The Time Bomb of DNA Testing and Race
Do-it-yourself genetic DNA testing kits could be exploiting our curiosity to build the world’s largest surveillance system
When Alex* decided to use a DNA testing service in 2018, her motivation was clear: Like many African-Americans, she was hoping to discover something about her family lineage that predated the trauma of slavery. “It was an itch I’d wanted to scratch for a long time, and one I wouldn’t expect a white person to understand,” she told me. “So often, [they] will have pointers in their last name as to their origin or even years and years of documented family genealogy to explore, which I just didn’t have.”
For a generation consumed by identity politics, it’s no surprise that the new wave of companies offering consumer DNA tests, such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, have taken off. Spit in a tube and pay around $100, and the company will send back an outline of some of your genetic health traits and a suggestion of where your ancestors came from. And despite some reports of unexpected results breaking up adoptive families or exposing infidelities, the promise of learning something essential about ourselves — and the ease of doing so — has proven tempting, so much so that the consumer genetic testing market has grown from $20 billion in 2015 to a predicted $45 billion by 2024.
But the industry’s rapid growth has thrown up uncomfortable questions about race, and whether it can — or should — be defined solely by genetic makeup. This has been felt acutely by Native American communities, where controversial federally enforced laws have required individuals to “prove” eligibility through blood quotas but have effectively disregarded culture and kinship. Democratic senator and now presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren caused an uproar in 2018 after taking a DNA test to confirm claims of distant Native American ancestry that she had been making since 2012. It was revealed that Warren did have some evidence of Cherokee ancestry a tenuous six to 10 generations ago. Warren was later compelled to apologize privately to the Cherokee Nation.
Warren clumsily clinging onto her results highlighted the conflation of biological race with culture and ethnicity. In a statement following Warren’s announcement, Kim…