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What Percent Minority Can You Claim?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Historically, white Americans have distanced themselves from any non-white ancestry they might have. Now many are claiming it, some because they're proud and some because they're trying to tap into benefits designed for minorities. So what exactly makes someone a minority? As Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team tells us, it's complicated.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: President Trump has been mocking Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren's assertion that she has Native American ancestry since 2016.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Pocahontas - that's this Elizabeth Warren. Massachusetts is represented by Pocahontas, right? And Pocahontas is not happy. She's got happy.

BATES: Those clips came from Fox and CNN, and there are lots more. In a video released this week, Warren claps back.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: I'm not enrolled in a tribe, and only tribes determine tribal citizenship. I understand and respect that distinction, but my family history is my family history.

BATES: So she had her DNA sequenced, which revealed Native American ancestry. Warren says she took the test to prove that her family's tale of having native ancestors had some basis in truth. But not everybody tests for personal validation. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was in the news recently because a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed that since 2000, his brother-in-law William Wages was awarded more than $7 million in no-bid, government and other federal contracts that were designed to go to disadvantaged minorities. He declined to test. But from family lore, Wages claims to be 1/8 Cherokee.

Up in Washington, insurance broker Ralph Taylor has a suit pending in the 9th Circuit because the state denied him a minority business certification for a program designed to help minorities get transportation industry contracts. Taylor, according to The Seattle Times, began describing himself as multiracial after taking a consumer ancestry test. The test indicated Taylor had 4 percent Sub-Saharan African ancestry and 6 percent indigenous American. He says that's enough for him to qualify as minority. So what is a minority then?

ALONDRA NELSON: The question really you're asking is, does the DNA test tell him what his identity is or tell any of us what our identities are?

BATES: Columbia University sociologist Alondra Nelson is the author of "The Social Life Of DNA." In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Nelson said DNA markers can't tell us who we truly are because we're comparing apples and oranges. Genetic data is technical. Identity is social.

NELSON: In social science, we think about identity as being how human groups or individuals are defined by themselves and how others perceive them.

BATES: Nelson says home DNA tests are fine as something to indulge your curiosity, but consumers shouldn't think the results are definitive. The companies didn't design them for that.

NELSON: You know, the sort of gold standard genetic science is not exactly what they're after entirely, right? They're also profit-making entities.

BATES: And she hopes the courts will be able to tell the difference, so programs designed to level the playing field for people who have historically been shut out of these opportunities can continue to do that.

NELSON: I would hope that the court is able to take seriously the fact that these sorts of programs were meant to serve as a counterpoint to discrimination.

BATES: Because the lived experience of minorities can't be learned by swabbing a cheek or spitting into a tube. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.