To Test or Not? Singular or Multiple Heritage? Genomic Ancestry Testing and Americans’ Racial Identity
46 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2011 Last revised: 12 Aug 2014
Date Written: January 1, 2014
Recreational DNA ancestry testing may seem frivolous, or at least unconnected with important issues in politics. However, it opens new vistas onto two crucial questions: what is the relationship, if any, between biology and race? How much and why do people prefer clear, singular racial identities or blurred, mixed racial self-understandings?
We probe those old questions from a new and unusual angle: media treatment of and public responses to various choices in DNA ancestry testing. Using automated content analysis and hand coding, respectively, we analyze two databases of U.S. newspaper articles, one with almost 6,000 and a second of 700 items. We also analyze two new public opinion surveys of nationally representative samples of adult Americans. The bulk of the evidence comes from the second survey, which uses vignettes to obtain views about results of DNA ancestry testing from large samples of several racial and ethnic groups.
We find that the media encourage an association between biological inheritance and race, and emphasize singular racial ancestry more than multiple heritages. We also find that African Americans hold distinct, though not wholly different, views from other Americans. In particular, blacks (and Hispanics, to some degree) are especially receptive to DNA ancestry testing, particularly pleased with a message of group singularity, but also positive about a message of multiple points of origin. We conclude with a brief discussion of the political importance of DNA ancestry testing.
Keywords: Biology, genetics, racial identity, definitions of race, racial self-understanding, public opinion
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