When Ralph Taylor was born in Sacramento in 1963, his birth certificate indicated that he and his parents were Caucasian. But, like many white Americans, he grew up hearing vague family lore about long-distant Native American ancestry.
“I’ve always known that I’m multiracial,” Taylor, 55, told The Washington Post.
In 2010, Taylor took an AncestryByDNA test, he said, “just to confirm what we’d already known.” The results said that he was 90 percent European and 6 percent indigenous American, as well as 4 percent sub-Saharan African.
Whether the test was accurate is an open question. Scientists have long critiqued ancestry DNA tests for being imprecise and lacking transparency. The company that manufactured Taylor’s test is no longer conducting ancestry genetic testing, according to the Seattle Times, and in 2014 one genealogy blog suggested that AncestrybyDNA tests were so outdated that they were best used as paper airplanes.
Still, the results were enough for Taylor to update his birth certificate last November: It now says that he is black, Native American and Caucasian.
Taylor acknowledges that he looks white. But despite being “visually Caucasian,” as he puts it, he considers himself to be multiracial.
“I’m a certified black man,” he told The Post. “I’m certified black in all 50 states. But the federal government doesn’t recognize me.”
After he was rejected from a program for minority business owners that would have given him an advantage when competing for lucrative government contracts, Taylor sued. His case, which raises complicated questions about how race is defined, is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
The legal battle got its start in 2013. With the test results in hand, Taylor applied to get his insurance agency certified as a minority-owned business by Washington state’s Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises. As the Seattle Times first reported, he was initially rejected on the grounds that he wasn’t visibly identifiable as a minority.
But the agency didn’t give employees any guidelines about how to interpret applicants’ photos and didn’t define what exactly it meant to be “visibly identifiable” as a member of a minority group. After he filed an appeal, the agency reversed its decision and approved his application in March 2014.
Weeks after getting the acceptance letter, Taylor applied to the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises again — this time to get certified as a minority for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. The agency asked him for additional proof that he identified as black or Native American.
Taylor said that he was a member of the NAACP, subscribed to Ebony magazine and was interested in black social issues. He also gave the agency a copy of a death certificate for a black woman who had died in 1916, but he was unable to prove that they were related. Many record depositories had been burned during the Civil War, he wrote, making it difficult to trace his genealogy. And because being Native American wasn’t socially acceptable back in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during those days, he said, he didn’t have any proof of his Native American ancestry.
He was rejected.
“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,” the state’s letter said.
Taylor was frustrated by the inconsistency — how could he be a disadvantaged minority for the purpose of a state-level program but not a federal-level one? He decided to sue.
“It’s just not a fair system,” he told The Washington Post. “Hopefully, what comes out of this is that the system is broken.”
In his lawsuit, which was filed in July 2016, Taylor argues that the way the federal government determines black and Native American ancestry for the purpose of the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program is “impermissibly vague” and is likely to result in “arbitrary and capricious decisions.”
Federal law defines black Americans as “persons having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.” Taylor’s lawsuit notes that the statute doesn’t set a minimum percentage of African DNA that an individual needs to be considered black.
Previously, the government defined Native Americans as “persons who are American Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, or Native Hawaiians.” In October 2014, after Taylor applied for certification, the statute was updated to define Native Americans as “persons who are enrolled members of a federally or State recognized Indian tribe, Alaska Natives, or Native Hawaiians.”
Taylor finds both distinctions arbitrary. Ideally, he says, he would like to see the minority-business certification process scrapped and replaced with a program that would be based on socioeconomic status, not race.
After all, he points out, the son of a millionaire such as Michael Jordan would be considered “disadvantaged” under the existing guidelines.
“My forefathers were just as distressed as anyone else’s,” he told The Post. “We all have the ability to come from bad backgrounds.”
The Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises has not publicly commented on the lawsuit. Gigi Zenk, a former spokeswoman, told the Seattle Times that the office determines who qualifies as a minority on a case-by-case basis. “We work really hard to be fair. Nothing is just black and white,” she said.
In November 2016, a district court judge in Tacoma dismissed the lawsuit, describing Taylor’s focus on his genetic background as “misplaced.” His attorneys appealed the ruling that month. Oral arguments are scheduled to take place before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in December.
Taylor says that his lawsuit, now four years in the making, is entirely self-funded. He told the Seattle Times this month that he had spent up to $300,000 so far but declined to confirm that exact figure when speaking with The Post on Monday.
“It’s a lot,” he said of his mounting legal fees. “I don’t want to get into the specifics, but it’s a lot.”
But he’s not backing down.
“I told my attorneys, we’ll go to the Supreme Court if we have to,” he said.
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