Unintended consequences of genetic ancestry tests

2 minute read

The NY Times has an article describing how people are using genealogy testing to prove minority status for college applications!

Alan Moldawer's adopted twins, Matt and Andrew, had always thought of themselves as white. But when it came time for them to apply to college last year, Mr. Moldawer thought it might be worth investigating the origins of their slightly tan-tinted skin, with a new DNA kit that he had heard could determine an individual's genetic ancestry.
The results, designating the boys 9 percent Native American and 11 percent northern African, arrived too late for the admissions process. But Mr. Moldawer, a business executive in Silver Spring, Md., says they could be useful in obtaining financial aid.
"Naturally when you're applying to college you're looking at how your genetic status might help you," said Mr. Moldawer, who knows that the twins' birth parents are white, but has little information about their extended family. "I have three kids going now, and you can bet that any advantage we can take we will."


Ashley Klett's younger sister marked the "Asian" box on her college applications this year, after the elder Ms. Klett, 20, took a DNA test that said she was 2 percent East Asian and 98 percent European.
Whether it mattered they do not know, but she did get into the college of her choice.
"And they gave her a scholarship," Ashley said.

Recall that 2 percent is far below the usual confidence limits of the tests.

Now, this has given me a new perspective on the enthusiasm for students to find out their minority minority ancestry. And it gives a good reason for all that description about whether or not low ancestry fractions are significant:

Tony Frudakis, the research director at DNAPrint, said the three-year-old company had coined the term American Indian Princess Syndrome to describe the insistent pursuit of Indian roots among many newly minted genetic genealogists. If the tests fail to turn up any, Mr. Frudakis added, "this type of customer is frequently quite angry."

The term "recreational genomics" is used for the tests -- I sort of like that, since it takes the ring of truth out of the results!

Along with this, the article describes people staking claims for tribal casino money, Israeli citizenship, and the "Black Indians".

But it's most interesting to me about these college applications. After all, most colleges depend on self-identification of ethnicity (hence, the premise of the movie, "Soul Man"). Why not just lie?

Evidently, the DNA tests are helping people toss away their moral qualms. Or maybe they provide a piece of paper to deflect challenges for people who don't display any obvious features of non-European ancestry.