre-existing ideas about race,” Morning said. “They are used the same way blood tests used to be used, or IQ tests or phrenology. The past is littered with all kinds of ways we’ve tried to use science to explain certain theories.”

Additionally, Morning said Roth’s study, which she described as unique, showed the need for educating people in basic statistics.

“I think not only do they show a shaky understanding of what genetics tell us about race, they show we don’t have very good training in statistics, in how to read data,” Morning said.

Illustrative: A police officer poses to illustrate a saliva test in Germany. (Roland Weihrauch/dpa via AP)

Many test takers assume companies have access to troves of data regarding genomes, Morning said. They don’t.

“There are all kinds of exclusive and subjective decisions being made about whose DNA represents different groups,” she said.

This means different companies have access to different sample pools and results will vary from test kit to test kit, Morning said.

Although Roth was happy to find racial essentialism didn’t arise in most cases, she said testing companies must be more responsible in their marketing.

In one ad, a man talks about how he always thought he was German, so he wore lederhosen and went to beer halls — until he took a test and found out he was Scottish. Now he wears a kilt and plays the bagpipes. In another ad, a woman who upon learning she has Native American heritage surrounds herself with southwestern-style pottery.

Neither 23andMe nor responded to questions from The Times of Israel.

“The commercials are particularly powerful because they convey a clear connection between what a person’s ancestry is and what things they do,” Roth said. “I do think those ads are misleading in showing there is genetic determinism. These companies have a responsibility to not communicate that idea.”

As a sociologist Roth spends a lot of time thinking about how people view race, how different societies categorize people according to arbitrary rules, and why people are inclined to take the tests in the first place.

“A lot of people are told race is a social construct but they’re not necessarily taught what that means,” Roth said.

Illustrative: Genetic testing. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

In her lectures and writings, Roth explains how one individual can be seen as a different race depending on where they live. For example, a person of mixed heritage might be seen as black in the US but will be seen as white in the Dominican Republic, she said.

During her two-year study Roth found people had different motivations for taking ancestry tests.

For example, Caucasians in the US might take one because they want to find something new or interesting about their ethnicity, Roth said, whereas minorities such as Jews usually take the test hoping to add missing branches to their family tree.

“For a lot of Jewish respondents the test wasn’t a way to prove or confirm their Jewish identity but to expand their family tree. They found it was a way to move past that brick wall where their genealogical record had been erased because it was destroyed in the Holocaust, or in the pogroms, or for whatever reason,” she said.

Prof. Wendy Roth authored a study on DNA testing finding that those with low genetic literacy are more likely to believe in racial essentialism. (Courtesy)

Roth’s interest in sociology began in college after reading William Julius Wilson’s “The Truly Disadvantaged.”

“The idea that not only your own aspirations or opportunities affect your social mobility, but even the structure of the neighborhood you live in, made me realize that there were a lot more factors affecting our lives in barely perceptible ways, and I wanted to understand them better,” she said.

Roth, who learned she had one percent Scandinavian ancestry after taking a test, delved into the subject in 2007 when the first kits became available.

One of her first studies examined whether genetic testing results prompted people to reconsider their own racial or ethnic identities.

“I found respondents had a strong desire and longing to find Native American ancestry,” she said, adding that 36% of respondents changed their views.

Regarding Jewish ancestry, most people who didn’t know they had Jewish ancestry before taking the test eagerly embraced it upon finding out they did, she said.

“They might have had positive association with specific Jewish people, Jewish history or culture,” Roth said. “There is tendency for people to identify with the underdog, who despite the odds, maintains their culture.”

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