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Watch: Stephen Colbert skewers white supremacists’ weird obsession with chugging milk

“Lactose is their only form of tolerance.”

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

On his show Thursday night, Stephen Colbert highlighted an absurd point of pride for white supremacists: the ability to fully digest cow’s milk.

As Amy Harmon reported for the New York Times, white supremacists have lately been distorting and appropriating genetic science for bizarre, self-aggrandizing ends. They are chugging milk to “to draw attention to a genetic trait known to be more common in white people than others,” she wrote. That trait is being able to tolerate lactose — a sugar found in milk — without discomfort into adulthood.

“For white supremacists,” Stephen Colbert said in a monologue, “lactose is their only form of tolerance.”

White supremacists are apparently not just chugging milk: Harmon noted “a social media post from an account called ‘Enter The Milk Zone’ with a map lifted from a scientific journal article on the trait’s evolutionary history.”

“If you can’t drink milk,” the post says in part, “you have to go back.”

Let’s break down why this is ridiculous. First of all, the gene variant that codes for lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose, independently arose in several populations who figured out how to raise dairy cows — in Africa, northern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere across the world.

In other words, it’s not specific to Europeans, and about 35 percent of the world’s population has it. (In fact, many people who lack the lactose-tolerance genetic trait can have a glass of milk without complications.)

Though white supremacists are quick to make simplistic, bogus arguments, genetics research is revealing how densely complicated our genomes are: For even simple-sounding human traits like height, it turns out there are hundreds, if not thousands, of genes working in concert to determine who we are. It’s awesome in its complexity. We’re barely understanding how these genes influence our biology.

It’s not even possible, in many cases, to make comparisons on traits like intelligence across populations.

But if the milk-chugging videos are a clue, white supremacists aren’t into subtleties. Harmon also noted, “They are celebrating traces of Neanderthal DNA not found in people with only African ancestry.”

If it turned out that there was more Neanderthal DNA in non-whites, they’d revile it (as Neanderthals have been commonly stereotyped as savages for much of the last century.) If it were the case that lactose tolerance was more common in non-whites, they’d possibly hold milk-boiling rallies, or find some other silly trait to celebrate.