State and federal programs aim to ensure minority-owned businesses can compete for government contracts after generations of institutional discrimination. A Lynnwood man long identified as white is using DNA ethnicity estimates to claim minority status.
Ralph Taylor says it doesn’t matter what he looks like. Having lived most of his life as a white man, the 55-year-old now considers himself to be multiracial based on DNA test results.
The owner of Orion Insurance Group in Lynnwood also wants the U.S. Department of Transportation to recognize him as a minority so he can gain more deals providing liability insurance to contractors.
Taylor is suing Washington state and the federal government because he was denied a minority-business certification under a program created more than two decades ago to help level the playing field for minority business owners seeking contracts in the transportation industry. He provided no evidence he has suffered socially or economically because of race.
His case is pending with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 2010 Taylor began identifying himself as multiracial after a DNA ancestry test estimated he was 90 percent Caucasian, 6 percent indigenous American and 4 percent sub-Saharan African.
He applied for state certification with the Washington Office of Minority & Women’s Business Enterprises (OMWBE) so Orion Insurance Group would be considered a minority business.
With no criteria defining a minority race or ethnicity, OMWBE eventually approved Taylor. But that same state agency, which also manages the U.S. Department of Transportation certification, decided he was Caucasian under that program’s procedures and denied his application.
Since then Taylor has pursued an unconventional legal path that raises questions about how the government determines who is and who isn’t a minority. Should it matter what a person looks like? Should they have to prove they’ve suffered discrimination? Can DNA tests prove race or ethnicity? And is Taylor taking advantage of a program by basing his identity on DNA results that some experts consider unreliable?
The OMWBE decides on a case-by-case basis who qualifies for both the state and federal programs it manages.
Gigi Zenk, former communications director for the office, said the programs are designed to provide minority business owners with equal access to contracts as a way of correcting persistent institutional discrimination.
“We work really hard to be fair, nothing is just black and white,” she said. “It’s never just one piece of evidence.”
Yet some who qualified for the program acknowledged they had never been disenfranchised. A Yakima man who qualified for both the state and federal programs said he is about 6 percent African American, looks Caucasian and has never encountered discrimination. Since 2014, the program has helped him win millions of dollars in contracts.
Taylor said the system is broken: “There’s no objective criteria and they’re picking the winners and losers.”
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DNA testing is the latest tool people are using to help define themselves, though the results are at best an estimate and at worst inaccurate.
Even the direct-to-customer DNA testing companies, which tout in advertising that customers can uncover their ethnic mix or find relatives, say in fine print that their results should only be used as a hobby.
A CBC News investigation showed suspicious results of several people who took DNA tests from a Toronto lab that helps self-proclaimed indigenous people. One result claimed someone had 20 percent Native American ancestry. The problem was that the sample came from a dog.
Some experts say there is little science behind DNA ethnicity results.
“It’s quite scientifically inaccurate,” said Jennifer Raff, an assistant professor with the University of Kansas anthropology department. “Most in the scientific community would repudiate it.”
She also said it’s misguided for people like Taylor to redefine themselves based on the results — and unethical to use them for minority applications and government contracts.
Yet people’s results can validate their beliefs, connect them to an unknown past or catch them off guard.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., the director of Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and host of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” learned that he was half Caucasian, with Irish roots.
In 2013, white supremacist Craig Cobb discovered on daytime television that his DNA showed he was 14 percent sub-Saharan African. He denounced the results.
Troy Duster, chancellor’s professor of sociology at University of California, Berkeley, said a white person can try on different identities, even switching back and forth, “but a dark-skinned black can’t claim to be white.”
Rachel Dolezal, a former president of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter, considered herself to be black, but she was born Caucasian. After her own parents stepped forward to say she was white, she was publicly shamed for representing African Americans and resigned in 2015.
When a longtime police officer in Hastings, Mich., discovered his DNA test said he was 18 to 33 percent sub-Saharan African, he redefined himself as African.
Shortly after sharing the news of his ancestry in 2016, Sgt. Cleon Brown said he faced discrimination and retaliation from fellow officers and city officials, according to a lawsuit he filed against the city in federal court in Michigan.
People told him racist jokes, he said, and during Christmas someone put a black Santa Claus ornament on the office tree with his name and “18%” written on it.
Michael Bogren, an attorney hired by the city of Hastings, said Brown’s case had no merit.
“He’s always been perceived as a white male and has held himself out as a white male and been treated as a white male,” Bogren said.
In a recent settlement, the city’s insurer paid Brown $65,000.
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The DNA-testing industry has made hundreds of millions of dollars in the past decade, capitalizing on people’s curiosity about their ethnicity and ancestors.
For less than $60, companies boast they can determine a person’s ethnic makeup from a mailed-in swab of the inner cheek or saliva in a vial.
Strands of DNA look like a twisted ladder with an arrangement of molecules, called a DNA sequence. Companies analyze DNA differently using, for example, only the direct male line, DNA passed from mother to child, or a person’s entire genome.
Using proprietary algorithms and databases, DNA companies compare someone’s DNA to a worldwide group of samples they’ve already collected to determine their ethnicity and race, right down to specific countries.
But when a company calculates ethnicity and race, some populations are underrepresented or overrepresented based on how many people are already in that company’s secret DNA database.
Duster, who chaired the ethical, legal and social-issues committee with the Human Genome Project, said the companies won’t tell the public if they have 1,000 or 10,000 people of a specific region of the world.
For example, if a company’s database of Native Americans is small, that could skew someone’s results, saying they have less or no Native-American ancestry.
“You can’t believe these tests because they are based on statistical fiction of 100 percent white, 100 percent German or 100 percent Irish,” he said.
Because of this, Duster said, someone will get different results if they use several DNA companies.
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Taylor says the DNA test he took in 2010 changed his life.
Born in Sacramento, Taylor graduated from Washington State University and started Orion Insurance Group in 1995 after stints as a salesman.
The father of three daughters applied for OMWBE’s minority certification for his business in 2013 after getting his DNA results, hoping to get more transportation contracts.
As part of the state’s application process a business owner must submit a photograph, typically a driver’s license or government ID. Those who aren’t “visibly identifiable” based on the photo must submit further proof such as a birth certificate or tribal-enrollment papers.
The agency has no definition of “visibly identifiable,” and there is no manual that describes how employees should interpret someone’s visual appearance in a photograph.
You can’t believe these tests because they are based on statistical fiction of 100 percent white, 100 percent German or 100 percent Irish,” - Troy Duster
Taylor supplied his driver’s license and his DNA results stating he was 6 percent indigenous American and 4 percent sub-Saharan African.
The company he used — Genelex of Seattle — divided people in its “AncestrybyDNA” results into four populations: sub-Saharan Africans, Europeans, East Asians and indigenous Americans.
No one from Genelex commented for this story, and its recorded phone message said it no longer offers genetic-ancestry testing.
Because DNA results are estimates with margins of error that vary depending on the database of samples for comparison, Taylor could be as little as 2.7 percent indigenous American and .7 percent sub-Saharan African, OMWBE records show.
Through his attorney, Taylor further claimed he was black because of the so-called “one-drop rule,” a concept used historically by governments and white people to promote segregation and disenfranchise those with any African ancestry — “one drop” of African blood.
The office denied Taylor’s certification stating he wasn’t visibly identifiable as a minority. But on appeal Washington state approved him in 2014.
Zenk said she doesn’t know why. Only a handful of people have submitted DNA as part of their application the past five years, she said.
When Taylor applied to OMWBE again — this time for a similar federal-level program with the U.S. Department of Transportation — he had to provide further information when the office questioned him.
Taylor stated he subscribed to Ebony magazine and was an NAACP member. Taylor also provided his DNA results and the 1916 death certificate of a black woman, but officials couldn’t determine if she was related to him, OMWBE stated.
Another finding the office cited: Taylor’s birth certificate didn’t state a minority race or ethnicity.
He was denied certification in June 2014 because he didn’t prove by a preponderance of evidence that he was a minority for the federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program.
“It is nonsensical for Mr. Taylor to claim that he has encountered social and economic disadvantage due to a heritage he was not aware of until the DNA test conducted in 2010,” stated an employee who that same year certified Taylor as a minority with the state program.
Taylor said he was disgusted by the decision.
“If I wanted to game the system I would have changed my birth certificate,” he said.
Internally, OMWBE employees compared Taylor to a man who they say was granted federal and state minority status because he provided the required tribal membership card and had 0.39 percent Native-American ancestry.
“Ralph Taylor had more than ten times higher blood percentage,” another employee wrote in an email obtained by Taylor and included in his lawsuit. “This seems dangerously close to preferential treatment to one group to the disadvantage of members of all other groups that do not issue membership cards.”
However, tribal enrollment is a complicated issue that isn’t always linked to fractions of blood and varies from tribe to tribe.
After he was rejected, Taylor filed a federal lawsuit against the OMWBE.
Judge Robert Bryan of the U.S. District Court of Western Washington dismissed the case last year stating the intent of the federal program is to combat racism in the industry and that Taylor’s reliance on his genetic test, “without regard to his appearance, is misplaced.”
Taylor’s attorney Marc Rosenberg appealed the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where oral arguments will be heard late this year or early next year.
If Taylor wins, his case could redefine how governments determine minority status for contracting purposes. If he loses, he said, at least he’s brought a conversation about that issue to the forefront.
Taylor said he’s spent up to $300,000 in legal costs trying to expose what he calls a subjective and broken system. He said the state should eliminate the minority part of the program and instead use a business owner’s economic status to qualify.
But Alondra Nelson, a sociology professor at Columbia University, said Taylor’s vision is shortsighted and fails to recognize America’s history of racial bigotry that has been a financially detrimental to minorities.
“To think of identity as a few genetic markers is woefully inadequate and incomplete,” said Nelson, author of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation After the Genome.
“You have two facets of identity: who you think you are and what other people say you are,” she said. “People have lived their whole lives and generations have been disadvantaged based on what they look like, how they talk or where they come from. That’s not insignificant or subjective.”
A WSDOT “disparity study” in 2017 found minority business owners “still experience barriers to equal contracting opportunities; questioning of their competency because of their race or gender; less access to business networks and information; job-related sexual or racial harassment or stereotyping” and other disadvantages.
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Leveling the field
The state and federal programs often do fulfill their mission of helping those who face discrimination.
Zenk of OMWBE said: “It’s one tool to level the playing field for minorities and women. It’s not a handout.”
Dave Johnson, owner of Custom Concrete Contracting in Bellingham, said he’s faced discrimination much of his life because of his darker complexion.
His adoptive parents told Johnson that his father was from Hawaii. He also tracked down his birth mother and birth certificate, which validated the stories he had been told.
He said a state employee met him in person to see if he was half Pacific Islander for the federal DBE program.
“I thought that was interesting they wanted to get a visual,” Johnson said.
He said the certification in 2010 helped him survive the recession and continue to employ a crew of 15.
A few years ago, out of curiosity, Johnson mailed off his saliva to 23andMe to test his DNA. He said the results showed he was half Oceanian/Southeast Asian and half European.
Unlike Johnson, there are others who admit they look Caucasian and haven’t battled racism, but have benefited from the program.
Joe Menard, owner of M.B.I. Construction Services in Yakima, said that when he applied for minority certification with a background of approximately one-sixteenth African American, his children laughed.
People have lived their whole lives and generations have been disadvantaged based on what they look like, how they talk or where they come from. That’s not insignificant or subjective.” - Alondra Nelson
He said his dad, who used to own the company, was one-eighth black. But when asked during a phone interview if he looked African American, he said “not even close. You’d think we’re Caucasian.”
In 2014, Joe Menard was approved for both the state and federal programs.
Menard said his status has helped him win contracts with Sound Transit — about $8 million worth, according to agency records. And Menard, in turn, has helped Sound Transit meet its goal of granting 12 percent of its work to minority contractors.
Menard defended his status despite never facing discrimination, saying, “ … any drop (of blood) can be a significant amount to be categorized in that race.”
While the state office has no set criteria for minority status, a nationwide minority-contracting organization started in the 1970s states someone must be at least 25 percent black, Hispanic, Asian or Native American to be a member.
The National Minority Supplier Development Council, funded by membership fees, connects more than 12,000 minority-certified suppliers with well-known corporate members like Microsoft and Boeing as well as public agencies like the city of Seattle.
Fernando Martinez, president of the group’s Northwest Mountain chapter, said he doesn’t know why the group chose that percentage cutoff decades ago. The council requires a birth certificate listing an ethnicity or a death certificate from a recent relative.
“We don’t allow DNA (results) because they are unproven,” he said.
And yet birth certificates don’t list ethnic percentages and can be changed merely by asking.
In fact, Taylor did just that, showing the state and federal programs can be gamed.
In November, long after his denial by OMWBE, Taylor changed his California birth certificate, which once said Caucasian. It now lists him as black, Native American and Caucasian.
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