The findings of an AncestryDNA test have resulted in a lawsuit from a police sergeant in Hastings, Mich.
Police Sgt. Cleon Brown, who has been with the department for 19 years, discovered last fall that he is 18 percent African American, despite his long-held belief that he is part Native American. According to Brown’s lawsuit, racial taunts began right after his discovery.
The lawsuit, which names several officers and the City of Hastings as defendants, alleges that Police Chief Jeff Pratt referred to Brown as “Kunta.” Kunta Kinte is the main character in “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” by Alex Haley. The character was also featured in the television miniseries called “Roots.”
Brown, also an Army veteran, alleges in the lawsuit that “some police department employees started whispering ‘Black Lives Matter’ while pumping their fists as they walked past [Brown].”
Former Hastings Mayor Frank Campbell, who retired in January 2017, also allegedly took part in the racist behavior. According to the filing Campbell encountered Brown and “proceeded to tell a racist joke using the word ‘Negroid’ at least two or three times.” (Campbell is not named as a plaintiff.)
In December, a tan Santa figurine appeared in Brown’s stocking on a department Christmas tree. “18%” was written on its beard. The lawsuit claims the figurine was put there by Police Patrol Sgt. Kris Miller.
“After Plaintiff complained about the figurine, Defendant Miller used the phrase ‘Native American’ while talking to another officer,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff was walking byand heard what Defendant Miller said. Defendant Miller saw Plaintiff and said in asarcastic tone: ‘I better be careful, I don’t want to offend anyone.'”
Brown eventually filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But the negative behavior reportedly only got worse. Members of the department removed Brown from their Facebook pages and did not let him play in two annual department basketball games.
Brown was also allegedly asked by Pratt, the chief, to resign from his position as sergeant.
According to the suit, the environment created by Brown’s fellow department members could jeopardize his safety on the job:
“Based on the openly hostile, retaliatory behaviors displayed by the Defendants (the City Manager, Police Chief, the Deputy Chief, one of four Sergeants, and one of seven Officers), and tacit approval of Defendants’ conduct by many other Hastings officers, it is more likely than not, Plaintiff will not have adequate back up in the event of an emergency. He could be seriously hurt.”
The city released a statement denying the allegations and claiming that Brown in fact initiated many of the jokes. According to the statement, Brown shared his DNA test results “in a very joking and jovial manner.”
The others Hastings officers largely disregarded the news until Brown (referred to as “Claimant” in the city’s release) would opt to bring it up:
“Claimant joked about the other results of the test and there was some discussion about the accuracy of the test results. Claimant initiated this conversation and the joking and banter that followed. The topic of Brown’s heritage was basically forgotten by the members of the Department until Brown would bring it up again so as to joke about it and do some mutual bantering with other officers about their heritage.”
“In fact,” the city claims, “Sgt. Brown joked about it in racially derogatory ways such as suggesting [that] he now knows why he ‘likes chicken so much,’ ‘the 18% is all in my pants,’ as well as other similarly inappropriate and derogatory comments and stereotypes.”
The statement also questions the validity of AncestryDNA’s results and whether Brown can even be considered a member of a protected class under anti-discrimination laws.
“The City of Hastings has never considered Sgt. Brown to be African-American,” the city notes. “More importantly, neither has Sgt. Brown.”
Brown denied the city’s allegations that he initiated the racist jokes.
While Brown was not previously “considered” Black, this perception seemed to change rather quickly, as Brown claims the taunts began not long after he shared his news.
And the American Sociological Association (ASA) in a statement about race, perceptions of race and race’s impact on society said that even if race is not biologically relevant in the way researchers used to believe, it is not a construct that can be ignored:
“As the leading voice for 13,000 academic and practicing sociologists, the ASA takes the position that calls to end the collection of data using racial categories are ill advised, although racial categories do not necessarily reflect biological or genetic categories. The failure to gather data on this socially significant category would preserve the status quo and hamper progress toward understanding and addressing inequalities in primary social institutions.”
To ignore the concept of race in Brown’s case, as Hastings’ statement suggests, is in fact more detrimental to society, the ASA reports:
“Although race is a social construct (in other words, a social invention that changes as political, economic, and historical contexts change), it has real consequences across a wide range of social and economic institutions. Those who favor ignoring race as an explicit administrative matter, in the hope that it will cease to exist as a social concept, ignore the weight of a vast body of sociological research that shows that racial hierarchies are embedded in the routine practices of social groups and institutions.”
AncestryDNA on its websites asserts a high confidence rating in its results and states, “DNA samples are tested in a secure third-party testing lab in the United States.”
“AncestryDNA uses advanced scientific techniques to produce your results. We measure and analyze a person’s entire genome at over 700,000 locations,” AncestryDNA states. “During the testing process, each DNA sample is held to a quality standard of at least a 98% call rate. Any results that don’t meet that standard may require a new DNA sample to be collected.”
An Inside Edition investigative piece in February tested AncestryDNA against other similar services, 23andMe and Family Tree DNA. Three sets of identical twins tested their DNA with a different provider. The two sets of triplets that enlisted 23andMe and Family Tree DNA found several differences among their results. But AncestryDNA, in this case, proved to be the most accurate:
“Not everyone was disappointed by the results. The Ancestry DNA test results for the New Jersey triplets were almost identical. It revealed that their roots are largely from Great Britain, 45%-47% and their Italian and Greek ancestry was exact at 25%.”
Paul Woodbury, an independent genetic genealogist, told Brigham Young University’s The Daily Universe, “AncestryDNA, like all other genetic genealogy testing options, has its pros and cons.”
According to the publication, “Woodbury cited a few issues that could arise with AncestryDNA, such as its reliance on the family history work of others. Since the information on many family trees is incompletely researched, users of AncestryDNA should be cautious to not accept the information too readily.”
But it is also “making great strides” in research of genealogic information, Woodbury added.
According to The New York Times, “this experience has given [Brown] a new appreciation for the effects of racism.”
“I just never thought it would be in Hastings, saying, like, racist comments to me,” he said. “All the years I’ve been there we never joked about race.”
He also told the publication that he has started questioning if his father always knew about his heritage.
“I’ve talked with a lot of family members and we feel, I don’t know this for a fact, we feel because he was born in 1940, he didn’t want anybody to know that he had Black heritage in him,” he said. “So I think he just came up with the Blackfoot Indian thing just to kind of sell it to people and hope that they’d believe it.